One of the most exciting developments at University College over the past few years has been the Durham Castle Lecture Series. Using the spectacular 14th Century Great Hall as a venue, speakers from a range of fields have delivered a series of lectures which have been incisive, outspoken, informative, and at times, electrifying. I’ve been lucky enough to play a part in organising these lectures, and it has been hard work and hugely rewarding in equal measure.
I think what often isn’t appreciated by the audience is that the preparation for a high-profile lecture starts months, and perhaps even over a year, in advance. Speakers have to be contacted (, dates arranged, and publicity prepared. Schedules must be checked, travel and accommodation arrangements made, and websites updated; the groundwork must be laid to make sure everything is in place. Much of this important work is fairly routine, although I admit a moment of incredible excitement when I was involved (sadly, only cc’d) in an email conversation with world-famous philosopher, linguist, and political commentator Noam Chomsky recently.
On the evening of the event, there is still much to do. Members of the College’s fantastic team of porters transform the Hall from a dining room to lecture theatre in the space of 45 minutes, while a team of three, including myself, prepare the sound system and filming equipment. Over the course of roughly 20 lectures in the past 15 months, we’ve become a professional operation – something incredibly rewarding to see after months of pouring over the details to make sure we get everything just right.
My job involves promotion, including live-tweeting highlights from the lectures @durhamcastle, as well as assisting with the filming and editing the video to produce a final, polished film which can be uploaded to YouTube and shared with the world. I hugely enjoy much of this, especially designing a unique poster for each lecture (a chance to daydream about one day abandoning the academic world and becoming a graphic designer). On the evening of the lecture, you’ll see me perched behind the camera. Once the speaker is on-stage and everything is underway, I have developed the ability to look relaxed, yet interested and absorbed. Don’t be fooled! I am invariably on edge for the whole duration of the lecture and subsequent Q&A session – If a microphone dies, a speaker feeds-back, or a setting on some vital piece of technology needs adjusting, my job is to leap into action and solve the problem and despite some careful editing, I can be seen doing so in more than one lecture video. Simultaneously, I discreetly tweet key points from my smartphone – not an easy task when one has to condense often complicated statements into 140 characters. I apologise now to those speakers to whom I didn’t do justice!
Once the lights have gone down and the audience have left, there is often a chance to catch a quick word with a speaker. I would have suggested you were mad if you had told me, a couple of years ago, that I would have discussed my PhD thesis with Lord Giddens (former LSE Director), chatted to Justin Welby (Archbishop of Canterbury) about his travels with Tony Blair in Africa, or listened to Craig Calhoun (Sociologist and current LSE Director) discuss the challenge of humanitarian intervention and the challenges of managing a university. The common quality of these people, academics and non-academics alike, has been their incredible lucidity and insight. I hope we can find many more to follow them.
I’ll finish, since publicity is my job, with a quick plug. Join us, or watch one of our growing archive of films , there are many worse ways to spend an hour or so that listening to some incredible ideas.
Mark is a PhD Politics student at University College.