Reflections on the first term of an MEd course

bandwbooksIt has been just over two months since I started studying again. While the rest of the student population across the nation seems to be heading off for a Christmas break, as an MEd student, I have this sneaking feeling that much of the festive season is going to be spent with my nose in a book or scouring online journals for relevant articles as I prepare to write a literature review. Well, as I was told in my first year of university by a lecturer, ‘It’s a vacation not a holiday.’ And – perhaps quite oddly to those on the outside – I’m not that bothered by the prospect; in fact, it seems oddly attractive.

Juggling study, employment and some semblance of a normal existence has become a fact of life. The time commitment has been greater than I bargained for (I should have heeded the warnings of the course leader) and there have been weekends when I’ve felt overwhelmed with work: alongside the busyness of running a large English Department and the demands of my own classes, there has been a substantial amount of reading and writing, which – perhaps more than any other professional course I can remember taking – I’ve wanted to do well.

Yet it’s also the case that I’m much more efficient as a fortysomething student than either as an undergraduate or even as postgraduate in my twenties. Frankly, there isn’t time to put things off! The reading and writing which has to be done by Tuesday each week cannot wait till Monday night, and definitely not when there are deadlines at school to contend with as well. I always marvelled at Open University students who got up at 5.00am to put in some extra hours – and now I’m in that category. Sunday mornings between 6.00am (I’m not that keen) and 10.00am have become a regular study slot – the utter calm of the time seems to work wonders. Somehow, I still manage to stumble into church looking like I’ve just got out of bed, and certainly feeling that way.

IT has helped significantly and much has changed since the 1990s. Remember green or orange screen VDUs in the library, searching for books and then finding older records were still in drawers of index cards by the issue desk? Or, even better, microfiche? What about manually trawling through the contents pages of journals…? Email was a novelty (remember Eudora?) and most computers didn’t even run Windows.

Now, perhaps unimaginable years ago, each week two hours of teaching time is spent in an online session, while the work in preparation for the sessions is available over the internet via CamTools, the University’s VLE. Journal articles are easily accessible as PDFs and some books are available as ebooks, though, as a Luddite, I’m still printing articles and I definitely gravitate towards printed over electronic books: more than a chapter on a computer screen doesn’t seem to work.

But modern systems have a new set of problems: try entering ‘A level English Literature’ as key words into a library database, for instance. Even after you’ve removed languages other than English, the hits still run into the hundreds of thousands. I’m about to book an appointment with a research librarian for guidance.

Other challenges have been less foreseeable, particularly switching from an Arts background to postgraduate work in the Social Sciences. The work has been at a significantly higher level than any of my PGCE. Numbers? Quantitative research? Statistics? Me? Well, I’m getting there, and I’m learning, too, to have some confidence in my own ability to question many of the statistics banded about in the education world.

There have been new ways of writing to master (yes, it’s ok to say I) and different structures to work in. I’ve seen the complexities of such seemingly innocent questions as ‘what did pupils learn in the lesson?’ and – and this one really could be discussed forever – ‘what makes a good teacher?’ Interviewing, observation, questionnaires – understanding the limitations of any form of research has been particularly interesting.

And I’m tremendously grateful for having done quite a lot of literary theory many years ago – such abstract thinking is not wholly dissimilar to educational theory or the epistemological issues raised by the Social Sciences, while the  deeper reflection and questioning which studying English encourages has definitely benefitted me.

Indeed, in everything – as a fellow student of a roughly similar age admitted to me – it’s interesting to note how the mind is sharpened by the discipline of studying and engaging critically with current research and educational policy. My ‘to read’ list is longer than ever, but I have loved tackling Vigotsky and reading around, dipping into ideas I’d not really considered in anything more than a passing way, particularly dialogic teaching.

Already, I can sense changes happening in my teaching. I’m part of an intelligent and thoughtful team at work, but observing with a deeper purpose then writing reflectively has brought a new focus to my classroom practice. My own perspective as a teacher feels much more legitimized, and in subtle ways I can feel my teaching shifting in direction: it will be fascinating to see where that process has taken me in eighteen months’ time when the course comes to an end.

For now, however, the greatest pleasure has been simply the joy of studying and returning to university life: the way the mind races with new ideas, the challenge of writing, the thrill of searching for and then finding information, the feeling of satisfaction after a Saturday morning in the library or a day spent in lectures, workshops and seminars. I’m fortunate, too, that the Faculty of Education at Cambridge is only an hour and twenty minutes away by car, so getting to there for conferences or to use the library is fairly easy – quicker, in fact, than heading into London.

Of course, there have been some very nice perks to university life – a posh Matriculation dinner stands out and student discounts in the Cambridge University Press bookshop (yes, I’m that sort of student & I don’t quite have the nerve to present my card elsewhere!) – but central to everything is being part of a community of learners who are interested in the same issues and prepared to put a lot of work in to find out more.

So, while I am definitely intending to take Christmas Day off (and maybe even Boxing Day), I’m rather looking forward to my day-long train journey to Oban and four hour ferry crossing to my parents’ home on Tiree – plenty of time to put on the headphones, open a book and start making some more notes…


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