OxNet Access Week 2021

The OxNet-Ordered Universe programme for the academic year 2020-2021 came to an end earlier this month with a fantastic Summer School run by Sarah Gilbert (a longstanding Ordered Universe team member), and Matthew Clayton (a new friend of the project and current History PhD student at Durham University). Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic the Access Week Programme took place online rather than in person at Pembroke College Oxford as has been the case in most previous years, but the students worked brilliantly in the online format and thedaily live Zooms gave Sarah and Matt a chance to get to know the students and hear their thoughts on medieval and modern science.

There were 19 students in this years OxNet-Ordered Universe cohort from almost as many schools, and all of them showed the dedication, enthusiasm and attention-to-detail that we have come to expect from OxNet students. The group began the week with an introductory session to get them thinking about medieval science, followed by sessions later in the week where we read through Grosseteste’s On Comets and On the Impressions of the Elements as a group and tried to unpack the meaning of these complex scientific treatises. The group, ably prepared after their work on On the Sphere earlier in the year, got to the heart of both texts and were able to dissect the structure and purpose of the treatises and offered thoughtful suggestions about the strengths and weaknesses of Grosseteste’s approach to his questions.

The group loved On Comets and in particular how Grosseteste starts the treatise with a list of all of the comet-hypotheses that he disliked and wanted to publicly reject, which the students noted is a practice that continues even in modern scientific writing. The students were taken with Grosseteste’s curiosity and desire to ‘get to the bottom of things’ – they saw that Grosseteste had noticed that previous explanations of the phenomenon of comets did not fit the standard model of the universe as it was understood in 13th century England, and that he was trying his best to find an explanation of comets that made sense. On the Impressions of the Elements impressed the group because of Grosseteste’s exhortations to his readers to observe and to do their own testing – they loved his analogy of the bubbles rising in a shiny bronze pan of boiling water, and the action of the ‘rays’ on larger bodies of water on the surface of the earth.

Such an enjoyable and stimulating week was only possible with support from many different people. Peter Claus and Felix Slade from the main OxNet team put a superb programme together that showed what willpower and a commitment to Access can achieve even in challenging global circumstances. Ordered Universe team members and friends, Brian Tanner, Giles Gasper, Seb Falk and Sigbjørn Sønnesyn created beautiful in-depth teaching videos to provide the students with specialist asynchronous content to fit in around the rest of their Access Week activities, and Alan Fentiman (filmmaker), Jamie Parker (actor), Rachael Lloyd (opera singer), Ross Ashton and Karen Monid (artists and projection specialists), made videos describing their paths into the arts from often surprising directions.

There are two people who deserve particulr thanks for their work on the OxNet-Ordered Universe Access Week this year. First, Claire Ungley (co-ordinator for the OxNet North East hub based in Sunderland, as well as being the Raising Aspirations Co-ordinator for Southmoor Academy) who has carried this year’s cohort through the whole academic cycle from the seminars, to the Easter School and then the Access Week making sure that everything ran smoothly and that the students had a trusted professional contact with them throughout the course. Claire has been with OxNet for a few years and we are always grateful for her support, her professionalism, and her knowledge of the students. The second person is Matthew Clayton (PhD candidate in History at Durham University): Matt was new to OxNet this year and started by assisting with the Easter School marking before taking on a co-teaching and marking role for the summer Access Week. Matt was prepared, friendly, and knowledgable throughout the week and the students responded to him with enthusiasm. Matt’s thoughts on the week are below:

I was a co-teacher of the OxNet-Ordered Universe Access Week. I really enjoyed my time helping teach this course. The group was fantastic and engaged really well with the two texts which the course examined, Robert Grosseteste’s De Cometis and De Impressionibus Elementorum. The course itself, with its balance of asynchronous content and in person teaching, is an excellent way of introducing students not only to medieval science but to the medieval world in general. I especially enjoyed the collaborative reading sessions, which are a great way of getting students to engage deeply and thoughtfully with medieval literature. That they did so was seen in the excellent work which they produced. The short questions and essays which I read all demonstrated a high level of understanding of and critical engagement with Robert Grosseteste’s arguments in De Cometis and De Impressionibus Elementorum and the nuances of the medieval vision of the universe. What is more, many students brought in aspects of their own prior knowledge of Robert Grosseteste’s De Sphera from the Easter school. The OxNet-Ordered Universe Access Week was a fantastic introduction to higher education, which encouraged students to develop and express their own ideas and arguments clearly and effectively. 

Sarah and Matt thoroughly enjoyed teaching such an impressive group of students and are delighted to have shared such an engaging and intellectually stimulating week with the group.

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