Category Archives: school

Pomp and circumstance

In theory, I understand why students (and their friends/family) get excited about attending a graduation ceremony: They’ve spent years working towards their degree and they finally get someone–a whole big crowd of someones, in fact–to both recognize their sacrifices and help celebrate their achievements.  That all sounds well and good on paper, but in reality (assuming we’re not discussing ceremonies for one-room schoolhouses in tiny towns) they are rather long and drawn-out affairs that involve a tedious run-down of dozens upon dozens of names, some inevitably belonging to people you swear you never saw at any point during the entire degree program.

Or, at least, that was how I felt about the ceremonies that I attended when I received my high school, Bachelor’s, and Master’s diplomas (I skipped my PhD ceremony because I just couldn’t bear another). Perhaps those were not fully representative examples of what a graduation celebration can be; all I know is that the University of Exeter ceremony this summer was nothing like what I’d previously experienced.

cait robes

For one thing, to start on a totally vapid and shallow note, my robes were much more impressive. Like the ones I wore in previously, this year’s were merely rented–thank heavens, because it costs hundreds of pounds to purchase them. However, these were made of thick, heavy, high-quality fabric rather than cheap polyester; I almost felt as though I were wearing repurposed curtains. Whereas I’d formerly felt as though I was dressing up in a disposable Halloween costume purchased from Walmart, this year’s robes gave me the sense of being a true scholar who had just emerged from Hogwarts or Cambridge or some other ancient and worthy institution of higher learning.

That said, I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed not to receive the actual robes to which I was entitled as a doctoral graduate of the College of William and Mary. They would have looked like this:


I don’t think that any of the other academics at this year’s ceremony wore green, so I would definitely have stood out from the crowd. This outfit also has the advantage of being hoodless, which would have spared me the torture of spending my afternoon being choked by my own clothing (I nearly developed a repetitive strain injury from adjusting the hood every 30 seconds or so). One thing I did insist on was upholding the WM tradition of spurning a hat; there was no way I was going to assault my ‘do with a mortarboard or any of the bizarre forms of headgear worn by European scholars (for examples, see video below).

The venue was also quite a bit more exciting than those to which I’ve been invited in the past:


The Truro Cathedral may not be as venerable as some of the hallowed graduation facilities doubtless used by institutions such as Cambridge and Oxford, but it is still darn impressive–and is certainly much more scenic than the gymnasium in which I attended my high school ceremony, or the banquet room where I received my Master’s diploma. Flying buttresses, rose windows, and stained glass do have a way of making an occasion a bit more awe-inspiring. (All due respect, though, to Haverford College, which holds its ceremony outdoors on its beautiful campus; it is hard to compete with nature’s decorations.)

cathedral interior

The venue worked especially well with the British practice of processing. This is not just the entrance of hundreds of robed and bedecked graduands; it also involves the more fancifully attired faculty, the even more fancifully attired VIPs, a scepter, a staff, a mace, and lots of bowing. It was properly archaic, and I mean that as a compliment.

The grand finale of the procession was the entrance of our chancellor–who holds a predominantly ceremonial, rather than executive, position. I say “predominantly” because, in our case, there was no doubt as to who was in charge of giving the day’s proceedings a simultaneous sense of weightiness, pizzazz, and meaning; the event may have been attended by our all-powerful vice chancellor and chief executive Sir Steve Smith, but its great success lay in the very capable hands of the formidable Baroness Floella Benjamin.

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Floella is probably best known as the former presenter of TV shows for children. Her showbiz pedigree was obvious from the moment she entered the nave, confidently swaggering along in the position of honor at the very tail of the procession, turquoise sequins flashing with every step. Uttered by anyone else, her welcome speech might have seemed a bit over the top, but coming from Floella it felt appropriate and inspiring. She went on to personally greet, shake hands with, hug, and/or kiss every single student receiving a diploma, leaving even the surliest and most reticent beaming with delight.

Speaking of diplomas, this is where the students came to receive them:

diploma desk

Not the most picturesque or exciting of destinations after standing on a dais in the center of a cathedral with a well-known celebrity. This was my station, since I was once of two people responsible for handing out diplomas to graduates from the College of Life and Environmental Sciences and the University of Exeter Medical School. Many students didn’t seem to realize that they would receive this paperwork en route to their seats, so my colleague and I frequently had to step out and intercept them as they tried to pass us by in their smiling, dream-like state. Many of them seemed dazed by the experience, which I suppose is understandable; they worked hard for three long years and then suddenly their moment in the spotlight was over in just a matter of seconds. Also, I suspect that may be a common side effect of encounters with Floella.

cathedral exterior

Once the paperwork was all handed out, the procession was repeated in reverse, allowing the faculty to exit and the students to parade around picturesquely in front of their parents one last time. They filed out into the square in front of the cathedral in order to mingle and take photographs. Eventually, they made their way to the rendezvous point where they could hop a bus back to campus in time for the college-specific reception–which involved a large number of these:


To be honest, I was kind of dreading graduation day–partly because I was worried that I would make a mistake when handing out diplomas, and  partly because I thought it would be boring to sit and listen to 300 names being read off one by one. However, I both overestimated how difficult it would be to find and distribute the correct envelope to each student, and underestimated how invested I felt in the achievements of these students that I had been helping to educate over the past several years. As it turns out, despite my endless grumbling over the volume and content of e-mails I’ve been receiving while working as both a lecturer and administrator, I do actually care about the students who send them, and I was extremely pleased to see the looks of excitement, happiness, and pure relief that flooded their faces as they walked across the stage. I was a little bit like the Grinch experiencing his heart expansion on Christmas morning.

Alas, there was one small thing that kept me from completely and unabashedly enjoying the day’s celebrations:


This brought to mind all the disastrous misspellings I’ve seen on the graduation cakes profiled on Cake Wrecks. This may not have been as egregious as some of those errors, but it was still pretty painful for someone as sensitive to typos as I am–after all, this sign was erected at an event celebrating education! Ah, the irony. Clearly, the text was not written by one of our graduates, whom I’m sure cease misspellings altogether once they receive a University of Exeter diploma.

In all seriousness, though, I’m pleased to report that it was a joyous and inspiring ceremony on a flawlessly beautiful Cornish day. The event organizers should be proud of how smoothly everything ran, the faculty and staff should be proud of how many graduands they ushered through their many difficult years of study, and the scholars should be proud of their achievements. Mortarboards off to the Class of 2014!

Where to eat in (or near) Falmouth: Potager Garden

As of this summer, I will have lived in Falmouth for five (!) years. Despite this, there are still nearby places that I’ve not had a chance to explore, and, in some cases, that I haven’t even heard of. Until recently, this was true of Potager Garden and Glasshouse Cafe, a venue located in Constantine, about six miles from my apartment. It only popped onto my radar after some of my closest friends held a farewell party there a couple months ago. Unfortunately, I had to miss the party because I was stranded in the Isles of Scilly. Luckily, however, I had a second chance to visit Potager last week during the geography department education away day.

A view of the grounds, with the glasshouse cafe in the background

Potager is normally only open from Friday to Sunday, but they agreed to open just for us on a Monday. We had the entire place to ourselves, which was amazing. Judging from how many of my friends routinely visit Potager with their families (especially those including young children), I get the sense that the venue is usually pretty busy and probably filled with the sound of frolicking kiddies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for a group of people who had just wrapped up the most hectic week of the academic year, it was extremely pleasant to retreat to the countryside and enjoy the sounds of silence, punctuated only by an occasional bird vocalization.

Cranesbills growing outside the greenhouse
Cranesbills growing outside the greenhouse

Potager’s menu is all-vegetarian, and uses items sourced locally. In fact, there is a large chicken run in the front yard, as well as an extensive veggie patch, so I assume that eggs and at least some of the produce are obtained right next to the cafe. The restaurant is well known for its frittatas, hummus, salads, and elderflower cake–all of which were on offer for our crowd. I had spoken to the chef prior to our arrival and arranged for our academics to choose from one of two dining options: a mezze platter with granary bread, salads, hummus, and olives, or a frittata, also served with hummus and salad. I chose the latter and, as you can see, my serving was absolutely enormous:

When I ordered the fritatta, I was expecting something made predominantly of eggs; instead, I got a gigantic wedge of boiled potatoes, held together with egg. It tasted great, but was much more filling than I needed given all the other food on my plate! 

We’d been in the middle of a serious discussion when the food was delivered, but everyone quickly fell silent as they concentrated on the much more important task of eating delicious food.

picnic table edit
It’s hard work to make sure the University of Exeter’s geography department is so excellent. We couldn’t have achieved as much as we did without such excellent brain-fuel.

Prior to lunch, we’d held a group discussion at the picnic table out in front of the cafe, and we’d also split up into pairs or small groups and distributed ourselves in various picturesque locations throughout the garden. After our meal, we explored further seating options: the dangerously warm, and therefore somnolent, greenhouse–which was outfitted not just with plants but also with picnic tables, an art installation, and a ping-pong table–and also the outdoor table in between the two large greenhouses. Unfortunately, it began to rain while we were seated in the latter of these two locations, so we had to retreat indoors once again for the remainder of our meeting.

statue edit
One of the pieces of art sprinkled throughout the greenhouse

After we’d had a bit of time to digest our massive meals, we were served incredibly generous portions of dessert–the seasonally appropriate elderflower and almond cake, topped with a lovely lemony icing. I had absolutely no room for more food, but the Potager folks were kind enough to wrap up my slice so that I could take it home and eat it for breakfast the next day (I’m not sure that’s quite the timing they had in mind, but it worked for me).

All too soon, our meeting came to an end and we had to pile into our van to drive back to campus. This was when we encountered the only real drawback to Potager: the fact that it is located in a fairly remote location accessible only by narrow, windy Cornish lanes. I have to give credit to our director of education for avoiding making me carsick; however, he was assisted in this achievement by a farmer who pulled out in front of us on an incredibly slow tractor hauling a huge load of hay bales. We passed several places where the farmer could have pulled over and let us (and the growing line of traffic behind us) go past, but he opted not to. It was an excruciatingly slow journey, inspiring a cheer of relief when we arrived at a junction at which the farmer turned left, while we turned right.

swing portrait edit
The Potager grounds feature not only a swing but also several hammocks–the perfect place to relax and digest a homemade vegetarian meal

Luckily, the traffic jam wasn’t quite enough to cast a shadow over our otherwise pleasant experience at Potager. It was a beautiful place with incredible food, and all at an unbelievable price (in a good way). Hopefully our amazing run of good weather will continue so that visitors can experience the delights of dining there al fresco; even if it rains, though, there is plenty of indoor seating available so that Potager can be enjoyed come rain or shine.


Spa day!

Back when I was a university student, I used to think that life was pretty hectic at the end of the year. There was all that studying to do, all those exams to take, all that packing, and, of course, summer employment to find. Until this year, I didn’t really have any appreciation of just how incredibly stressful things were for all the other people involved in the end-of-semester routine–the academics who had to grade a mountain of papers in very little time, and the administrators who had the monumental task of turning a collection of grades from individual assignments into final averages for each course, across the year, and–for graduates–across the entire academic career.

Thanks to the fact that I was one of those overworked administrators this year, my schedule over the last couple months has been absolutely crazy. I’ve been arriving early, leaving late, working through lunch, sometimes getting to the end of the day and realizing I hadn’t even made time to take a “comfort break.” Towards the end, I also started waking up in the middle of the night, pondering how best to tick off all the things on my to-do list. Needless to say, this left me feeling a bit weary.

To give myself a light at the end of the tunnel, I booked myself a spa outing on the Saturday after the last day of term. Originally, I was just going to go for a couple of beauty/relaxation treatments and then return home, but then I realized that the date of my outing coincided with the first full day of the Falmouth Sea Shanty Festival. I couldn’t bear to return home to a long evening (and night) of boisterous maritime music right on my doorstep, so I also reserved a room at the historic Falmouth Hotel. Decadent? Yes–but also delightful.

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The vegetarian grill

In a way, the celebrations actually began the night before, with an end-of-year BBQ arranged by the geographers in our college. We all chipped in a few quid and brought our own main dish, and the organizers went out and purchased all the rest. It was an amazing feeling, after so many weeks of preparation, to finally click the button that released all the grades to the students, then walk outside to a beautiful Cornish spring evening, drink a freshly made mojito, gorge on a juicy burger, and then finish it all off with some homemade cupcakes and chat with colleagues.

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Our sun-drenched patio, through the haze of smoke wafting up from the grills

The next day, I slept in until 8 AM (pretty impressive for me), ran errands at a leisurely pace, and then made my way to St. Michael’s Hotel and Spa. It’s only about a fifteen-minute walk from my apartment, but although I regularly walk past the hotel, I’d never actually been in. Unsurprisingly, given both the location and the time of year, there was a wedding party lounging in the front garden upon my arrival, and I felt a bit awkward strolling up in my casual attire and backpack. It is quite a nice hotel, and I certainly didn’t match the look of the other clientele. Luckily, there is a separate entrance for people who have come to use the spa/pool/gym facilities, so I was able to duck out of the way and make sure I didn’t accidentally photobomb the bride and groom.

St. Michael's entrance
Right this way for rest and relaxation!

I had scheduled both a Swedish massage and a manicure, but I wasn’t sure about the order in which they were going to be given. Part of me wanted the manicure first since I knew the massage would leave me in a stupor, but part of me wanted the massage first so that I wouldn’t be totally groggy when it came time to walk up the street to my evening accommodations.

It turns out that my “beauty specialist” (Carly) had planned for the latter option. I started with a full hour of massage on my back, shoulders, legs, and arms. It’s always amazing to me how quickly the time can fly when you are getting a massage. An hour of any other activity–grade entry, for instance, just to use a recent relevant example–can drag on seemingly forever, and yet a massage seems to be over in the blink of an eye. I could feel Carly locate and attack several knots–mostly in the shoulder area, and likely stemming from the hours of computer time I’ve put in over the past several weeks. There was one point, between her work on my left and right legs, when I actually began to fall asleep just in the amount of time it took Carly to go fetch a new bottle of massage oil. Clearly, I was exhausted.

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Lubed legs post-massage

The hour was over all too soon, and I was led out into the waiting area to pick my nail polish and allow Carly to prepare the treatment room for Round 2. I looked for a color that was attractive and elegant without being too loud or over-the-top; eventually, I settled for a sparkly gold. It wasn’t until Carly was about to apply the polish that I realized it was not dissimilar to the hue I purchased for my junior prom, for which I wore a (matching) glittery gold dress. Time has obviously not affected my fashion sense too much (for better or worse).

Unlike the massage, the manicure provided ample opportunity for me to chat with Carly, which was a little awkward. She was very nice, but I was still a bit dazed from the massage and was therefore struggling to have any coherent thoughts. We did, however, manage to discuss the ins and outs of beauty school (I find it amazing that each student is expected to learn things as diverse as manicuring and massaging, rather than specializing in one particular area), the purposes of the various things that she was doing to my hands, and also the fact that one of the folks in the wedding party upstairs had set fire to the banquet table during dinner.

Painted nails
Gold and sparkly

My nails looked quite lovely when Carly had finished, but they were still in a delicate state. I was escorted to the Relaxation Room and advised to wait at least ten minutes before touching anything; at that point, all of the varnish and protective coats should be dry, allowing me to pick up my bags and head off. Unfortunately, as is typically the case when I paint my nails, I managed to brush one finger against something within about two minutes of completing the manicure; this left me with nine beautiful nails and one with a little scar. *sigh*

relaxation room
The “Relaxation Room” at St. Michael’s

Waiting in the Relaxation Room was a bit weird because I couldn’t really do anything. I wanted to look at my phone but couldn’t yank it out of my bag. I wanted to read a book or magazine, but couldn’t pick one up. I wanted a drink of water, but couldn’t figure out how to extract my bottle from my backpack. Luckily, my ten minutes of waiting passed about as quickly as my 60 minutes of massage, and I was soon able to head out into the absolutely stunning evening.

Falmouth Hotel
The grand old lady of Falmouth’s waterfront strip

I made my way up the road to Falmouth Hotel, which I’ve only visited once before. That previous trip was associated with an education away day, and involved one of the hotel’s meeting rooms; I’d never previously been upstairs to one of the guest rooms. My room was a tiny little space on the top floor, with a window overlooking the back garden. It was oriented in the general direction of my apartment and, to my horror, I could actually hear the sounds of sea shanties wafting in on the breeze! Luckily, the noise wasn’t overwhelming, and I was able to drown it out with a bit of music from my MP3 player.

Once ensconced, I immediately set about the very important task of giving myself a facial–one of those girly activities that is much easier to accomplish either when the menfolk aren’t at home, or when you are away from the menfolk. My typical “treatment” involves a series of three different masks, and as each one worked its magic, I sat in the wide window seat, basking in the sun, listening to music, and playing word games on my phone. Much better than worrying about students’ grades.

After all of that was done, I took a quick shower to rid myself of the excessive amounts of massage oil still glistening on my skin; actually, I was so well lubricated that I’m amazed I’d been able to sit down anywhere without sliding off the seat. Feeling limber and refreshed, I headed back downstairs to take a stroll along the seafront. On the way, I paused to admire the dramatic lighting in the main stairway of the hotel:

The simultaneously spiraling lights and staircase made me think of DNA

The evening had gotten much cooler, but it was still really lovely. There wasn’t much of a breeze, and the water was incredibly calm; rather than hearing the waves rushing towards the sand, I could only detect the faint sound of them lapping ever so softly at the edge of the beach. By that point in the evening, many people had headed back inside, so I pretty much had the sidewalk to myself.

Pendennis Point sunset–one of the best views in town

I headed down towards the Swanpool Nature Reserve so I could sit on my favorite bench and take in my favorite scenery. I love walking around at twilight, which I have always found to be a magical time of day. It is nice to live in a place where it is safe to do so, and where you can enjoy such a gorgeous landscape when you do. I sat for a while, listening to music and watching the quaking-grass shiver in the light breeze that was just beginning to roll in off the water. Beautiful.

quaking grass
Quaking-grass waving gently in the golden sun

Before it could get too cold or too dark, I eventually left my perch and headed back towards the hotel, where I sat in the lobby for a while to take advantage of the free Wi-Fi. When I’d had enough of being beaten at word games by my friends and family (how rude of them!), I headed upstairs for a blissfully calm and quiet night of sleep.

I’m going to need a few more relaxing weekends to fully recharge after this crazy semester, but my spa day certainly went a long way towards getting the process started. Perhaps I should treat myself more often. =)