Cambridge’s Most Eccentric Professors

BEX SENTANCE reveals the most eccentric professors at Cambridge, erotica and all.

baudelaire Beckett becksistentialism bovary chinese Darwin erotica keynes Selwyn

We’ve all got that one lecturer who likes to use a banana instead of a laser pointer, or that supervisor who randomly exclaims during a supervision to not be wearing underwear then expects you to just blithely continue discussing Proust. But who are the most batshit eccentric dons in Cambridge? Here’s our fantastic five:

Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics – Dr. Stephen Cowley

Rocking the red bow tie.

Rocking the red bow tie.

“Stephen Cowley”, as his departmental profile page will tell you, is an anagram of “We Clone the Spy”. The man himself is a very energetic lecturer who will shout things like “Wheee!” and “Whoosh!” when drawing lines on a diagram. He even has his own appreciation group on Facebook called the ‘S.J. Cowley Appreciation Society’, although sadly it hasn’t received any new appreciation since July 2010. He was a Fellow at Selwyn College in 1981 and from 1990-8, and has written a note on the history of wooden spoons at Selwyn and their link to the Mathematics tripos, which is an unmissable read.

 Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Dr. Joseph McDermott

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The epitome of intense

Joe McDermott recently retired from the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies department, leaving a sad and empty void in his wake. He had an irreplaceable talent for working sexual references into his lecture material – in one East Asian History lecture he compared qi to a brand of Viagra and referred to passing the civil service examinations as “a wet dream [that] most young boys pursued”. His Classical Chinese classes would include such key details as which province of China was most famed for its women, and he once passed around a book of Chinese erotic paintings in a seminar on a classic novel which had absolutely nothing to do with erotica. He began his Chinese education at The Other Place, and had this to say about it:

“I’d had three years of Oxford Chinese… Which made me think, this language is impossible!”

His office, the site of epically long supervisions which sometimes lasted until after the faculty had been closed and locked up, had the tendency to look like it had suffered a landslide of paper and old Chinese books. 

Department of Medieval and Modern Languages – Dr. Andrew Martin

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So suave. Such shades.

If you’re a French student who attends Andy Martin’s lectures, you’ll learn that Samuel Beckett “approaches the lobster in purely utilitarian terms”, that Madame Bovary is primarily a “sex and shopping novel”, and that Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes are just like the underground, and best read beginning with the end of the book.  All of this literary knowledge, though, is simply a front for Dr. Martin’s main area of expertise: “Becksistentialism”. All throughout David Beckham’s stint with Paris Saint-Germain last year, Dr. Martin kept a Tumblr which imagined Beckham’s “internal monologue as he collides with the Parisian intellectual tradition – the glittering surface of a footballing icon cracked open by existentialism.” He has since presented a talk about “Becksistentialism” at the 2013 Cambridge Festival of Ideas last October. He also dabbles in cinema, and in 2011 scripted and produced that unflinchingly realistic exposé of life as a Cambridge languages student, MML the Movie.

Department of English – Dr. Andrew Zurcher

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He likes the great outdoors. And hoods.

Andrew Zurcher might lecture in Renaissance literature, but his true calling lies in being on the other side of the page. His ambition is to write an ending to Edmund Spencer’s famous incomplete epic The Faerie Queene, and he carries out this task at night by candlelight in full period dress. To be sure, no-one who has read his 36-page pamphlet Coming Home can be in any doubt of his prolificacy, as it contains no fewer than 56 sonnets. Coming Home features poetry titled in Greek, poetry with no title whatsoever, and one poem enigmatically titled “for.”

“i mean no less to you, nor say no more

than, when you read it, what a word is for”

And all of this without a single capital letter!

Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic – Professor Simon Keynes

Probably drunk on mead.

He may look serious, but he’s probably drunk on mead.

Simon Keynes, it is rumoured, was not only educated in Trinity College but was born there, and evidently liked it so much that he is still living there to this day. If that wasn’t enough, his illustrious family tree includes none other than the economist John Maynard Keynes, who is his great-uncle, and Charles Darwin, his great-great-grandfather. According to Professor Keynes, reading John of Worcester and  Eadmer of Canterbury is all very well, “but you’ve got to get a life – what you want is a comic strip like the Bayeux Tapestry.” He is well-known and loved throughout the ASNAC department for his sense of humour, and has been quoted as saying that he “doesn’t claim to be sane in the slightest.”

So next time your DoS forgets what day of the week it is and gets into a long discussion with you about Elbow, take solace in the fact that at least they’re not self-proclaimed lunatics.