Cambridge’s Most Eccentric Professors – Part 2

BEX SENTANCE rounds up some more of our most wonderfully weird academics.

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Last time around we brought you a posse of eccentric male academics. This time it’s the ladies’ turn.

Department of Natural Sciences – Professor Nicola Clayton

The Darwinist Dancer

Nicky Clayton is a Professor of Comparative Cognition and a NatSci Director of Studies at Clare College, but holds the much more unique title of being the first ever “Scientist in Residence” at Rambert Dance Company. In 2009, to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Darwin, she collaborated on a “Darwinist dance”. In her research work on bird cognition, she has developed behavioural tasks “to test whether jays can plan for tomorrow’s breakfast.” She describes the brains of birds as being more like a “fruit cake” compared to the layered “chocolate cake” of apes and humans. According to Professor Clayton, it is but an evolutionary accident that we didn’t end up as the Planet of the Crows – which would make Cambridge University look a bit different to say the least.

Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies – Ms. Emma Wu

Wannabe Captain Picard

A languages teacher in Chinese Studies, Emma Wu is renowned for her cutting sarcasm, sharp wit and unending supply of memorable quotes, which feature references to Star Trek, The Big Bang Theory, Friends and more. She encourages students to “have laser eyes” in order to see the structure of a sentence – “like James Bond” – and explains which particles go together grammatically by describing who they “go to Cindies with”. She isn’t above telling a dirty joke about old women and David Beckham in order to liven up a class, and once punished a student who was late by making him stand on a desk and sing a Communist anthem (the best part being that he actually did it). When asked by a class whether she would take them on a trip to the Fragrant Hills in Beijing, she replied, “If I had a spaceship. Like Captain Picard.”

Department of English – Dr. Jennifer Wallace

Basically Harrison Ford, but female and less grumpy

Jennifer Wallace is basically Cambridge’s answer to Indiana Jones – a super-sharp academic who moonlights as an archaeologist (possibly without the whips, but you never know). Or maybe that should be moonlights as an archaeologist who moonlights as a journalist, since she has also written freelance articles on everything from a copyright war over a dead poet to Slovenian punk philosophy. She once spent half a supervision talking to a student about which literary figures they would most like to go for drinks with (in the end, it came down to Ben Jonson versus Shakespeare). As well as penning articles, she has also been the subject of them, such as this 1999 Times Higher Education article about the horrifying imposition of women on Peterhouse’s manly traditions, ‘Intrigue in a Cambridge Rose Garden’.

Department of Classics – Professor Mary Beard

The smile of a thousand BBC2 documentaries

Mary Beard has been called “the dangerous don” and “the roguish don” by The Guardian, but refers to herself simply as “Beard”. Once labelled “the classical world’s most provacative figure”, she has a reputation for being forthright, outspoken and saying that the United States brought 9/11 upon itself. She read Classics at Cambridge as an undergrad, and described the faculty at that time as being run by “curmudgeonly old sods”. She confesses to a fascination with bad breath, Roman sex, and where exactly Romans went to the loo in amphitheatres.

Outside of the academic world, she is a strong supporter of grey hair – she slammed an M&S fashion campaign on Twitter for its lack of grey-haired women, and has praised Kate Middleton for being unafraid to let grey hairs show.

When AA Gill branded her too ugly for television, she suggested that he should be forced to watch all of her programmes from start to finish, be force-fed all of his least favourite dishes – “like a goose destined for pâté de foie gras” – and worst of all, be made to attend a supervision in her study to justify his comments. Anything but that!