The History Teacher Abroad

Last summer, I mentioned I was heading to a seminar in Cambridge as part of a sabbatical through my school. Now that the weather’s cooled and summer seems eons ago, I’m thinking about that experience more than ever – perhaps in no small part because I’m going to talk about it at school this week to all my colleagues and students, and because I finally retrieved the 750+ photos I thought I’d lost from the adventure.

Attending the Oxbridge Summer Seminar for teachers last year was an orchestrated effort on my part: I’m fortunate enough to teach at an institution that offers summer sabbaticals for faculty, and this was my second time applying. Whether or not you’ll get one depends on a variety of factors, including how many other people applied, but there’s also the limits of your own imagination. Most of the time, I haven’t applied because I couldn’t dream up something that sounded good enough, if I’m honest.

(A few years ago, I finally managed my first application, with a colleague in a different department. We didn’t get selected for the dream trip to Cuba, but two colleagues who actually teach Spanish did, so we were happy for them.)

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Peterhouse College, Cambridge, UK

Last spring, I discovered the Oxbridge Summer Seminar by chance and set about writing an application to attend “Why History Matters,” a week-long program held at Peterhouse College, Cambridge University. My proposal paired that experience with the idea of a few days in London to visit the Imperial War Museum and Churchill’s War Rooms, particularly because the world wars come up quite a bit when you teach 20th Century World History and US History.

What happens when you go abroad to spend a week contemplating “Why History Matters?”

First and foremost, of course, you have an amazing time.

The Oxbridge program, which included several seminars under one umbrella (mine, one on math, and one on English), included about 20 people from all over the world: Trinidad, Denmark, Pakistan, Taiwan, Canada, and various US states. In addition to our seminars, our program included daily activities, access to copious amounts of tea, speakers, and excellent food.

We took a guided tour of Cambridge, relaxed with drinks on a bridge over the River Cam, went punting on the river, listened to the choir at King’s College during Evensong, drove out to explore Bletchley Park (the home of WW2 codebreaking efforts). We strolled along the river, through meadows and cow pastures, to visit The Orchard Tea Room, frequented by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke and John Maynard Keynes in years past. One night, we toured a local gin distillery (complete with tasting – and a try of truffle gin, amazing stuff). One afternoon, I walked up the grand staircase into the Trinity College Library, a building designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Cathedrals haven’t moved me as much as the site of those ancient books and shelves and card catalogs long unused.

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Me, geeking out at the Trinity College Library

With my History group, each day was an adventure on top of this. When you think “seminar,” it’s never quite clear how much time you’ll spend in a classroom, but Oxbridge did it right. Following breakfast each morning, our group of 9 or 10 conversed around a table in an upper room with our instructor, the first female fellow at Peterhouse. We explored the British history curriculum, analyzed war poetry and how (and why) we teach it, and even read about ancient magic rituals to think about the role of anthropology and archaeology in studying history.

And then we left the classroom, often first to the warm weather in the Fellows garden, circled up beneath the trees as we chatted over copies of British university history exams. From there, we walked (or drove) to places I had never heard of or had not thought I’d be fortunate enough to see.

We strolled through town. We took taxis out to the Cambridge American Cemetery (and were nearly left there when none returned for us). We explored artwork (mostly Antony Gormley’s). We traipsed through the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, discovering ancient bones on which poets have written a few lines. We didn’t just read about history: we encountered it, we explored it, and we came face to face with our own thoughts about how and why that matters to each of us, as teachers, as people, and as citizens of our respective places.

I left Cambridge after only a week, but it hasn’t left me, which is the way these things always go, happily. It’s always good, then, to have something to head off to next when one adventure ends, and mine included a jaunt to visit one of my oldest friends (not by age, but by length of our relationship). My peaceful weekend between trip legs included little more than sipping elderberry cordial, playing games, walking around a village (or two), and clambering over ruins that once hosted kings. I paid my respects to Sir Churchill, learned how to do the floss, and contemplated the myriad ways we make our lives as we wish.

I finished my summer interlude with a few days on my own, at least, in London. I left the

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I found the cancellation line at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and it was worth the wait.

kindred spirits behind me and spent three nights in solitude at the top of a lovely inn across from the Imperial War Museum. (At night, the breeze blew in just right along with my view of the London Eye.) I tried to make the most of the time I had – as noted, it’s never enough, but I’ll keep trying. I got lost in the Imperial War Museum, waited in line for the Churchill War Rooms, discovered Ben Franklin’s House, and even managed, through a bit of patience, to score a ticket to see Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre. Along the way, I discovered the Tardis and King George III’s personal library, visited the Doctor Who shop, rode the London Eye, and visited the mummies and the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum.

My summer was unexpected from start to finish, but this trip – the most expected part of it all, and yet in so many ways so unexpected itself – was tremendous all around. Now that winter appears to have settled in on my corner of the world, it’s nice to have memories of England and history in summertime, and that dream that maybe one day I’ll be British when I grow up.

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The ruins of Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, England.

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