Saturday, November 03, 2018

Diary of a Mature MSc Student - Week 6

This week my daughter set a very high benchmark for my academic studies. She received a grade of 88% for her MSc dissertation. By contrast my work was used as an example of how not to write an essay.


These last two weeks have suddenly become very busy trying to combine essay writing with reading and lectures. This week was essay deadline week and I submitted my first essay for 35 years. The deadline was Thursday but I submitted mine on Monday, otherwise I would probably have spent the next three days continually editing and not necessarily improving anything. My fellow students took a different approach and many were still writing or editing their essays on the afternoon of the deadline. In my previous life speed mattered but I am learning that I need to slow down. This week my instinct for speed, and my limited understanding of academic writing, led to my first humiliating experience. You can believe me when I say I will learn from it.

In a seminar on Tuesday, the day after I had submitted my first essay, the tutor stressed the importance of definitions in our essay writing. She asked us to each write a definition of 'commodification' and to email it to her. I felt quite pleased she had chosen this concept. In my old business world commodification means where products become very similar and where the main differentiator becomes price. This drives prices down. Hence, it is generally very negative when your products become commoditised. However, I felt good as I knew in Marxist theory it means something quite different, almost the opposite. Thus I bashed off a quick email saying that commodification is where something typically without value, from music to attention, is given a value under capitalism so that it can be traded. I was first to submit my mail and looked up to see other students still writing on their laptops. After a while longer the tutor said people had five more minutes to complete the task. The fact the tutor gave everyone fifteen minutes for the task should have warned me that she was looking for more than my one line answer, although even then I was still feeling ok. Yes, I know, fools rush in and all that.

Mine was the first email she revealed on the screen. It quickly became clear that my answer was not what was required. The tutor then revealed other student answers which were more like 500 word essays referencing various scholars, theories and examples. At that point I got it and realised that when referring to a concept in an academic essay you need to spend some time defining it carefully by reference to previous literature. I wish I had known before I submitted my essay but it was a very helpful learning point.

Later that afternoon it became a more humbling experience. Some of my fellow course students in the later seminar groups commiserated with me about the definition exercise. I was somewhat surprised to learn my submission, along with my name, had been used on screen as an example of what not to do. I am reasonably thick skinned but it didn't feel good that my example had been used publicly without my consent or knowledge in this way. While I am sure it was used in a constructive way as a learning point, I felt embarrassed my name and work was being used as an example of what not to do.

I have been working on my next two essays which I am enjoying very much.  One is on the role of journalists as arbiters of truth and one is on whether election campaigns are becoming more important. I have been eagerly reading lots of material on these topics and have many views of my own. One of the challenges will be deciding what to include as I have a a huge amount of material, however, you can be sure I will be paying attention to my definitions.