Tuesday, 21 January 2014

How to survive an MA (and run a half marathon)

Term officially started today for us MA Journalism students at UWE.

Not so much with a bang as with a thin, mildly depressed, whinging noise.  The computer systems were down; the grades we'd been awarded for the work we handed in before Christmas hadn't been issued to us despite our lecturers working like the clappers over the break to ensure we had them back on day one of the term; the email about the change in both the time and the room for our seminar today had only gone to about half the class so a whole bunch of people couldn't make it. M-I-S-E-R-Y prevailed. Resigned misery at that.

And we're not alone.  Our tutors are equally harassed and harangued by it all.  On one module, despite our MA course leader saying he DIDN'T want us to do an essay in the same semester we have a pretty critical law exam, because the system says we're supposed to hand in a piece of work this term we now have to do an extra piece of work......'Computer says no' has nothing on this.

The thing is, some of this is simply the sort of bureaucracy you have to expect from any large organisation that has been made 'lean' or has been 'six sigma'd' to within an inch of its life.  Energetic drives to automate the heck out of processes, find efficiencies within the system and cut out the fat of humanity tends to leave a trail of the disgruntled and the dysfunctional in its enthusiastic wake.

Beyond that though, some of this is even more simply about just doing an MA.  I have friends who shot out of university and straight onto MA programmes.  It's a harrowing experience.  There's no room to settle in, get comfy, enjoy the ambience of being at university.  It's about producing work and hitting the right mark immediately.

I have other friends who have, like me, undertaken their MA part-time.  It's a different type of battle.  Constantly weighing off work priorities with studying ones. The giddy highlights are finding yourself in the library of a Saturday afternoon and wondering how come you don't normally have this sort of time on a weekend to spend surrounded by books and loveliness.  The lowlights are however much, much darker.

I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to quit the course.  I really can't.  Even Dave, who mostly has to pick up the pieces of my 'make-this-madness-stop-now' ranting would struggle to give you a meaningful number.   Last term was significantly better than the previous academic year in terms of work/life balance - I became fully self-employed and halved my working time (and consequently income) so I could do justice to the course. It has been decidedly less stressful even if I'm poorer for it. However there were times when if you had said to me words to the effect; 'you're on the last lap of the race, one more semester and you're done, just hang on in there kiddo' you would actually have been taking your life into your own hands.

But the race analogy works well.  Whichever way you do an MA a lot of it is about stamina and in any race much of that is about your mental attitude.  When I wanted to quit last year, it was mostly out of fear that I couldn't do it, I wasn't good enough, I was a fool to even think of doing such a thing.  This year is quite different.  As I was embarking on the course last year my old boss, an extremely astute person, passed a comment that it wasn't that I needed the MA for the skills it was imparting to me, so much as for the confidence I personally would gain from having the piece of paper to back up the fact I really did have those skills.  Note the closeness of this observation to my frets of failure last year.

Oddly enough the course has already given me a level of confidence that I didn't have previously.  It is the confidence to say I am so over further education.  That isn't by the way to say that I haven't learned a huge amount during this course. I have, absolutely.  It's not about the course.  In some senses it's about the love affair in my head that I've had with education since I left it full-time years ago.  I have romanticised it to the highest degree and, like most secret crushes, the reality of it has fallen wide of the mark, nicely grounding me.

Doing an MA (certainly part-time) is a lot like middle distance running.  I'm reminded of Haruki Murakami's What I talk about when I talk about running who says that having a mantra to get you through a long run is essential.  A favourite that he quotes resonates with my experience of doing the MA: "Pain is inevitable.  Suffering is optional". He goes on to explain: "Say you're running and you start to think, Man this hurts, I can't take it anymore.  The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to the runner himself."

This is true of anything. It's not what we do, it's how we do it that counts and when doing anything over a sustained period of time simply continuing to do it, to be motivated and focused is the real challenge. I see fellow students beside me who are equally over education.  They are absolutely gagging to just get out there and start doing journalism 'for real'.  I see other students who have near as damn-it decided that journalism isn't for them but who, in the face of the challenge of completing the course come what may, have raised their game massively and are producing some incredible work.  I see other students who are absolutely blossoming as they soak up everything the course has to offer.

My own mantra for the last twelve weeks of classes is 'Sod off voice of doom'.  It isn't particularly philosophical. It isn't elegant and it definitely isn't graceful. I figure however it IS the tough line I probably need to make it through to graduation.

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