Don's diary: all at sea (well, mostly)

August 20, 2004

I take the subway to the International Council of Churches headquarters (known around the University of Columbia as "The God Box") to discuss how Kellogg College can help deliver educational programmes in developing countries. The meeting goes well, so I'm buoyed up for my voyage on the Queen Mary 2 as part of Oxford University's contract to provide Cunard with an academic programme. From the cab, we glimpse the magnificent ship between high-rise buildings. When we arrive, longshoremen seize our bags and disappear with them.

The first of today's lectures is by Michael Beloff QC, president of Trinity College, Oxford, on the differing approaches to appointing judges and juries in the UK and the US. His lecture is witty and authoritative. The audience, as for most sessions, consists mostly of US faculty members and other professionals, as well as the QM2 public. The auditorium seats 500 and can convert to a world-class planetarium - teaching facilities that would be the envy of any university.

"Remember to set your watches forward one hour tonight" - the first of five time zones we'll cross on this voyage. Fortunately, melatonin seems to be as effective for gradual shiplag as for one-off jetlag.

I enjoy Kariann Yokota's lecture on how postrevolutionary US began distinguishing itself from its colonial origins. Yokota, a rising star in the Yale University history faculty, tells how dependence on British-made goods and cultural artifacts declined only gradually (and why Americans use their forks differently). Much discussion at dinner on this.

This morning is devoted to literature. Sunday Times fiction editor Peter Kemp's terrific overview of the crime novel genre sets the scene for P. D. James, who analyses her approach to crime fiction to a packed auditorium. Her enthusiasm and rapport with the audience is a delight to observe. Afterwards, I take a turn around the deck seven boardwalk - six circuits amount to 2.2 miles.

I deliver another lecture. The planetarium shows are popular, so I talk about the evolution of ideas about the universe, focusing on distance measurements to stars and galaxies and their chronological development. At dinner we discuss Tom Stoppard's Jumpers and his characters' propensity for combining academic specialties with gymnastic expertise. We wonder if future QM2 lecturers should be expected to perform on the podium and on the dance floor. We decide not.

Smashing talks from Julie Brown of Royal Holloway on music in the movies and Janet Harris, an Oxford colleague, on evidence-based approaches to health, including the efficacy of aspirin for people diagnosed with heart disease. I decide to continue my 100mg a day on grounds of age.

We (reluctantly) disembark at 9am into a hazy Southampton morning. Back in the office, we discuss plans for the new Kellogg College site. Later, I meet students on our masters course in human rights law - hugely enjoyable and very humbling. This concludes a varied week, even by lifelong learning standards. And I don't have to set my clock forward tonight.

Geoffrey Thomas is president of Kellogg College and director of the department for continuing education at Oxford University.

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