THE BLOG
19/01/2012 17:17 GMT | Updated 20/03/2012 05:12 GMT

Inside Cambridge: Steampunk, Specimens and Supervisions

While the quaint dining traditions of Cambridge University are certainly unusual, the truly outstanding aspect of 'the bridge' is, of course, its academia.

While the quaint dining traditions of Cambridge University are certainly unusual, the truly outstanding aspect of 'the bridge' is, of course, its academia. I hear our world ranking has a lot to do with publishing papers and research, but at undergraduate level one very important part of achieving this excellence is the supervision.

By this, I do not mean childminding. Well, not entirely. The Cambridge supervision or 'supo' is something akin to a private lesson, for an hour, a few times a week, with someone very, very clever. I speak in such general terms because supervisions come in all shapes and guises, from ASNAC to Zoology, from seven students to just you and them.

The supervisors themselves are sometimes 'just' Cambridge PhD students who study your field, but sometimes they are so called big names. Some you will have heard of. Germaine Greer supervises English (but refuses to mark essays), Simon Blackburn philosophised until quite recently, and in an interesting turn of events, Lloyd Grossman, of pasta sauce fame, supervises History of Art.

But the names that get us geeky Cantabs going are not household names. They are the experts in their fields, the guy that wrote the textbook, the one they read just tonnes of at school. Prof Feldman, constitutional lawyer; Dr Lillehammer, ethicist; Prof McKitterick, Carolingian historian. And we have the part pleasure, part ordeal, of having these academic heavyweights rip apart our essays, grill us on our facts, and just sometimes, buy us a pint.

I am a lawyer. Actually, I study law, but we're an arrogant bunch, so we call ourselves lawyers, and the history students historians, etc. Lawyers are, true to form, pretty dull; in supervisions of three or four we go through the set material, maybe talk about an essay, and work through an exam question or two. But other subjects have more fun.

While most of my supervisions take place in fellow's offices, lined with books and filled with sofas and leather armchairs, others venture further afield. Medics have their own 'crazy cat lady', who holds supos at her home, which is half an inch deep in cat hair. Cats get priority seating, and she is known to pause the session for 10 minutes at a time to feed the moggies.

Also amongst the animals, zoologists have supervisions in the zoology museum, and one group spent time last term in the (closed to the public) insect room, looking at some of Darwin's specimens. This is only to be topped by my friend Jon's Natural Sciences (NatSci - pronounced Nat-Skee) supervision, which was held in the pub.

Spending so much time in quite close quarters with a superior is a mixed blessing. While one friend couldn't wait to tell me about his "incredibly hot" reproduction science supervisor (I got a First in that subject!), and a philosopher friend tended to have sessions with her Director of Studies over brunch, lunch, wine, it doesn't always go to plan. Already becoming stuff of legend was the biochemist last year who opened his laptop to show six attentive students a document, and instead they learned a lot more about his taste in adult entertainment.

Even when keeping it strictly academic, supervisors can be a lot of fun. Speaking about one of the most eminent members of the faculty, a law graduate said "I particularly enjoyed the way he drew circles around his eyes with the legs of his glasses whilst pondering a question, one foot resting atop the bin, which was often sent flying across the room when reaching a particularly exciting point of his monologue. And all whilst being watched by the framed caricature of himself hanging on the wall."

I greatly enjoyed time with my criminology supervisor last year who opened her first session with: "Let me put my cards on the table here guys: I'm a feminist anarchist, with a touch of Marxism."

It being a small town, the supervisor/supervisee relationship isn't confined to office hours. A former school friend was "sold a rather nice bottle of Italian red" by his Chemistry supervisor. A member of my college recognised his supervisor from a "slightly off the wall Greek play". "It turns out he's an actor and in a steampunk band/musical troupe in his spare time". And another Downing student was supposed to be working for a science practical, went out dancing instead and saw two of his demonstrators "making out in Cindies" (Cambridge's best known club).

Of course it is not just the supervisors providing the merriment. Most students have a story of turning up to a 9am after a big night, still drunk. One friend got through a whole Physics supervision with vomit in his hair, another excused herself during a Law supervision, went to the loo, performed a 'tactical chunder' and calmly returned. I am no exception, having told my (incredibly important, widely respected) supervisor, while still a little tiddly that I thought one of the options for the cover for his new textbook was "well, a little phallic".