Study Abroad Teaching Assistant, Britain

The origins of this semester abroad started out five months earlier in August 2008. It started with an email from one of my history professors at the University of Maryland, Rick Bell, who asked if I would be interested in acting as the teaching assistant for his winterterm course in Britain. This is a common practice at American universities, short travel abroad classes that take place during the summer months or during the winter break between semesters where a professor will take a group of students to some place overseas. While these courses can be fairly criticized as a money-making opportunity for the university (and as a paid vacation for the sponsoring professor), there's also something to be said about exposing undergraduate students to the actual subject matter of the class as opposed to covering it in a textbook. For example, I once applied for an archaeology short semester class that took students to Pompeii (I wasn't accepted unfortunately), and I also saw language classes that took students to the native country where the language was spoken. In this particular case, where better to take a group of students learning about British history than to Britain itself?

The University of Maryland history department knew that I was planning a trip to London to conduct my dissertation research in the British Library, and they had suggested that this winterterm study abroad class would be one way to help make it more affordable. I jumped at the chance immediately and was happy to take part. I was already working as a teaching assistant as part of my financial aid package and the teaching duties would be considerably lighter for this short class, not to mention I would save a lot of money by having my airfare covered. I also had a good working relationship with Dr. Bell, having already taken his class on colonial American history the previous year. He had only been on the Maryland faculty for a short time, and when Dr. Bell was interviewing for the job, he had actually sat in on one of my teaching assistant classes to try and get a feel for the campus. Dr. Bell is a pretty cool guy in addition to being wickedly smart, and he was an easy professor to work with as a teaching assistant.

There were about 20 undergraduate students who had signed up for this winterterm class. Almost all of them were from the University of Maryland except for three or four students who had come from the University of Delaware. They were paying about $3000 apiece (in 2008 dollars) to take this class - rather pricey. My compensation for being the teaching assistant was essentially not to pay that price tag. The group met up together for the first time about three weeks before the trip began for a planning session, and the next time that I saw everyone was at Dulles Airport for the flight across the Atlantic. This was the typical overnight flight that landed in London in the early morning, leaving everyone sleepy throughout the next day. Many of the students had never traveled outside the United States before, much like my situation when I went to France for the first time on a high school trip a decade earlier.

The first place that Dr. Bell took the class was the waterfront along the Thames. I think that he wanted everyone to get a sense for where things were laid out in London, and a good way to do that was to bring the students onto the London Eye for a bird's eye view. The London Eye is a gigantic Ferris wheel located on the south bank of the river, within easy viewing range of the parliament in Westminster. The London Eye stands 135 meters / 440 feet tall and it was the tallest in the world at the time of its construction in 2000, although it has since been surpassed by several other gigantic wheels. It takes about half an hour for the 32 cars on the wheel to complete one rotation, with the speed being slow enough to avoid motion sickness for most people. The views from the top of the London Eye are outstanding, and the whole city can be seen on a clear day. This was a great idea to start out the trip in London, much better than the presentation in a hot classroom that took place later that day where almost everyone fell asleep. It was almost impossible not to doze off given the heat and everyone's jet lag!

These pictures are going to be a bit more episodic than my normal travel reports, reflecting the way that the class jumped around from place to place over the three week course. This set of images were taken at the historic dockyards in the city of Portsmouth, located about 110 kilometers / 70 miles south of London. Portsmouth is a port city famous for serving as the home of the Royal Navy, and there are a series of historic old warships that the class went to see on a tour. The oldest of these is the Mary Rose, one of the flagships of King Henry VIII back in the 16th century. It sank during the Battle of the Solent in 1545 and was rediscovered and raised from the seabed in 1982. The wooden ship was in terrible shape after four centuries at the bottom of the ocean and there's been a lengthy preservation effort to salvage as much of it as possible. At the time of this visit in 2009, the Mary Rose was being kept in an air-sealed indoor area, with the wood sprayed constantly with a polyethylene glycol solution to replace the water in the cellular structure of the wood. I took a couple pictures but they were too dark to see anything. A museum is in the process of being built (literally around the ship) to display the ship in a more satisfactory fashion. Here's an image showing what the new museum looks like.

The other standout ship at the historic dockyards was HMS Victory, the wooden sailing ship pictured above. This ship is famous for serving as Admiral Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805; it was commissioned in 1765 and remains in active service today, the oldest such ship in the world. The Victory carries 104 guns and took part in five major battles in the 18th and early 19th centuries, suffering serious damage in several of these engagements. For example, at Trafalgar the ship's crew suffered 57 killed and 102 wounded, including the death of Admiral Nelson himself. The class not only had the chance to see the Victory from the docks but also to take a private guided tour of the interior from one of the local staff. This was nothing short of amazing, the chance to see in person a world-famous 18th century warship that had been restored to pristine condition. I don't think that most of the undergrad students realized how lucky they were to see this. Highly, highly recommended - we didn't even have time to visit the Royal Navy Museum located right next door.

There were other points in time where the study abroad class had the option to divide up to experience two different activities, with Dr. Bell chaperoning one of the groups and me watching over the other group. There was one night early on the trip where the students had the choice of going to see a theatre production or a soccer (football) match. Dr. Bell took the theatre group while I happily was the chaperone for the soccer game. This was a Carling Cup match between Tottenham Hotspur and Burnley, one of those English Football League events that gets much less attention than the normal league games (like the Premiere League) and the FA Cup. I'm sure that this is the only reason why our group was able to get tickets. Nonetheless, this was still a match between big time football clubs, and we were getting to see the event take place at Tottenham's historic White Hart Lane stadium. This proved to be located in the northern suburbs of London, and like a lot of the older stadiums in different sports, White Hart Lane was situated right in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I led the group of about ten students on the train ride out to the game, and then sat back to take in the spectacle from our fantastic seats in the third or fourth row.

Tottenham was of course in the Premiere League in 2009 although the club was going through a period where they were mostly stuck in the middle of the table. Burnley was not in the Premiere League, though they would get promoted to the top division about five years later. The visiting club scored first and took a lead of 1-0 into halftime, then the Spurs struck back in the second half and piled in one goal after another, scoring four times in all to take the victory 4-1. We were pretty lucky and had all five goals scored at our end of the pitch, not to mention having great views of any corner kicks taken in our section of the stadium. The Spurs fans were surprisingly raucous given that this was a weekday night and it was quite cold outside; I guess they were living up to the reputation of English football fans. Three of my students ended up getting caught up in some of that atmosphere themselves: they were caught drinking in the stands and escorted out of the stadium. While I was supposed to be watching them! None of us knew that it was illegal to drink alcohol in the stands of a soccer game, probably because of so much trouble with hooliganism in the past. So now I was stuck: three students escorted out of the stadium, seven more students still sitting in the stands. I felt that I had no choice but to stay with the larger group even as I worried greatly about the other three. This ended up resolving itself with no issue; amazingly, by pure dumb luck we ran into the other three students at the train station while heading back to downtown London. They had simply watched the rest of the match in a pub on television. Unbelievable. Glad it all worked out though and I didn't get in any trouble.

Most of the weekdays on this trip were spent at the British Library conducting dissertation research while the undergraduate class heard talks by different speakers. I was tapped by Dr. Bell to do one of those talks myself, and he asked me to do some background research on artwork in one section of the National Gallery. These are pictures of Trafalgar Square taken outside the National Gallery on a particularly cold day in London. It was chilly enough that the water in the fountains had frozen over, and it was the sight of that ice that prompted me to snap these images.

On weekends, the class would travel further afield and I would come with them for chaperoning purposes. These pictures were taken in the city of Bristol, one of the largest cities in England located on the west coast where the River Severn meets the ocean. Bristol is historically associated with seaborne trade and many of the voyages of exploration left out of this city in the early modern period. We were visiting the waterfront to see a reconstruction of the Matthew, the ship used by explorer John Cabot for his 1497 expedition to the New World. I've repeatedly come across this voyage in my travels, first seeing the replica of the Matthew here in Bristol, and then later visiting potential Cabot first landing sites at Cape Breton and Newfoundland in Canada. (The exact place where Cabot first landed is disputed.) This was a very small ship and it was hard to believe that anyone could have crossed the Atlantic in it.

While staying overnight in Bristol, we also spent an afternoon in the small city of Bath. This city is only about 10 miles / 16 kilometers away from Bristol and has historically been associated with the naturally-occurring hot springs in the area. The very word "bath" comes from this city, and people as far back as the Romans went bathing in the hot springs here. The downtown area of Bath is compact and easily walkable, making it a natural tourist attraction. We spotted the Pulteney Bridge overlooking its triple cascade of small waterfalls, and the circular group of historic townhouses known as "The Circus". That was the long building above where I captured the whole study abroad class listening to Dr. Bell describe how the wealthy and fashionable used to travel to Bath to "take the waters" as the expression went. The other noteworthy structure aside from the baths themselves was the big cathedral in town. Known as Bath Abbey, this church originally dates all the way back to the 7th century, although the current structure is much more recent and mostly dates to the 16th and 19th centuries. The architecture style is a standard Gothic setup with a high central ceiling, two rows of stone pillars on the inside, and stained glass windows on the sides. The indoor pictures were too dark to make out much with this crummy camera, although I did get one decent image of the stained glass.

The baths themselves were probably the best part about visiting Bath. The core of the baths dates back to when this was a Roman colony named Aquae Sulis established in the first century AD. The temple that the Romans built fell into disrepair over the centuries and was buried under silt deposits before eventually being rediscovered and restored in modern times. The baths are located about 6 meters / 20 feet below the current ground level, and one of the neat things about visiting here is the chance to literally see different eras of history layered atop one another. There's the current era at street level, then the 18th century restoration of the baths right below them, and then the ruins of the Roman period down at their base. This was enhanced by the tourist area having lots of information about the Roman colonies in Britain, plus unnecessary flaming torches attached to the stone columns. The water itself in these baths looked pretty nasty and I'm not sure that I would have wanted to try swimming in it. Sure enough it was warm to the touch though, heated by those underground springs, even here in the middle of winter.

Another trip entirely saw the class visiting the university town of Cambridge. I was happy to see this stop on our itinerary since I had done a short summer study at Oxford a few years earlier as an undergraduate and I was interested in getting the Cambridge comparison. Both of these two famous universities proved to be similar overall, with Cambridge having the same division into about two dozen individual colleges, each with its own long and distinguished history. Many of these pictures were taken on the King's College grounds, including the beautiful King's College Chapel. This is one of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture constructed in a distinctly English style, and its construction was finished in 1544 during the reign of Henry VIII. (He was the "king" in King's College.) We also toured Magdalene College (pronounced "Mawdlin" in one of those bizarre quirks of English), one of the smaller colleges at Cambridge with only a little over 300 students. This was where Dr. Bell had earned his undergraduate degree, and his connections allowed us to have a private walk around the grounds of the little college. This included getting to see the office of Dr. Steven Hawking when he was serving as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Admittedly all that I saw was the closed door of the office but this was still pretty cool.

We also had the chance to try out one of the most famous activities associated with Cambridge: punting on the River Cam. "Punting" is the word used for traveling in one of these little flat-bottomed boats, which are known as punts. There are no oars or paddles used to steer these boats; instead, the punter stands on a wooden platform at the stern and drives a long pole into the soft mud at the bottom of the river. Obviously this only works in very shallow waters but it's well-suited to the gentle conditions of the River Cam and has been a tradition for many generations of Cambridge students and tourist visitors. Now most of the punting takes place in the warmer months of the year, however that wasn't about to stop our group from getting out there on the water. Almost everyone took their turn punting to see what it was like, and fortunately no one actually fell into the water. That's Dr. Bell in the last picture punting along his group of four students. I didn't find it to be too difficult to steer the little boats or to avoid falling, but it did take a fair amount of arm strength to keep going. It was helpful to be able to swap out different punters whenever someone started to get tired. The scenery for this boating excursion was awesome too, poling along between a bunch of historic university buildings. This is another activity that'd highly recommend to anyone reading.

OK, so this activity didn't have any particular scholarly basis. One night the study abroad class went to an outdoor ice skating rink, which I believe was located somewhere in the Kensington neighborhood of London. It was a chance to relax for an hour and enjoy some time spent skating around in circles. This is one of the few pictures of myself from this trip, as this was from the era before mobile phones had all had cameras and I've always been reluctant to have my picture taken. I was 26 years old at the time and midway through my graduate school career.

There was another sporting event that the class attended on this trip, this time a visit to a rugby match with the full group. We saw the London Wasps take on a club named Leinster Rugby, although be careful about thinking that you can still go and see the London Wasps today. My understanding is that the Wasps moved out of London in 2014 and ended up in Coventry instead. Rugby as a sport is far less popular than soccer in England, and it occupies a niche role in the greater culture somewhat akin to how soccer is viewed in the United States. It has its devoted fans but lacks the mass popularity of the Premiere League (or arguably even the lower tiers of club football). We had pretty good seats at this match and I managed to capture one of those awesome up-on-the-teammate-shoulders plays that rugby teams execute on throw-ins. I also recall spending a fair amount of time trying to explain the rules of how rugby is played to some of the students in the class, and I fully admit that I don't know all of the specifics myself. It's completely crazy that most of the players don't wear helmets, which is just asking for a concussion. Anyway, the Wasps won this match 19-12 and I was glad for the opportunity to see a professional rugby contest.

That's the last story that I have to relate about the winterterm class. This was a picture from the last night before the undergrad students flew back to the USA, taken at dinner time in a noodle place. It was a good group of students overall, generally interested in the subject matter and not too obnoxious for 18-21 year olds. It's been long enough since this trip took place that I don't remember anyone's names even if I can still attach faces to personalities. I think that everyone had a good time and enjoyed the trip overall.

With the winterterm class over, Dr. Bell and the undergrad students returned back across the Atlantic and prepared to start their spring semester. The group had been staying at a hostel called "Generator London" near the Russell Square underground station, a cheap dive of a place that had been selected to save costs. (Fortunately I'd had my own room and it was located on one of the upper floors, away from the loud partying down on the ground level.) I would be moving only a few blocks away and remaining near the Russell Square tube stop, living at the student community in William Goodenough College. My time there is the subject of the next page.