On Studying

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I signed up for my MA degree last year on a bit of a whim. I’d been thinking about doing an MA for years, but circumstances always got in the way of me being able to make the commitment. Last year, however, I finally felt in the right place at the right time, and thought, why not just do it now? So, without giving myself time to doubt the decision, I filled in the form and sent it that very same day. Within just a couple of weeks, I’d attended an interview and accepted my place. It all felt very sudden, and when the idea actually became reality, I panicked. What if I wouldn’t manage to fit all the work in? What if I would be the idiot at the back of the room, with everyone else already being experts? What if I couldn’t write MA level essays and ended up failing the course? What if I didn’t enjoy it and found the research I would have to do completely boring? What if this was all just a terrible mistake?! After a night of crippling self-doubt, I pulled myself together, pushed the nagging fear of not being clever enough to the back of my mind, enthusiastically bought all of the books on the reading list, and embraced the idea of becoming a mature student, going to the pub after lectures with my fellow students and spending my weekends in the library. This was going to be an adventure. And just like a rollercoaster, even if parts of it were going to be terrifying, and a little bit unpleasant, I knew, deep down, that I would love the experience. I’d already done the hardest part by getting on the ride in the first place.

One term in, and I can report that I have absolutely loved every second so far. I chose my course carefully, and it has exceeded all of my expectations. The difference between my MA and BA is enormous; my BA course was large and many of the texts we studied were not my cup of tea. I often felt disinterested and demotivated by having to study periods or genres of literature I found boring or impenetrable, and it was frustrating to have to skate over the surface of the things that really interested me because we had to gain a broad knowledge of a huge subject area in a relatively short amount of time. Doing an MA gives you the luxury of specialism, and I have found every week fascinating, as I am learning about the precise period I am interested in: the nineteenth century. I am having my eyes opened to so much, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn, and each seminar leads me down so many paths of interest that I take such pleasure in pursuing in my own time. Having very small seminar groups is also a considerable change from my BA, where groups were often pushing 20 students. Now there are less than 10 of us in each group, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to share their ideas and for us to bounce theories and interpretations off each other, creating fascinating and enlightening discussions. As all of us are mature students and have made the decision to pursue this qualification at no small sacrifice to our finances and leisure time, everyone is committed and engaged, and there are not the silences I experienced so often in my undergraduate seminars, when it became very obvious that all of us had been far too busy partying that week to read the assigned text! What’s more, we get to choose our own essay topics, and I’ve had such fun picking my topics and hanging out in the gorgeous University of London library, Senate House, which has an amazing rare book collection and incredible art deco architecture. Getting lost in books, finding undiscovered gems and spending evenings doing research has been brilliant. I love the experience of finding something that then leads to something else and then something else, sending me deep into a labyrinth of Victoriana that I could happily wander in forever.

When I started telling people about my decision to sign up for the MA, a lot of people asked me why I was doing it. The assumption from most was that I was doing it for a promotion, to improve my qualifications so that I could get a job in a more prestigious school. When I said no, I was doing it purely for pleasure, I received some interesting reactions. The concept that education was something to be pursued purely for pleasure, rather than for some sort of economic or practical advantage, seemed to be a novel idea. Why on earth would I spend so much time and money on something that offered me nothing of tangible benefit in return? This was something I thought about before I began the course; unlike my BA degree, an MA is not a requirement for me to be able to pursue my chosen career path. The teaching profession doesn’t really reward higher education beyond BA level, largely because the subject knowledge you gain doesn’t really get used on a day to day basis, unless you happen to be able to teach the texts you have studied. Having an MA in Victorian Studies wasn’t going to propel me up the career ladder. It wasn’t going to get me a promotion, a pay rise or any kudos from the kids I teach, who already roll their eyes and sigh the minute I begin the sentence ‘actually, I’m going off on a bit of a tangent here, but did you know that in the nineteenth century….’ In a world where so much value is placed on what we can measure economically, the concept of investing a lot of time and money in something that has no intrinsic value beyond enjoyment, is, for a lot of people, a waste. But for me, this MA course has been the best value for money I have ever received. It has given me so much more than I have paid out. It has revealed whole swathes of subjects I had not known about before, and that have inspired, excited and given me enormous pleasure in the pursuit of their discovery. It has set my brain on fire, reigniting the embers of interests I have had to dampen over the years thanks to not having enough time to look into them properly. It has opened my eyes more fully to the rich layers of history around me, and made me stop and think and question and not take things at face value. It has also surprised me by how much it has taught me about myself. With every passing week, I have grown a little more confident, a little more bold, a little more self assured. I have come to believe in the value of my own voice, and to trust in the value of my opinions. As someone who is constantly telling their students to believe in themselves, to trust in themselves, to have confidence in themselves, I was surprised by how little confidence I had in myself at the start of the course. I was convinced I would find it too hard, and that I would have nothing insightful to say, and that everyone else would find me stupid. Going back to an academic environment after so long sent me right back to my unconfident eighteen year old self, convinced that I wasn’t clever because I didn’t get into the university of my choice. Though I have no problem standing in front of a class of children and talking about my subject, being with an audience of my peers terrified me. But from the very first seminar, I found that my passion for my subject overrode my lack of confidence; to my surprise, I found myself initiating discussions effortlessly, so keen was I to share my interpretations, or to point out particular lines I had found interesting. As each week went by, I spoke up more and more, enjoying the experience of talking and debating and developing other people’s ideas. I was so focused on the subjects we were discussing, I forgot to think about what I thought about myself. And that has probably been the greatest gift this course has given me so far: freedom from the limitations I had placed upon myself.

For anyone thinking about studying as a mature student, I would say, go for it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t focus on the logistics, because you’ll be surprised by how much time you can find to do something you love, even if your schedule seems overloaded as it is. As long as you prepare in advance, use your time wisely and don’t set yourself unrealistic expectations, you’ll be absolutely fine. It’s the best decision I’ve made in a long time, and I love that I still have over a year and a half of it left to enjoy!

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37 comments

  1. I’m so glad you’re enjoying it so much, Rachel! It sounds like it’s been a healing process, as well as everything else. And I am saddened by the response to your reason for doing it – a Masters should absolutely be first and foremost for interest and pleasure, and anything else that might come is a happy side-effect.

  2. I totally agree with you on the benefits and pleasures of pursuing an MA, especially as a mature student. I did the same (in medieval literature) and the time I spent studying was probably one of the most rewarding and fulfilling times in my life. You may find that when you get to the end of your MA you will want to continue your studies even further. I would have loved to continue on to a PhD, but unfortunately family commitments prevented that happening.
    The nineteenth century was a very rich and prolific time in literature – can you tell us more about your areas of focus within this timeframe?
    I wish you continued enjoyment and enrichment in your studies.

    1. I’m so glad you got the chance to do your MA too – medieval literature was something I enjoyed at university but I never felt clever enough to pursue it further with all of the translation involved! Hopefully one day you’ll be able to return and do the PhD. I’m mostly interested in cities, transport, religion, death and mourning culture and women’s experiences, but I’m learning so much all the time that my interests are constantly expanding. There is so much to learn and I feel like I’ll never be able to find something to specialise in, but I’m going to have to decide on something for my dissertation! Thank you so much for your support!

  3. Rachel, you have made my day – my new year, in fact. I can feel the your excitement and joy of learning in your words and the rhythm of your sentences and, though we have never met in person, I have such a feeling of pride in you.

    As a former teacher and someone who served three terms as an elected member of a Board of Education, I am thrilled that you took this path. you embody what we call a “lifelong learner”. Well done and onward you go.

  4. Well done you! There’s absolutely nothing wrong with education for its own sake and I applaud your decision. I’m very happy you’re enjoying it so much and I look forward to hearing about your course readings. I love the Victorian period and would love to learn more about it vicariously through your blog.

  5. I love to hear the stories of people like you (and me), people who love learning for its own sake. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one on the planet who loves studying literature just because. Three cheers to you!

  6. You lucky woman! I would give my eye teeth to do an MA in literature instead of worrying over budgets, reimbursements, preformance reviews and insurance at my small medical practice!

    I only hope I will survive all this crap so I too can move on to more enlightened and spitlritually enhancing endeavors like literature znd philosophy.

    Dont anyone ever disparage your choice.

    1. I hope you’ll get to pursue your dream of studying one day, Fitz – perhaps you could do it part time like me? There might be an online course…good luck to you!

  7. I loved reading this. I, too, am a teacher and, at 55, went back to get my MS in reading. I just completed my first semester and my experiences have been very similar to yours. It’s time consuming and frequently stressful, but I love it.

    I hope you’ll keep sharing your experiences.

    1. I’m so glad you’re loving your course as much as I am mine – it’s truly a transformative experience and so enriching for us teachers to be learning like our students! I’m so pleased for you!

  8. So good to hear of your pleasure and enjoyment in your MA course. I eventually did an MA in my late sixties and, like you, was petrified at first and occasionally during it. The pleasure of being with people who had a wide range of life experience and a shared interest in learning was wonderful. We were also very fortunate in having a brilliant course leader and lots of input from a wide range of gifted tutors.

    1. I’m so glad you had a wonderful experience, Lesley – it is scary at first but actually we’re all in it together, it’s not a competition, and the shared interests we all have makes for some enriching discussions and friendships. I don’t think I ever want mine to end!

  9. So pleased you are enjoying your MA. I did mine straight from university, partly because I wasn’t ready to leave studying and I wish I could go back now and do another one. You are right and it is so important that the students we teach realise that learning is enjoyable and what better way to demonstrate this than with teachers who are keen to continue their studying for pleasure. You have definitely inspired me to read The Victorians from listening to your podcast. I hope you continue to enjoy your studies, I’m sure you will.

    1. Well maybe you can go back and do your PhD!? Absolutely – my students were very impressed when I told them I was studying for my MA! I’m so glad – I hope you’ll love it. Thank you for your support!

  10. I did my MA back in the 70’s, was newly married and loved it. If I couldn’t continue to learn one way or another I would curl up and die. Good for you. Much better than sitting home night after night watching reality tv. Good luck.

  11. This is wonderful to hear, Rachel! Good on you.
    I’m a registered nurse who then did a BA(Honours) in English literature and loved it so much I did a PhD in Victorian literature. Am I working in that field? No. Do I regret doing it? Not for an instant. I learned so much and gained so much pleasure, went to some fabulous conferences and met fascinating people.
    The whole time I was studying, people asked me why I was doing it. My answer: because I love literature.
    And the expense/time? Well, some people go to the gym. And others go to the library!

    1. Wow, Gillian, that’s so impressive – I’m in awe! You’re my role model! I’m so glad you got to enjoy studying to PhD level and got so much from the experience. I’m thinking about PhD studies but I’m a bit scared at the moment…it’s a big commitment. Maybe!

  12. Totally agree with everything you have to say. How wonderful to be able to do s whole MA course in Victorian Studies! I started my M A in Women’s Studiies at the age of 50 and it was one of the happiest times of my life. We were a small group mixed between mature students and young graduates but we all got on very well and formed firm friendships. I concentrated on women’s history and forgotten women writers and followed all sorts of threads of information.
    I really envy you. I would love to do it all over again. Enjoy the rest of your studies.

    1. I bet that MA was fascinating, Janet! What a great opportunity. I’m so glad you had such a wonderful time studying. It’s a shame it has to end, isn’t it? I think I’ll be devastated when my MA is over!

  13. Good for you! Years ago I sent away for the prospectus for that very same course, then dithered and fretted about paying the mortgage and took it no further. Wish I’d jumped in with both feet.

  14. What a wonderful experience, so much more fulfilling than the BA one I had too. Plus you have chosen my favourite period in literature. I can sympathise with your comments re being bored by some texts from the BA – today I abandoned my Open University module on children’s lit because the chosen texts were so so dull that I could not summon any enthusiasm for the essays. Fortunately I too was doing this for ‘fun’ and since it wasn’t I decided enough was enough and I would spend my time on something else.

    1. I’m sorry your OU course hasn’t inspired – it’s such a shame when that happens. I do sometimes wonder where the inspiration for course reading comes from…I hope you can find something more fulfilling to study in future. There really isn’t enough part time/distant study stuff out there for working people – this needs to change!

  15. Aw Rachel, I’m so glad that your degree is going so beautifully! It sounds like it’s everything you wanted it to be and more. I’ve thought about going back for a degree in Latin — Latin courses were my favorite ones in high school, and I’ve always regretted not doing more with it in college — but I can’t get myself to face up to it. It would be so much money and I’d rather spend it traveling. Maybe someday!

    1. Studying will always be there as an option, Jenny! It’s a huge commitment, of both time and money, so you have to be totally ready to do it. Now is my time, but yours might be in 20 years…who knows! Never say never!

  16. I was clearing out some old emails and came across one with a comment on a post of yours from early 2011! Yes, I should be better about not letting emails pile up like that. I’m also not sure how or when I then lost the link to your blog. I think perhaps I had only just found it then and kept that email so that I’d remember to add you to my blogroll, and then never got around to it. I could see that happening. But it seems apt that I’ve come back to it just now to read this post, as I have also just started studying again. Not an MA, just a five-week Coursera course but a lot of the same things apply. I haven’t quite found my confidence yet but it really is great to be studying something where everybody has chosen to study it and is enthusiastic about it (there are online forums to have discussions with your classmates). This is me sort of dipping my toe in the water of studying and seeing whether I might be able to build up to doing more in the future. I think the next course I do might be on writing essays, as that is a skill I have long forgotten. Ever since I left college (I did a Diploma in Languages and Business more than twenty years ago), I’ve said I’d go back and do a full degree sometime. Still have never managed to settle on a subject I’d like to study just for the sake of studying that topic but I absolutely agree with you that learning for its own sake is enough. It’s wonderful to hear how much you are enjoying it.

    1. Hello! I’m so glad you’ve found me again! I’m delighted to hear that you’re enjoying studying again – don’t stop now! Find something else and get stuck in. Your confidence grows with time and something I’m learning is that you always think you’re not very good but no one else agrees with you! I hope you’ll find something that you love as much as I love my course!

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