Saturday, November 14, 2009

Day 37: Harmsworth Lecture

On Tuesday, Nov. 10 I attended my first University lecture, given by this year's Harmsworth's Professor, Robin Kelley. Each year, an American Professor is selected (you cannot apply - this is beginning to be an Oxford theme!) to come to Oxford for a year to serve as the Harmsworth Professor. Several very distinguished people have served in this post, including Justice Frankfurter (he's written a nice piece on his year there). Their sole obligation all year is to deliver a lecture, which was this Tuesday.

This was delivered in "Schools," or the "Examination Schools" (nothing like our drab testing center at BYU!), and attended by perhaps 300, and podcasted (not yet available apparently). In what I'm learning is typical Oxbridge style, Schools is lavishly apportioned with 40-foot-high ceilings and 20 ft high paintings, and yet we sat in what looked like IKEA chairs at similarly modern, cheap-looking tables.

I was apparently supposed to have worn my gown, but I think many students like me had not read their regulation handbook, and so only about 1/6th or so were in gowns. The professors who knew better were in full dress.

When Mr. Kelley entered the room with the University Vice Chancellor and a "beatle" carrying a large, metal sceptor, everyone stood as the procession wafted down the aisle. These individuals were not in gowns but in robes, which had a crimson hood, plus proper tuxedo subfusc.

The contrast between the pomp of entrance and the discussion and typical apologies for technical difficulties at the lecture's beginning was stark. Mr. Kelley then proceeded to deliver an appropriately witty, interesting lecture on Obama and the comparisons to Abraham Lincoln. It seemed more an American call to action rather than something that Europeans would respond to an understand from an intellectual standpoint, which I was told by one English Oxford don, but otherwise, I found it captured my attention quite well. I especially enjoyed his slide of Jill Leiberman.

When it was all over, I thankfully was caught before slipping out near the end. We were to stand and wait again until he, with the beatle and Vice Chancellor, exited the room in pomp.

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