Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Diary of a Mature MSc Student - Week 11

It is the end of Michaelmas term and and my fellow students are about to disperse, many travelling back to their home countries. The last few weeks have passed by very quickly, partly as I put pressure on myself to complete my essays before Christmas, hence no blog posts for a while. If you want to speed up time just give yourself a tight deadline. I missed the Xmas party but did get to secret Santa, since you ask I got a thoughtful book of Donald Trump's poetry. Standing at Blackfriars station for the last time this term, as I waited for the Brighton train, I thought this would be a good time to reflect on my first term as a mature student.

View From Blackfriars Station

I think it was Henry Ford who said that the people who are old are those that have stopped learning. I would agree with this. While I am the oldest person in my classes by some margin I have not felt old. Quite the contrary, I have really enjoyed being in seminars with classmates younger than my own children. I have learnt a lot from them and I hope they have also learnt from me.

I think you bring a certain level of discipline and determination as a mature student. Some of my fellow students were somewhat surprised when I said I have completed most of my essays which are due in on the 14th January. Most students I have spoken to plan to use the two weeks after Christmas to complete their essays. This makes sense but for me why put off until tomorrow what you can do today. It also means I will be more relaxed when I am away over the break and also gives me more time to read around topics. There are so many books I want to read but I haven't had the time to read them during the term.

I was told the course would involve a lot of reading and this has been the case. The biggest mistake I made early on was assuming I need to read rather than study the texts. Reading can be quite quick but studying academic text can take a lot of concentrated effort. Initially I felt I was learning a new language initially as the concepts were new and academic texts can be dense and difficult to understand. I understand they are trying to be very precise but there are many times when I feel text could be simplified or made more coherent. I have learnt there is a huge difference between blogging and academic writing. Typically if you are blogging you want to create skimmable content, with extensive use of sub-headings, short paragraphs and bullet points. My academic essays have been the opposite and I can see why few people outside of an academic niche would spend time reading academic papers. That said I have found the process very satisfying. It does take a large investment in time to read and study relevant academic papers but I have been rewarded with a much richer and deeper level of knowledge.

Initially I found the theory particularly complex and conceptual but again over time I have come to really enjoy the theory. It did take until weeks eight and nine for things to come together for me but now I actually look forward to reading the theory books and papers. I went back last week and read again the texts from my first weeks. On the second reading I understood so much more, I understood more of the context and related theory, when I looked at my notes I was surprised how much I had missed key points. It did make me realise how much I had learnt over the term.

I was initially anxious about the marked essays as it has been some 35 years since I wrote an essay. However, I probably over compensated with extensive research and heavily cited essays. I have had very positive feedback on all of my work so far. You are advised to create an outline structure for your essays and even to allocate rough word counts to the different sections. I have found this to be almost impossible. I find for me that it is only through the process of writing that I form my ideas and my arguments. Thus I tend to write a draft essay that is five or six thousand words long, and then effectively rewrite and edit down to the required three thousand words. It is a lengthy process but it seems to work for me. I find this way that I end up with a much tighter essay. I do feel the word length limits help me to improve though I still find cutting out chunks of text painful. There is always the temptation to think I spent hours reading those books and I going to damn well fit them into the essay come what may. The word limits force you to remove many of your related ideas and to focus on the core arguments. Thus overall I have enjoyed the essay writing, they have helped my own thought processes but I do feel sad no one, other than my tutor, is ever likely to read them.

I can say without hesitation that I have really enjoyed being a student again. I have not really engaged with student life as I am only in London Tuesday to Thursday as a rule. Thus while I joined various student associations I have attended very few meetings and events, many seem to take place on Thursday evenings when I am travelling back home and quite a few on the weekends. Being at university full-time would allow you to participate more fully but I suspect most mature students find this difficult.

The one thing I have missed is rigorous debate and argument. I am someone who loves a good argument and will often take a contrary position just for the pleasure of an argument. In my seminars I have found there are few disagreements and a strong sense of ideological homogeneity, which is surprising in such a globally diverse group. I am increasingly tempted to provoke debate but I have generally held back. I am conscious I am the old guy in the group when it comes to politics and I am not sure why but this has restrained me in some way, though I still talk a lot in seminars. I think next term I will be more vocal and provocative. Next term I begin a new course on Mediated Resistance and Activism, that seems like a good place to start!