Plain sailing: the scholars who lecture on ocean liners

Academic experts who can also entertain enjoy the high life on the high seas

August 15, 2013

Source: Ian Whadcock

Lecturing on the high seas means ‘being a jack of all trades, thinking on your feet and tailoring your talks to the experiences people are about to have’

The scholar on stage holds the status of entertainer, putting on a show for a paying audience whose scores will determine whether their lecturer’s short-term contract is renewed.

Fear not: this is not a vision of some dystopian future but rather an unusual, and fascinating, break from the day job – with azure waters and plenty of sunshine thrown in.

For Kathleen Lynch, associate professor in the department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati, lecturing on a cruise ship is “the very best kind of outreach experience possible”.

She has already served as “lecturer/host” on three cruises, representing the Archaeological Institute of America and the Smithsonian Institution, and reports that “access to an archaeologist is a perk that the passengers really seem to enjoy”.

And, while some holidaymakers come from backgrounds apparently worlds away from academe, they can turn out to be both knowledgeable and attentive. “I did a ‘Footsteps of Odysseus’ tour last year, and some members of the audience knew their Homer inside and out, even though they were lawyers and business people by trade,” Lynch says. “Rarely do I get this level of engagement in my classrooms.”

The trouble with such assignments can be the sniffy attitude of fellow academics, although it is just possible that such a response may be motivated by jealousy or self-interest.

Such was the dynamic in Alexander McCall Smith’s 2003 novel The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs, Lynch recalls, in which Professor Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld “has an opportunity to be a lecturer on a cruise, and his colleagues mock the lack of academic rigour of such activities until he declines, and then they jump at the chance to replace him”.

Astronomer Simon Mitton, college fellow in the department of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge, is equally enthusiastic about life on the ocean waves – or at least aboard a Cunard liner.

He and his wife Jacqueline Mitton, also a writer on astronomy, are among the team put together by the Royal Astronomical Society as part of the entertainment on about half the RMS Queen Mary 2’s seven-day transatlantic crossings. Along with four stand-alone lectures, they are responsible for a live planetarium show and an evening recognising stars and constellations from Deck 13.

“Entertainment” is very much the operative word, explains Mitton. “You are working for the entertainment director. They don’t want Open University-style lectures, so you don’t present technical knowledge. Graphs are discouraged and equations are a no-no.”

Although Mitton is committed to many kinds of outreach, some are a good deal more pleasant and glitzy than others. Speakers at the Hay Festival tend to get only 10 minutes or so to interact with the audience afterwards. A talk at a local astronomical society can involve “a two-hour drive through the rain followed by a quick curry”. On the high seas, by contrast, “Cunard look after us very well. You are given passenger status and get your own stateroom. And the Queen Mary 2 has the largest bookshop at sea, so they arrange signing sessions for our latest books. Last time they stocked seven of our titles.”

The Mittons’ lectures themselves take place “in a proper theatre with professional lighting, where you can move around and everybody’s got a good view. So you get a very enthusiastic, motivated audience of 300-500 there in front of you [out of a total passenger list of about 2,500], with more looking at the direct feed in their staterooms.”

All of this sounds extremely agreeable, but it was on another cruise that Mitton experienced what he says was “the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in terms of observational astronomy with the general public”.

He and his wife Jacqueline had gone as paying passengers to see an eclipse in the Caribbean and it was probably this that got them a job in 2006 with Holland America. They spent three weeks aboard the Prinsendam in the Mediterranean, part of a 108-day round trip from New York, with “the observation of an eclipse, conducted by professional astronomers, flagged up as a highlight of the Grand World Voyage”.

This required them virtually to take control of the ship, ensuring the navigator got the vessel into exactly the right position and then brought it to a total standstill, while also calculating the timings to within half a second.

“You have to give a 10-second countdown for the end of the eclipse,” Mitton explains. “People are looking through lenses and binoculars, but need a clear 10-second warning. The moon’s shadow is moving at 2,000 miles an hour, so doing the timings is quite demanding.”

Ian Whadcock feature illustration (15 August 2013)

Some passengers have strong and informed views and so come up with more intellectually rigorous questions than you would get at public talks

An additional bonus, since the Mittons needed to be near the bridge to conduct the observation, was that they were given a grand suite.

Another husband and wife team operates within a rather more niche market. Bill Bynum is emeritus professor of the history of medicine at University College London. Helen Bynum is a writer who lectured in medical history at the University of Liverpool and tutors for the University of Oxford’s Department of Continuing Education.

Together, they have lectured on two-week cruises in the Black Sea and western Mediterranean to groups of about 50 people who have signed up for a specialist programme (on ships holding 600-700 passengers in all) with Jon Baines Tours, a company that has cornered the market in medical- and dental-themed trips.

These cruises largely neglect the standard sites and focus on topics such as midwifery in India or healthcare in Cuba. The Bynums’ tours, for example, have taken in the ancient hospital and medical museum in Cairo; the Scutari Barracks in Istanbul, where Florence Nightingale once worked as a nurse; Stalin’s dacha; and the spas of Sochi, which Bill Bynum took as a cue “to talk about the health of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt – I was very impressed by how three sick old men carved up the world in 1944”.

More generally, his lectures aim to be “reasonably accurate but definitely populist in their appeal”. Many touch on subjects well beyond his core research interests, so lecturing on the high seas means “being a jack of all trades, boning up on new topics, thinking on your feet and tailoring what you are saying to the experiences people are about to have”.

Helen Bynum has enjoyed the two cruises she has lectured on and believes they have helped her subsequent writing since “you have to think about being an entertainer as well as an academic, and how to illustrate your talks. You get a good sense of what people are interested in and when they glaze over, which is very useful if you’re writing for a non-specialist audience.”

She has also found the experience sociologically interesting, since they are speaking to people who represent “the end of the national service generation”.

“Many are retired male doctors married to nurses who gave up working when they had kids.” Some have strong and informed views on medical history and so come up with more “intellectually rigorous” questions than you would get at most public talks.

Fortunately, however, they are also very polite and tend only to get “nit-picky in private, since they realise it is not appropriate to get into an argument with the lecturer just before dinner”.

Garrett Fagan, professor of ancient history at Pennsylvania State University, first got involved when an email arrived from a cruise line asking people in his department to put their names forward for lecturing positions and he was the only one to volunteer. He now has what amounts to an agent, who arranges assignments with different companies every other summer, generally two 10- or 12-day tours of the Mediterranean.

Although there is usually only a single “destination lecturer” on board, the varied entertainment often includes a celebrity lecturer, a dietician, vintners giving tasting lessons, a mixologist, language, music and art teachers, singers and jugglers. To some extent, as Fagan puts it, academic lecturers enjoy “the same status as dancers and musicians. You have to wear an identifying badge but are not quite a crew member, though you are representing the cruise line and so have to dress and behave accordingly.” Like the other service providers, they are also rated by passengers and don’t get invited back unless they score well.

Nonetheless, it is all very pleasant. “You’re definitely living the high life,” agrees Fagan. “As a professor, you’re certainly outside your own socioeconomic group. Everything is taken care of. You don’t have to pack and unpack, the immigration formalities are sorted out. Though you are not paid, you are considered a guest, with the cruise itself for you and a partner as remuneration. All the food, and increasingly all the drink, is included. And I’ve been to a lot of places with Classical links that I had long wanted to see.”

All that and lots of glorious sunsets, too. So are there any downsides that those tempted to try to get a gig on a cruise ship should bear in mind?

Lynch believes that “the lecturer should be a resource available to the passengers”, so it helps to have the kind of temperament which enjoys being “‘on’ from breakfast to post-dinner cocktails”. While such lecturing is great fun, it is still work, so family members who come along for the ride “should not expect a lot of quality time during the trip”. Furthermore, since “some academic colleagues will not value your participation”, it might be a good idea for early career academics to “ask a mentor for advice before agreeing to a tour”.

For Fagan, “the only downside is what it does to your waistline: with so many fantastic restaurants and chefs on board, you have to be winched off the boat at the end”.

There can also be challenges for academic purists, he adds, or those who don’t know how to bite their tongues: “Some people will have views you may find offensive, or want to tell you how academics are overpaid for doing nothing. You just have to smile and nod, because you’re representing the cruise line and need a certain amount of diplomatic skill. It’s a good idea to steer clear of politics and religion! And people can get quite aggressive if you don’t believe their pet theories and tell them, for example, that Atlantis is just a myth.”

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