Educating Janet

Janet Bick was getting on for 50 when she decided to go to university; but she has learnt that age is no barrier to learning. Here she records the excitement of those first months as a mature student
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The Independent Online
My diary entry for 7 January 1998 reads: "Have been reading the prospectus again; looks interesting. I wonder if part-time study is a possibility? Probably not, and I doubt I'd be accepted anyway." An optimistic approach to life clearly stood me in good stead, for here I am, nearly 18 months later, a part-time student studying for a BA in English studies. I have passed two modules, am working on two more and I love it! There have been many sticky moments and some serious weakening in the determination department, but on the whole I take the Magnus Magnusson approach - I've started so I'll finish.

Why have I embarked on higher education at approaching 50? My children had both married the previous summer, my husband decided to embark on a postgraduate course. It was time I did something for me, and if it involved studying then I would be less likely to distract my husband from his studies.

My tentative telephone enquiry to the university was not greeted with hysterical laughter, as I had imagined, but with encouraging information and the suggestion that I would quite probably fulfil the entry requirements. The application form, clearly designed with the school leaver in mind, appeared daunting but was eventually completed. I was unsure of which English course to choose, but decided to ask for advice at interview. Who should I ask to act as referee? My headmistress was long since out of reach, and I was unsure that I wanted to go public on this embryo idea just yet. The people I eventually plucked up courage to ask were not only willing but also positively encouraging. I'd cleared the first hurdle.

Weeks passed, but eventually I heard I had been accepted. Information about the course was rather sparse at this stage. I was keen to get hold of a reading list to begin some preparation and spread the cost of book- buying. When I enquired I was told that this information would be sent later; they felt students would be glad of the break after A-levels. There have been other examples of this approach which is unhelpful to mature students, especially those studying part-time.

As induction week approached I became increasingly anxious. I had not been interviewed, so my questions remained unanswered. The early days were confused, administration uncomfortably hit and miss, but once term proper began I felt the stirrings of the excitement that still washes over me. My 1960s grammar school education had not prepared me for a teaching style which both acknowledged and encouraged diversity of opinion. I found it refreshing and stimulating that the lecturers took differing stances from one another and expected students to have their own thoughts and opinions. Sarcasm is seemingly not an obligatory teaching tool here!

The set texts were all new to me, and there was a real sense of awakening as the lectures provoked new approaches to what I was reading. The seminars, which I approached with considerable trepidation, were amazingly varied and enjoyable. After a very short space of time I found that my major concern about them was that I may be speaking too often. I found the silences uncomfortable, echoes perhaps of my own experience of teaching in small groups, when I feared that the silent majority were implying abject boredom! I vowed to myself that this time I would say nothing, but began to wonder if the tutor might soon start checking for pulses. Once a few of us had spoken others generally joined in.

Another of my concerns had been that there would be a sense of separate camps between the young students and the matures. This has not been the case at all, and there is always a friendly greeting when we pass on campus. I am amused at their awe when told that I am studying part-time around a five and a half day week. My attendance is only two or three hours a week less than theirs, but their approach to time management is somewhat different. After a 9am lecture when I am dashing back to work they are creeping back to bed! Perhaps there were advantages to the sense of fear instilled by my 1960s education, as all my work has been given in on time. I have to admit to some amusement at the variety of excuses they offer and their innocent belief that the tutors are taken in!

The most difficult aspect of the first semester was the lack of feedback. When asked by friends how I was getting on I could only respond that I had no idea. I knew how I felt, that I was enjoying it, but it felt increasingly oppressive not to know if the work I was producing was what was required. However the pleasure of receiving good marks when work was returned was worth the wait. I have also read books which had been on the list of those I would definitely read ... sometime, but probably not if I were not doing the course.

My elective subject, cultural studies, has given me a particular buzz. When I looked at the handbook in week one it contained so many words and ideas that were completely new it might as well have been written in Greek. Six months later as I find I can achieve marks as good as or better than the young students I am convinced there is life in the old dog yet.

Adult Learners Week starts next Monday

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