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I keep getting phonecalls from my family asking if I am okay now that I have started my PhD and am I really ready to go back. I think ‘what on earth are they on about?’ But then they tell me that, the last time they knew anything about my PhD status is via my blog posts and the last few have been a bit grim, oh my!

A few weeks ago I had to attend a session with the student support team. In the room there was a proper professional psychiatrist with an NHS lanyard! This made me a bit worried because I didn’t think I had a proper serious condition that needed a psychiatrist and I suddenly felt stigma like that Goffman fella went on about. However, they were very impressed and satisfied with all that I had achieved to prepare myself for my return. The psychiatrist said that sometimes they have students coming to the ‘back to work’ meeting who say they want to come back, but have not actually done any work to reflect on what their issues were or make sure they have support in place to stop their stress or anxiety or whatever ruining their experience again.

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Shake it all about: Signs in the student wellbeing offices

I was really happy that all that I had done was the right thing and celebrated my official stamp of approval to return with a suitably branded new rucksack so that I feel like a proper legitimate member of the UCL IOE community. Also, it is a great bag because I can fit two, yes two, flasks in for coffee and another one for homemade soup for my London days:

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Cheeky Thermos says: ‘Happy to help!’

So what did I do to ‘recover’? Well I am not sure exactly. Mainly I suppose it is just taking time out to reflect, listen to other people’s advice(thanks everyone!) and just be more open and honest about one’s feelings. I did have counselling for 7 weeks leading up to the interruption, so I just continued building on that. I now see the PhD as a task. And I can do this task. Just like I am amazing at tasks such as tidying, cleaning, organising my haversack and creating magnificent art sculptures for my new clean and tidy study (see photo below).

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Before: What the…?!

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After: Wonderful! (no, it does not look like ‘The Ring’)

This probably isn’t handy advice for other PhD students struggling as not everyone is as amazing at cleaning and organising or art like I am (see how my self-hatred has turned into the opposite! Oh dear, have I developed a disorder to whatever that turnip Donald Trump has). But you must be pretty amazing at something – just try and apply that skill to the PhD.

I would also recommend also reading this book: Your PhD Coach. It has some handy exercises.

 

 

 

 

 

Additionally, my university has an online and telephone counselling service, so I feel like there is support there if I need it and that is comforting. I almost messaged them last week (my first week back) because I was in procrastination to the max mode. But I have decided to wait a bit because it is only week 2 and this is probably just the normal settling in process. I have a new temporary part time admin job (for Luton International Carnival) and need to settle into that, plus I need to get back into the swing of things in general.

So that’s all okay. I am not scared or embarrassed to admit I need help nor to ask for it. In fact I am quite intrigued to see how the online counselling session works. Can I just message them and say ‘help! I can’t stop cleaning my toilet’ when I have a procrastination attack? I’ll let you know.

Finally I have support of my writing chums and a Saturday study buddy. At least once a month I’ll join in our ‘Shut up and Write’ marathons which are 4 days of intense writing. I have booked them all in my diary and will use them to structure the rest of the month.

I think the key really is focus, a bit of planning, a tidy organised workspace and working on one’s self-confidence. Instead of spending a day or two recovering from when my demons attack me, now if they come, I just bat them away and it might only take 5 minutes or sometimes an hour, to recover from the negative thinking. I am still quite bad at procrastination and really need to work on that. However, right now my toilet is filthy and I don’t have an urge to clean it. Now that’s pretty good progress.

In 1996 I was a school girl studying for my GCSEs. My older sister who was two years older had left school with below a C grade in Maths. She had to retake at sixth-form college but ended up with a lower grade than her first attempt and on her final retake scored ‘Ungraded’. The reason for this decline in motivation and increased boredom I witnessed with each retake was a bit of a worry for me as I didn’t want to go through this.

So I set myself up a little revision room in the watertank cupboard at home (it was the only ‘spare room’ we had). I had a desk, a chair, a radio/cassette player and made a detailed colour coded GCSE revision timetable. As you tend to do about 10 GCSE exams at the same time I had to prioritise time spent on subjects. So maths got top priority, marked in yellow. I worked hard revising for a couple of months and despite the watertank being hot and noisy, especially at bath times, my revision schedule worked a treat and I got a C!

Now that I have elected to do Advanced Quantitative Methods as part of my PhD I have to revisit some GCSE maths as I feel that I have lept right into a whole advanced world before I have mastered the basics. This became very obvious to me last week when in our statistics class, the lecturer said ‘now here is a quick recap on logit which you would have done at school’. There is NO WAY I did this at school.   This logit business is just for the people in the advanced sets who used scientific calculators and not something we lower sets would have been burdened with. But the fact that the lecturer assumed that we had all done this before made me realise that it must be quite unusual for someone from the lower sets to even think about trying out Advanced Quantitative Methods in their future lives.

However, I am a firm believer that your GCSE grades don’t really reflect much – they reflect how good your teacher was, whether or not an annoying boy pulled at your hair all lesson, as well as how much you revised in the watertank cupboard in the summer of 1996, but they don’t reflect current and future potential to learn.

So in the spirit of my PhD topic which is about lifelong learning, I would say do not let your past experiences of school maths stop you from learning now – start off by using the marvellous online tutorials which of course did not exist back in 1996, such as the Khan Academy (especially the algebra stuff which is essential for regression statistics). And if you quite liked the old maths book you used in the past, you might be lucky to find it in the IOE library which has a collection of ‘retro’ GCSE textbooks. I found my old watertank cupboard friends:

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Retro maths books: Let’s convert those francs to pounds!

(c) 2014 Annika Coughlin

Today, Professor Stuart Hall died at the age of 82. Many obituaries have been written but I wanted to write about what he meant to me.

I am not an expert on his work by any means. My awareness of Stuart Hall is mainly through my father who used the course materials prepared by him when he was doing a foundation course in Social Sciences with the Open University in the 1980s – when I was a child.

This was a time when there was mass unemployment, strikes and riots. Margaret Thatcher was in power and in my household she was a massive hate figure. We grew up on benefits but this doesn’t mean you are a lazy scrounger like the modern media likes to suggest, rather, my father decided to get educated. In those days I think people on benefits could get their fees for the OU paid by the government, so he did a few modules in Social Science. Stuart Hall was the course leader of the D102 unit, Conformity, Consensus and Conflict, and wrote the unit handbook. He wrote in a very accessible, respectful and friendly way. In this unit he explained the concept of ideology and why the working classes voted for Thatcher. There is a lot in there about striking and industrial relations and a critique of the concept of ‘false class consciousness’. Of course I couldn’t really read them then – being a child and all (although they are also illustrated with photos and drawings), but my dad who used to go off on one about Thatcher quite regularly, was now able to underpin his rants with sociological theory and deeper understandings of ideology, power and British society in the 1980s.

These course books were so excellent that we didn’t throw them away. Rather I even referred to them when I was doing my Sociology degree and MA years later. When my dad died in 2005 and we had a big tidy up, we eventually did get rid of the course books, but I kept this one as well as the core text that goes with it.

D102 coursebooks

D102 coursebooks

The passing of Stuart Hall is sad in itself, but for me, it is tangled up with the sadness of my father’s death. I see our handwritten notes side by side in the OU text and I feel a connection between the three of us through these course books. I am now doing a PhD in sociology about lifelong learning and higher education. This OU text really symbolises to me the importance of education for working class and unemployed people and their children.

I thank Stuart Hall for helping us to understand more about the society in which we live through his magnificent gift of writing, speaking and teaching.

 

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(c) 2014 Annika Coughlin

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