Professor Elizabeth Archibald: “the world doesn’t need another essay on Chaucer, there are more important things to do in Cuth’s”


Professor Elizabeth Archibald spent her final few days at Durham living in college accommodation – but not, ironically, anything belonging to Cuth’s. “I’m staying in one of the extraordinary honeycomb houses at Trevelyan, with no right angles. I’m still getting used to it.”

This temporary lodging, while she moved out of her home in Durham, brought the outgoing principal of St Cuthbert’s Society full circle: Professor Archibald lived in Trevs when she first came to Durham to the Institute of Advanced Studies (IAS).

Ending her academic career in Durham came after a lifetime spent at various institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. “Originally, I didn’t intend to be an academic,” she explains, and describes working in a London bookshop after completing her first degree at Newnham College, Cambridge. Nevertheless, she went on to do a PhD at Yale, which she describes as “a collegiate university not unlike Durham, in that people aren’t taught in their colleges – for one term, I actually ended up running one of the colleges, so in a way my path was set even though I didn’t realise it at the time!”

An unexpected career move

Professor Archibald lectured at the Universities of Cambridge, Victoria (Canada), and Bristol before she found herself at Durham in her early sixties. “I was thinking about retiring, or possibly applying to be Principal of my old college at Cambridge, which happened to be looking for someone.” It was then that Professor Corinne Saunders, of the English Department, invited her to spend a term at the IAS as a visiting fellow.

Originally from Northumberland, Professor Archibald wasn’t unfamiliar with Durham, having visited the city for conferences and worked as an external examiner for the English Department. She recalls attending a conference on medieval romance here in 2003: “I remember walking around the Cathedral with Neil Cartlidge (Professor of English Studies), who was then teaching in Dublin, and we both said, ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to work here’ – and of course, here we both are.”

“I applied, and was astonished to get the job”

During her term with the IAS in 2011, Professor Archibald fell in love with Durham, but did not anticipate any opportunity to stay. “I thought it was a marvellous university, how brilliant it would be to work there all the time, but that wasn’t going to happen. One evening, I mentioned to the Master of Hatfield that I was thinking about applying to be a Principal at Cambridge, and he told me that there was a job coming up at St Cuthbert’s Society.

“I knew nothing about the college, but I knew that I wanted to be in Durham – I was impressed beyond words by the energy, interdisciplinarity, and beauty of the place. I applied, and was astonished to get the job.”

St Cuthbert’s Society

“It took me quite a long time to understand how the colleges worked,” she confesses. “No one really explains that to you when you arrive.” As if becoming a college principal wasn’t daunting enough, Professor Archibald was taking over one of Durham’s more unusual colleges – one that goes by the title of Society, is based across two sites (the Bailey and Old Elvet) and has a long-standing independent Junior Common Room.

“The JCR was quite suspicious of me to begin with,” she admits, “a new person coming in about whom nothing was known – they’d had a few stand-offs with my predecessor over various issues. I got on extremely well with the JCR President of my first year, who was elected on a platform of improving relations with the college’s staff. I remember meeting him for tea on Palace Green and us both getting terribly excited for two hours about what we wanted to do with Cuth’s – I thought, I can really work with this person.”

The relationship between the staff and JCR in Cuth’s is different from most colleges at Durham. “Because of the history of the Society and the JCR’s strong role in running things like the library, even now I don’t always know what’s happening and sometimes I’m just told about it afterwards,” Professor Archibald explains. “I think the independence and the initiative of Cuth’s JCR is particularly striking, because of their long history of being the ones who do everything around the college. We’ve established a very good relationship.”

Making a difference

“As an academic, I’m confined to one discipline, so one of the things I’ve adored about Cuth’s is that I can organise anything about anything. Durham is a very social place – unlike many universities, you quickly get to meet people you might not normally get to know, the people who run sport, or catering, academics in other faculties.”

It is this unique quality to Durham life that allowed Professor Archibald to make the most of her role as Principal. Among the unique events that she has arranged is the annual ‘Dining in the Dark’ Formal, a blindfolded event inspired by a talk about the science of taste; a talk with the Lord Mayor of London’s speechwriter; and the ‘Difficult Dialogues’ series, which aims to generate a ‘safe space’ for students and staff to discuss a range of subjects including race, the ethics of food, and the impact of the Supreme Court in British and American politics.

“For me, the job has very much been about encouraging students to broaden their horizons. That was one of my goals – to bring more people into Cuth’s, and introduce them – I enjoy thinking about how to connect students to people who can be useful to them.”

Another real point of pride for Professor Archibald is in the nine JCR Presidents with whom she has worked – she delights in telling me that every one of them has taken up work in public service after their sabbatical role, and that there have been six female Presidents in this time, including five in a row from 2015-2021. St Cuthbert’s Society was the first college to accept a co-educational undergraduate cohort in 1969, “no matter what Van Mildert says,” she jokes – the latter received its first female undergraduates in 1972, but Cuth’s was not formally a Durham college at the time.

Professor Archibald herself was the first woman to be Principal of St Cuthbert’s Society, though there have been two female acting Principals. “It was very pleasing to be the first, though when I took over, the Senior Tutor and the Assistant Senior Tutor were also women, plus a male Bursar. In a way, I was less surprised than others might have been, because I went to a women’s college in Cambridge where everyone who ran it was a woman, which started me off assuming that it was quite normal in life. I was quite conscious of being the first woman, but I don’t remember it as posing any difficulties.”

A Professor and Principal

Of course, Professor Archibald divided her time at Durham between college and academia. “I wish I had spent more time [in the English Department]. In my job, it’s difficult trying to be free at the same times each week to teach, though I really like teaching and wish I had time to do more of it. It’s a fantastic department to be in, and particularly strong for medieval studies – not many universities have six full-time medievalists.”

When she joined Durham, Principals were expected to divide their time equally between their college and department. “In reality, I haven’t done fifty percent in the Department, and though it’s been nice to have a balance my research has suffered. I’ve always taken the view that the world doesn’t need another essay on Chaucer by me, but there are things I can do in college that are more important.”

Of course, what is usually a very busy job – dividing the time between lecturing and the endless demands of college like organising formals, attending Senate meetings, and working with students – slowed down dramatically in March 2020. Professor Archibald could not have predicted that her final year at Durham would be carried out between lockdowns: “It’s been frustrating and disappointing to meet so few students this year. Zoom is wonderful but the sense of connection – particularly with the freshers – has been very limited. It’s been sad to see a year where the normal ‘intergenerational’ friendships between different year groups in Cuth’s haven’t been achieved, and a year without proper formals.”

However, she admits, in some ways the pandemic has made retiring easier: “I’ve almost been semi-retired for the last year and a half! It’s disappointing that I attended my final proper formal over a year ago, without realising that it was the last one.”

Nonetheless, she is relieved that Covid-19 did not damage college life as severely as was feared: “A lot of freshers ran for positions, committees and so on in the JCR this year – our worry was that they would not engage with the college, but I’m very glad that has proved not to be true.

“When I was talking to departing freshers and their families on the Bailey, they told me that they’d had a pretty good year under the circumstances – I suspect they know that students at non-collegiate universities have had very different experiences.”

“Durham has been a very unexpected finale to my career”

On leaving Durham

The fact that Professor Archibald nearly took her retirement this time last year has a new significance in light of the pandemic. “I’m glad I didn’t, that I saw it through – for my successor to arrive in the middle of the pandemic would have been difficult.” Nonetheless, after nine years, she has chosen to take her leave. “It’s been a fantastic nine years but very exhausting – I’ve been constantly busy with meetings, events and so on.

“I suppose I feel that I should quit while I’m ahead – it’s time to get my life back, and finish a book that I made a start on about fifteen years ago, see my friends – I’m looking forward to having the time to do things I want to do with people I want to see. I think the pandemic made me realise how tired I was, spending ten hours in college a day. Durham has been a very unexpected finale to my career, brilliant but also tiring. I’m looking forward to having time for things I want to do, not just things I need to do.”

Her legacy at Cuth’s includes one final gesture, a performing arts bursary for graduates pursuing training in music or drama. “The idea is to build up a fund and be able to give £3,000 a year to somebody going on to study in creative industries – this year we awarded it to two musicians.”

Reflecting on her departure from Durham, Professor Archibald describes what’s next, following nine years here and decades working at other universities before now. “I’m going to be living in Cambridge, and writing my book on bathing culture in the Middle Ages,” she explains. “I’ve got lots of notes and wonderful images, I need to spend a lot of time pulling all of that together into a book. I will continue to be active in research and academia; the University has made me an Emeritus Professor which means I can keep using the library and remain affiliated to the English Department.”

“It’s a job like no other”

“I’m also going to be within easy reach of London, so I hope for a lot of trips to the theatre, exhibitions and so on. I have fourteen godchildren whom I want to see more of, and my friends live in different parts of England so some visits are definitely in order. The idea is that there’s plenty for me to do, but I also don’t want to do too much anymore!”

Finally, when asked if she has any words of wisdom for her successor, Professor Tammi Walker, she considers her answer before responding warmly: “Enjoy it! It’s not just a job, it’s a hugely enjoyable job. Also, collaborate with the students – in Cuth’s, it’s not quite as simple as being in charge, you have to gauge how to work with students and manage that relationship. It’s one of the exciting but also challenging things about the role – in that respect, it’s a job like no other.”

Image: St Cuthbert’s Society

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