25 Years of Dukes in London
Whether it was the season or the site, English professor Ralph Cohen grew starry-eyed. Over the 1975 winter break he took 18 students with him on a two-week tour of London. He played Santa Claus at Christmas breakfast, and the trip was off to a good start. But, they soon discovered breakfast might be their last meal that day - every eatery in London was booked or closed. So the group headed to Stratford, and met good fortune at the Shakespeare Hotel. There, at a fox hunt to celebrate Boxing Day, the students shared wassail and sandwiches with riders in full livery, captivated by another mesh of England's past and present.
Cohen's next tour was better planned for May session in 1977 and again in 1978. He said, "That '78 trip was great - the deepest teaching I'd ever been able to do. And when I got back, Dr. Carrier asked, `Why not start a semester program?'"
Cohen needed no further prompt. From 1979 to 1989, he directed a "Semester in London" and instituted the program continuing today under Douglas Kehlenbrink.
Its successful innovation links a turn in class with one in the field. The variety of courses, with no classes scheduled at the same time and outings open to all, make participation in 60 trips highly doable.
For example, one afternoon brought a memorable lecture on King Lear preceding a performance of the same by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican Theatre. Another day Professor Judith Dobbs' lecture on Victorian society previewed touring the Tower Bridge, an exhibition of engineering marvel and city life through 100 years.
Cohen touts a day trip to Cambridge "worth the trip to England." Students visit the colleges of this university from 1283 with its treasures of architecture, stained glass, wood and marvels housed at the Wren Library, Trinity College. Roaming through the library stacks or glassed-in exhibits, students can see actual manuscripts from materials as diverse as A. A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh or Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematics. There's also a lock of Newton's hair and letters from Sir Michael Faraday seeking a new terminology for the phenomenon of electricity.
Dobbs guides students through a stone church with Saxon influence and the 400-year-old village of Lavenham where homes, shops, and winding streets animate her lectures. Possible trips exhaust the imagination - but not the students' energy. They continue filling Cohen's dream.
"I wanted to provide greater cultural accessibility. When these students become citizens of great cities of the world, they develop a confidence they would never have otherwise. They can compete with students from any Ivy League college no matter how privileged their background."
London semester student Roger Whittier ('99) calls it "the most worthwhile program offered in the arts at JMU." He cites how the streets come alive under Professor Tim Kidd's "London in Literature" classes in which students read a work then walk to the actual buildings and places referred to in class.
Student Martha Buchta ('99) echoes Whittier and group consensus on their London experience being "the best thing I've ever done at JMU." Theater-arts-major Buchta says, "All the classes discuss theater history and genres and then we see something in that style - for example, the incredible production of The Weir in Irish drama. That's something JMU can't replicate."
Yet the concept of London experience has been replicated. Semesters are now offered in London, Paris, Florence, Salamanca and Martinique. And the year 2000 adds another in Scotland. JMU's International Program, directed by Bethany Oberst, has ties in 37 nations. Cohen and Carrier set the start of something big.
Yet the still starry-eyed Cohen envisions more, sees JMU as Virginia's leader in international education. "We're in a position to make that happen - to become a center for other schools. Our connections are so strong, so special it makes us a very powerful voice in Virginia education." More than 2,000 JMU alumni - who have been there and done that - agree.
by Nancy Bondurant Jones