So that’s it. All done. A BSc in Politics and International Relations. When I saw my exam results this week my reactions were relief (because I felt a bit glass-half-empty after the exams in May), joy (at getting three results over 70%) and pride at the overall First Class Honours degree I was awarded.
I won’t use the cliche “journey” but lots of aspects of my life have changed since I started the degree. Unlike full-time students that get sucked into the bell-jar of academia and pupate into “real world” graduates four years later, those of us studying through the University of London International Programmes have to blend studies with our daily realities. My academic studies – like many other distance learning students – was squeezed around the changing fortunes of one-and-a-half jobs, family commitments and curveballs like house moves.
Technology completely streamlines the studying experience with the University of London International Programmes. The distance in distance learning has been shortened considerably: students from all over the world can hook up face-to-face on Skype or Google Hangouts, share resources on the VLE’s discussion forums, access hundreds of journal articles in the online library with a keyword and mouse click, and access lectures from different universities on iTunesU.
But in a few months time that technology will desert you, facing the exam with just a pen in your hand and blank paper in front of you. Some candidates will be armed with a calculator, but most will rely on a pen to frame their argument through legible handwriting.
Like most people, I was shocked at the bombing during the Boston Marathon. Television footage showed the devastating injuries caused when a bomb explodes, however primitive or home-made. I vividly remember as a young child overhearing my parents talk about the dismembered bodies on the streets of my home city, Dublin, after a bombing in 1974 (that killed 26 people and an unborn child). But for most of my life, almost all terrorist activity took place within the border of Northern Ireland about 70 miles away, far enough away for me to be immune to daily realities, but near enough to be part of my consciousness.
Although Boston grabbed the headlines, terrorist acts are perpetrated regularly. On the day of the Boston attack 75 people were killed in Iraq, the day before 35 were killed in Somalia, and the day after 22 were killed in Pakistan and 16 injured in Bangalore, India.
My main reason for studying Politics and International Relations is to help me understand the world around me. For some, understanding terrorism is impossible. How can you understand a suicide bomber who is prepared to blow themselves up for a cause? Or someone who would kill innocent people indiscriminately?
“Daddy, are you doing your homework?” My five-year old daughter gets it. Not that there’s much to get. If Daddy is surrounded by a splattering of books, journal print-outs and scribbled notes, with a pencil in his mouth and a quizzical-to-stressed look on his face, chances are he’s studying.
She started school in September and has homework every day (except Fridays). The letter tracing and phonetic spelling exercises that amount to her homework are accomplished within minutes of her whirl-winding home. It’s not exactly taxing, but she adores it. There’s an obvious sense of self-importance, but also a real sense of duty. This isn’t a task done in the classroom with the teacher breathing down her neck. This is her responsibility, something that she does on her own, away from the structured school day.
As a parent, I silently questioned the need for homework in the first year of school. Why would a five-year-old need to supplement school learning with extra tasks at home? I should have known better. I’m an external student, juggling one and a half jobs, parenting and lots of other demands, problems and commitments that life flings at me everyday. Why shouldn’t my daughter’s school life spill into our home life? Isn’t that what I’m doing right by taking this degree?
I’m not exactly panicking… With just eight weeks to my first exam, I’m on a pretty tight deadline with revision and scanning past exam papers. But a priority right now is outlining exam questions and being sure that I can stitch together a coherent argument on exam day.
As I’ve said before on this blog, my course in Politics and International Relations isn’t exactly related to my full-time job playing clarinet in an orchestra, so it’s not like my day-to-day working life intersects with and enriches my studies. Study time is a separate part of my day, hours snatched in the evening or – if I’m performing – in afternoons before concerts. However, my parallel career as a part-time journalist and writer is helping me no end.
In spite of my love of pencils and blank sheets of paper, I’m not a complete luddite and I’ve always embraced technology and the freedom that it offers. As a young composer working with cash-strapped dance companies who couldn’t afford a pit full of musicians, computer software, called sequencers, enabled me to expand my musical ideas beyond what I could do on my own. Using a computer, I could compose and record layers upon layers of music and create a rich texture of sound. Continue reading
I’ve written before about how my study plan has to as flexible as my work schedule. My full-time work in the orchestra has some really busy periods and my moonlighting as a dance critic and journalist means that sometimes it’s really difficult to find the time to meet my weekly and monthly goals.
Autumn was a particularly busy time – Ireland has many arts festivals around this time of year, so I travelled all around the country to see dance shows. On top of that, the orchestra had a really busy period with performances and recordings, including playing live for the second Lord of the Rings movie.
I have a desk. Sometimes it’s tidy, sometimes it’s messy. But undoubtably I study better when it’s tidy. Some people can revel in chaotic surroundings, others need to Feng shui their working space. I fall somewhere in the middle. I can certainly cope with messy surroundings, but it’s easier to organise my thoughts into a tidy logic if my surroundings are similar.
In front of a computer something similar happens. I’ve never been one to tweak my computer’s wallpaper and colours, although I might just adjust the default setting to something a bit more me. I prefer simple themes rather than glaring, flourescent setups.
I never watch reality television, but for the past few months I’ve been on the other side of the camera, taking part in a series that transformed non-musicians into soloists in four months. Shooting on the show, called Instrumental, started during the summer, when three Irish-based celebrities and three members of the public began learning the clarinet, cello and piano leading to a solo with my orchestra, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. The concept – or cliché – of celebrities doing something outside their comfort zone is a mainstay of reality television. As a form of entertainment it might be out-dated and despised by some. But, here’s the thing. Behind the clichés, I’ve learned some things that might help my studies.
“Do you get books every day?” my postman asked a few weeks ago, as the trickle of next year’s course-books turned into a steady daily flow. Final confirmation that I had passed the May exams meant that I could surge on and get a head start on my next line-up of courses. The first step? Trawl the dustiest corners of the Internet to find pre-loved textbooks at bargain prices.
If there’s one thing better than the smell of a new book, its the smell of an old book. Up until recently Dublin was graced with dozens of second-hand bookshops, full of unhurried browsers displaying the skill and patience of archaeologists as they unearthed rare tomes beneath the layers of popular titles. The slightly musty smell and layers of dust only added to the experience of a serendipitous discovery of a literary gem that was off-beat, out-of-print or worth a fortune. The piles of books stacked on staircases and under tables seemed chaotic, but were perfectly ordered to those who worked there: mention a title and they could slowly walk to a random box and pluck it from the bottom.