Plans turn to ashes

Scholars stranded by volcanic eruption think creatively as travel mayhem affects the academy. Sarah Cunnane reports

April 20, 2010

Alongside the wrecked holiday plans and cancelled shipments of exotic fruit and vegetables, the travel chaos caused by the volcanic eruption in Iceland has forced countless academics to adopt a creative approach after being stranded at home or away.

At the University of York, the plans of two academics who were due to travel to the US to perform at the Chicago Early Music Festival appeared to have been foiled by the volcanic ash clogging the skies over Northern Europe.

John Potter and Ambrose Field were due to perform an audio-visual piece based on fragments of work by the 15th-century composer Guillaume Dufay, but found themselves grounded by flight cancellations.

Undeterred, Dr Field composed an entirely new version of the piece, bringing the audio and visual elements together into a single “surround-sound experience” that has been sent electronically to the festival organisers.

As well as those stranded in the UK, other academics have been left struggling to return from abroad.

Times Higher Education columnist Kevin Fong was forced to rethink his journey home from Toulouse, where he had been attending a meeting of the European Space Agency.

He joked that the French had thwarted his original plan to build a rocket as “they didn’t appear to stock enough kerosene and liquid oxygen to do the job”.

Instead, the lecturer in physiology at University College London managed to hitch a lift with a fellow space scientist to Brussels, before catching a Eurostar service home.

He said the journey was “like an episode of Top Gear without the fun”.

In another instance, a group of international academics were left stranded in Atlanta, US, following a conference on human factors in computing systems.

One of the stranded scholars, Shaun Lawson, acting head of the School of Computer Science at the University of Lincoln, described his “bizarre” efforts to return home from Atlanta via Boston then Reykjavik.

He said colleagues who had chosen to sit it out in Atlanta fear that they may be unable to return to the UK for up to a week.

Students have also been hit. The University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages was reported to have postponed oral examinations planned for this week because of the large number of students and examiners stranded abroad.

On Twitter, Carley Birkin, a student at Leeds Metropolitan University, describes the uncertainty facing many: “My dissertation tutor is stranded abroad two weeks before our deadline, not happy,” she says.

Meanwhile, at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, a group of social entrepreneurs organised a “flash forum” featuring talks by scholars stranded by the volcano, which was streamed to more than 1,000 people.

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