Friday, 7 September 2012


Cambridge is a very attractive place for academic visitors. I get at least one inquiry a week about coming to us as a visiting scholar. Most of them are of the kind: "Dear Professor, I deeply admire your work and would like to collaborate. My subject is microbiology". Then you know that they have sent the same message to five thousand random email addresses. Some are: "Dear Professor, I am impressed by the quality of research at your institution. My subject is second-language acquisition in rural school in South Georgia". Then I know that they have possibly read the Faculty web page and seen my name as Chair. In fact, they are right in approaching me as Chair. I forward them to colleagues for whom language acquisition in South Georgia may be a matter of life and death. I leave it to them to make a decision, but as Chair, I have to approve the decision before it goes futher to Research Committee. We only can host a limited number visitors at any given time, and we want the best ones. It is, however, not always easy to know who is the best unless you know the person or their work. I once made a mistake of supporting an application from a young colleague who looked good on paper. When she arrived, her English was non-existent, but I thought she would apply herself and improve it. She didn't come to seminars or other events. Halfway through the year, I invited her to lunch to hear how she was doing. She was doing fine. She was enjoying herself. What she was working on? She hadn't come to Cambridge to work! I remember when I was a visitring professor in San Diego the Department Head had to validate my visa after six months to confirm that I was actually doing what I had claimed to be doing.

Most visitors are interesting and contribute a lot. They add their own perspective and question our ethnocentric views. One visitor, after a long animated discussion of a brilliant newly published young adult novel, suddnely said: "I have only read the first fifty pages, and I think it is a very bad book. I didn't understand anything". It was a bit embarrassing, but at least she was candid.

Some visitors are overambitious and want to sit in every class. Normally I have nothing against it, but on some occasions, when I only had a very small group, a visitor can be disruptive, and I had to say, sorry, no. Some visitors are preoccupied with their own research, and I have to chase them. We usually ask a visitor to do a seminar if they want. Some are very eager, some reluctant. Some make friends, some don't. Some bring their families. Some make the most of their time in the UK and go all over the place to conferences.

When a visitor arrives, there are a number of formalities, such as getting office keys, email account and library card. Some visitors manage all by themselves, some need assistance. Some need a lot of assistance. Not because they are stupid, but because the system is so complicated. I remember only too well how it felt four years ago when I was new.

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