Last year around this time I was living in a room overlooking Selwyn College’s historied courtyard at Cambridge University. I took classes every morning, went to afternoon lectures, and spent free time exploring Cambridge and new friendships, and took in outdoor Shakespeare performances and gin and tonics in the evenings.
Concerned about trying to recreate a nearly perfect two weeks, I’d not quite decided if I’d go back or not (there is a large contingent of students who return each year to enrich their learning and nurture friendships) when Covid-19 unilaterally made the decision for me. Cambridge, like institutions worldwide, would shutter the campus to in-person classes for the summer and, as it turns out, for the academic year.
Bad news, certainly, for those who had made plans and reservations. But good news for so many, because again, like, well, everyone and everything, Cambridge’s Institute of Continuing Education (ICE) would go virtual. I perused the course catalog, its smorgasbord of enticing offerings making it very difficult to choose just a few. I finally selected a course on Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, with the lecturer who I’d so enjoyed the previous summer. Another on Henry V with a professor new to me, and finally convinced my Dylan-loving son to join me in a class on Dylan’s Lyrics, presented by the learned lecturer who’d taught me Blake and Eliot last summer.
The professors posted a series of lectures each week along with useful supplementary materials. They assigned participants activities we could participate in – or not. We could post responses, questions, and comments in a chat forum. While sitting in my basement office watching the Chairperson of the British Virginia Woolf Society speak about the Ramsays couldn’t compare with sitting with her in person in the classroom, it provided a delightful and stimulating next best thing. ICE posted numerous mini-lectures on a wide array of topics for viewing throughout the weeks.
The results were, frankly, mixed. The Woolf course delighted me; her style and depth of thought amaze me, and the historical and social context provided only augmented my appreciation. The Shakespeare course was only so-so. That professor chose not to share video of his presentation, so we just had a rather simplistic set of PowerPoint slides to watch as we listened. He seemed undecided about his focus. He discussed how the play compared with actual history, reviewed its performance history, and read a few key (long) scenes and opined on them. It felt a bit disjointed to me, and on Friday I was sadly not much more enlightened about one of my favorite Histories than on Monday. Dylan – ah, that enigmatic poet – would, I believe, be delighted with the conclusion we reached at the end of the week: Don’t even try to make sense of or understand his lyrics! I especially enjoyed this class because I got to take it with not only one of my favorite Cambridge lecturers, but one of my favorite 27-year olds. My son is as knowledgeable and fervent a Dylan fan as I am a Shakespeare aficionado. I enjoyed his commentary as much as the professor’s.
A few of my friends from last summer participated as well, so we could compare notes, but we all lamented the obvious deficits. We’d much rather have shared our post-class comments in the Harry Potter-like dining hall or in the Selwyn pub sharing some of the local brews. We promised to try to do that next year, Coronavirus permitting.
Nothing can replace crossing the River Cam, crowded with punters out for a row, on a post-class walk into town. Nothing can replace the feeling of standing on the same ground, breathing in the air that I like to think I shared with luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Emma Thompson, Lord Byron, Ian McKellen, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, and John Maynard Keynes (to name a few!). Nothing can replace mingling with fellow students from around the world on the lawn of King’s College for a champagne-and-scone reception. But, in this world that has recently gone so topsy-turvy, it felt delicious to return, albeit online, to a place and experience that brought me so much joy.