Pop idols and whale penises... it's a sellout

November 9, 2006

Extracurricular lectures are a hit with curious academics, who seek out novelty and ideas as well as star speakers. Olga Wojtas reports.

After a hard day's lecturing, it seems academics like nothing more than to attend lectures. And they welcome the chance to spend their lunch hours at lectures, too.

This is the experience of university events officers across the country, who find their own staff queuing up alongside students and members of the public to hear speakers ranging from politicians and broadcasters to their colleagues.

The lectures are usually free, but often tickets need to be secured in advance. Sheila Willmott, events officer at Bath University, says: "We had a lecture by explorer David Hempleman-Adams, and I believe all the tickets went before they were printed." Bath is invariably packed for its early evening general university lecture programme. Talks this term include an introduction to the philosophy of science, interfaith dialogue and religious feminism, and how 18th-century Bath dealt with its rising tide of effluent.

Speakers for many of these events come from outside the university, but Willmott says academics are particularly keen on inaugural lectures, even those not in their discipline. An intriguing title always helps, such as that of this month's inaugural lecture by David Gillespie, professor in the department of European studies and modern languages - From Rasputin to Putin and Back Again: In Search of the Russian Father .

The appeal of the local is also in evidence at University College London, which recently had 700 people queuing in Gower Street in the hope of hearing a lunchtime talk by Steve Jones, professor of genetics at UCL. There was an overflow room, linked by video to the lecture theatre, but many were still turned away.

Zoe Holman, UCL's head of corporate and alumni events, said: "They're a huge thing among the UCL community. You go in and take your lunch with you and have the opportunity to hear maybe a slightly controversial speaker."

Speakers from UCL are chosen by a committee of academics. This year's line-up includes: Marie Wells of the university's Scandinavian studies department on Ibsen; Shane Johnson of the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science on predicting crime locations; and Maria Fitzgerald, professor of developmental neurobiology at UCL on premature babies feeling pain.

Edinburgh University also reports packed audiences for its lunchtime and evening lectures, with staff rubbing shoulders with students and the general public. Deepthi de Silva-Williams, corporate identity and promotional service officer at Edinburgh, says: "People are interested in topical subjects, things such as the environment, forensic science and parapsychology. We had a series of lunchtime lectures that were extremely academic and we sold out."

There is no evidence of dumbing down or of lectures falling out of favour, she says. "I see more and more people wanting to listen to intellectually stimulating lectures, and more and more participating in question-and-answer sessions. We've had times when the questions and answers have had to be kept short, and people do complain."

Her department chooses areas in which the university can showcase itself and create a platform for discussion, even though the speaker may not be from Edinburgh. It does not shy away from controversy, inviting, for example, Irene Khan, secretary-general of Amnesty International, to speak on The War on Terror: a War on Liberty? " and Joseph Stiglitz, the economist and Nobel laureate, to discuss globalisation.

"The university is a place to have debates and discussions," de Silva-Williams says. But there were raised eyebrows last year when Alex Kapranos, lead singer of the rock group Franz Ferdinand, was invited to join a panel of academics to debate Scotland's part in producing music in the 21st century. Including a rock star was considered radical, but the university was startled and reassured to find that attendance at subsequent lectures rose. "People aren't seeing us as stuffy academics," de Silva-Williams says.

Universities may need some initial coaxing to do something different, but they can be happy to embrace new ways. Una Reid, a graduate of the School of Education at Queen's University Belfast, went on to take a marketing course and is now Queen's events manager.

When she was a student, she says, there were only standard events such as graduations. She recently ensured a memorable opening for a building by having it "unwrapped", removing muslin drapery from the new structure to musical accompaniment.

Last Christmas, Queen's hosted the Irish premiere of the film of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in tribute to Belfast-born C. S. Lewis, and Reid turned the cloisters into a winter wonderland of pine trees, with a parade of puddings at the woodland-themed gala dinner. "When I arrived five years ago, I did feel a kind of reluctance, but as time has gone on I find people are more interested in trying to do more exciting events. People like exciting things: it gives them a real high and a buzz."

Holman says it is essential for universities to keep up with trends because audiences are sophisticated. "We need to make sure our events are very professionally organised, starting with the information people receive to things such as signage, so they know where they are going and feel well taken care of."

Universities have to introduce some pizzazz and offer audiences edutainment, she believes. She recently organised a book launch with a difference for Inspire , a work about UCL's range of collections. Guests were sent an invitation in the style of a personal ad: "Singular object: Rare, exotic, university-trained, sometimes sharp, always fascinating specimen, into exhibitions, exploration, art, history, science, well-travelled, with a desire to be touched, would like to meet charismatic professional with GSOH [good sense of humour], financially independent, with similar interests for an evening of inspirational engagement, possibly LTR [long-term relationship]."

When guests arrived, they were paired up, as if on a blind date, with an object from the collections, ranging from an armadillo shell and a fingerprinting kit to a whale penis bone. UCL anticipated that the guests would have a quick look at their object, and then congregate as usual beside the food and wine.

"But people were so fascinated by the objects that they stayed beside them, talking to the collections staff," Holman says. "We had so much food left over."

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