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40 years ago, on the 11th and 12th of December 1980, I attended interviews at Balliol College, Oxford to study modern history. I took some photos. They’re in a scrapbook. I’d been keeping a diary for several years; this is what I recall.
My mother drove me down from Newcastle to Chipping Camden to stay with her long term boyfriend; my parents had separated and then divorced ten years earlier. According to my diary my maternal grandparents were with us too. The cottage in the Cotswalds was tiny.
The next day my Mum drove me into Oxford along the A34 and dropped me at the entrance to Balliol. I had a rucksack, an acoustic guiitar and a pair of skis. I felt like a traveller who had got lost.
I must have gone to the porter’s lodge, must have been given a key to a room. I can’t recall where it was – staircase 11 to 15, one they set aside for the conference season.
I had two interiews and may also have met my ‘pastoral tutor’. The first interview was on the subject I was hoping to study. We discussed Henry VII and then the Reformation. We’d not talked much at the RGS during class – it had been more a case of take notes, write the essay, learn stuff and make sure its in your head by the time of the written exam.
I had plenty of time between interviews; I do not recall coming across any other students at all.
I wandered over to the Sheldonian and Bodliean and took photographs with my Minolta. I must have eaten in hall. The next morning I want to the Ashmolean Museum opposite. Then I had a second interview. Once again there were two tutors. This was a general interview. I spoke about acting at schools and the People’s Theatre: the Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Dracula Spectacula!
I took myself down to the Station for the train into London. I made my way out to Brentford Docks where my father had his London flat then. This may have been my third time ever to London and the first time travelling alone. I stayed with Dad. Did we eat out in town? Did he introduce me to his girlfriend of that moment? His view of my song writing efforts were that there were ‘too many words’. I take it he didn’t like my singing, my voice, my playing … that’s Dad for you.
The next afternoon I took the train from Victoria to Folkestone and got the ferry across to Calais. I made friends with a girl my age and a young couple. The crossing was rough and this girl, Paula and I loved every moment of it, even when a vending machine broke loose and slid across the deck. I had her name, but no number. We were just young people pasing through.
Across Paris with my clobber by bus; skis and guitar. And the night train from Gar du Nord. Onwards to Bourg St Maurice, to Val d’Isere, the Hotel Sofitel and a job immersed amongst French ‘seasoniere’ where, in a Marks & Spencer grey suit I was the ‘day porter, English speaking, snow shovelling, breakfast delivering errand boy’.
University life at Balliol eventually began in October 1981. I was back last year. And ten years before that. I married the daughter of a former fellow of Balliol College – they had (and still have) a house in the Cotswolds. The A34 has been my attachment to my wife’s family for 30 years. It still feels as if more was done in three years at Oxford than in the thirty years since – there was no need to stop if you were in a hurry. Sleep felt like an indulgence.
Your perspective changes of course. And when you see someone you have not seen for ages and you look into their eyes you see they are unchanged despite the beard, the hair loss, their daughter on their arm …
A close friend from those days died a month ago. Life’s so short – embrace it.
Oxford Television News: May 1918 On YouTube
Fig.1. Julia Brooks, one of the presenters on this edition of OTN
Oxford Television News (OTN) presented by Julia Brooks and Su Wolowacz.
Fig. 2. Su Wolowacz presenting the Trinity Term (1983) edition of Oxford Television News
Items include voting in the Council Elections, warnings about a rapist in an alley behind St.Peter’s, OUSA education system and the abolition of the admissions exam (ratio of private to state sector was worse than 70% 30%), May Day Celebrations, the importance the CV from Mr Snow then head of OUCAS, a Student Union Committee meeting, reported Stephen Howard reviewing Andrew Sullivan’s term (Trinity) as the Oxford Union President, Balliol College Music Society 1500th Concert (interviewed those who attended). Then set to music clips fro the Oxford & Cambridge Ski trip to Wengen. Clips from Abigail’s Party, directed by Anthony Geffen. The Roaring Boys. Matthew Faulk and Alex Ogilvie acting out a scene from ‘The Labours of Hercules Sproat’ and finally Jonathan Vernon doing a mime.
Fig.3. Students interviewed on the local elections.
Fig. 4. Mr Snow of Oxford University Careers Service giving advice
Fig. 5 Stephen Hellwen reviews the Oxford Union Debating Society under the presidency of Andrew Sullivan
Fig. 6 Richard Davey, First Year History Student at Balliol College and other Balliol undergraduates interviewed about the 1500th Balliol Musical Society Concert that included a performance by Yehudi Menuhin.
An OTN Production
Fig.1. My whirlwind of postgraduate learning. (c) J F Vernon (2013)
For a brief period I have been a registered student at three universities: Oxford Brookes (FSLT14), the Open University (MAODE H818) and the University of Birmingham (MA First World War). This is what my mind needs to feel I am ‘in the flow’. Live TV does it too – behind the camera, anything can go wrong, or go right.
The first two online and the latter campus based. My motives for joining FLST14 were to push my learning towards education in Higher Education and applied learning in business – as a practitioner I’ve been making the transition from production and learning services to the education side for a good decade – seeking to be part of the learning process rather than creating resources at a distance. First Steps into Learning and Teaching 2014 (FSLT14) came along where I have had a brief window and for an opportunity to revisit, understand and apply this process of reflection it worked where previous efforts to crack this have failed. I’m also, in some respects, testing from a professional perspective different learning platforms and approaches.
I’ve done three MOOCs in as many years – some huge, one so closely managed it was like a formal MBA module. I’ve done and nearly completed a FutureLearn MOOC too (WebSciences) and enjoyed taking part in another FutureLearn MOOC on Hamlet (University of Birmingham) as an observer. I can see myself doing a couple of these a year: they replace an inclination of buying hefty, coffee-table non-fiction books on a thing in the belief that ownership alone will result in the transmission of knowledge from the page to my head. For the last decade I’ve applied the same principle to eBooks which hasn’t worked either. I need to be reading the things for a reason – increasingly this is because, voluntairly, I need to respond with a book review, intelligent intercourse in a seminar or in an essay that will be assessed and graded.
It is interesting to be back in class: lectures and reading lists with essays to write, but the comparison I make for FSLT14 is with other online modules.
Where, for me FSLT14 worked so well as that it clearly knows what it can and cannot deliver. It is a Bonsai tree, not the entire forest. It might even be a cherry-tree haphazardly trained along the back wall of the garage if I am to continue the metaphor. This is a blessing. More is definitely less.
I’ve been on modules that say it is 14 hours a week but it quickly becomes apparent that it is more like 22 hours – sometimes they excuse this by having ‘Optional’ activities, but these are ambitiously long, even indulgent reading lists set up us students to feel we may be failing or inadequate if we can’t or don’t take an interest in these. I am not a strategic learner; I expect those responsible for the learning design to do this. If you go to the trouble of putting a book or paper it is because you expect students to read it – rather than, what I feel the academic is doing – showing off how much they have read. Research shows that activities that are marked ‘optional’ are not done. I find, where I do these any effort lands on deaf ears – no one else could give a monkey’s … That said, I’ve also just completed an OU heavy-weight H818: The Networked Practitioner.
Here the commitment and presence of the Chair was palpable and of enormous value. As students it is encouraging to us to have those who designed a course to show maintain their presence.
On the one hand you have the course content, designed and posted online, on a railway track learning journey that is suitably detailed, but never overwhelming. You can battle on alone, or join in. With fellow students this is straight forward, it is simply a matter of sticking your head over the garden fence on a regular basis and returning the compliment of someone commenting or providing feedback to do the same to them … while being mindful as you become one of the experts to look after those who may feel on the edge of things. How, when and if the tutor is a presence depends on if they go by their contracted hours, or are indulgent enough as a vocational educator to be around. I feel a tutor should host their group. Over four years, and seven modules I’ve had seven tutors, of course, though seen and probably remarked on the actions, behaviours, strengths and weaknesses of at least another 14 tutors. Some what the French call ‘animateurs’ – they galvanise their group; others are withdrawn, very academic and correct – but brilliant in their own way. Others become, for want of a phrase ‘one of the lads’. I’m less certain that this works or is appropriate – not in primary, secondary or tertiary education. And so on. The worse are the ones who simply are not there. Who seem to have less idea what is going on than their students and as you’d expect a student who is struggling to do start to winge and make excuses. I’ve never had to do it so I ought to be more circumspect; I am sure that it can only be reasonable to expect tutors to work their contracted hours. My view of education and being an educator is more Socratic. I expect their presence.
With seven significant online postgraduate modules under my belt this is of course not the typical picture: some are heavily based on reading, others on activities with assessments patterns to suit. Mentioning the ‘traditional’ course I am doing, actually 1000 pages to read per week is clearly excessive isn’t it? You give up lie-ins and TV, and other hobbies … (By the way, I share regularly in the OU Student Blog platform thoughts and hopes with someone who has now completed 21 postgraduate modules with the Open University. I think this equates to four degrees!!)
Fig. 1. Muir Woods. One visit wasn’t enough. I spent three days in here.
I describe my inability to see the wood for the trees as I was too busy enjoying being a woodsman.
I could not stand back and reflect on what had taken place – not during the course, though perhaps a few months later. I return to this horticultural metaphor as I found with FSLT14 that I could fit it in, no more, no less. I could see it for what it was and admired its focus. During FSLT14 I feel I have become fluent in the language of education. It has been the tipping point, the moment, where like learning a new language you feel the fog has cleared.
This has been possible because of its modesty and humanity – there is an intimacy in the connectedness that I haven’t found elsewhere – perhaps in specialist interest groups in LinkedIn and Google+
Fig.2. Dr. Zbigiew Pelczynski taking his grandson for a walk
Our feedback session felt like an Oxbridge Tutorial; I’ve had the privilege of learning through that system as an undergraduate but took it for granted thinking that it was how all university’s could do things. There is significant value in a few people being able to talk around a topic and have enough time to take in what people were saying. And of course, the global reach of this is such a revealing way to consider your own position and practice. My insight on the Oxbridge tutorial system – I was an undergraduate thirty years ago, has been embellished by marriage to the daughter of a prominent Oxford tutor and personality, Dr Zbigniew Pelczynski. I interviewed him about the tutorial system and shared this online. Ever since I’ve pondered how Web 2.0 could be used to give tens of millions the Oxbridge tutorial experience – some institutions are doing this already. The Webscience MOOC I did, though hosted by two University of Southampton professors, was populated, on rotation I think, by four PhD students each week. This meant, as we have come to expect using communications platforms, that more often or not, a reply came to whatever you posted in a few hours, or sooner – rather than days later or not at all. As an online student you start to recognise the pattern a tutor has – never on a weekday, never at the weekend, only on a Tuesday. That’s their plan, but it feels like a gross misappropriation of powers they ought not to have … to effectively ignore you until they can be bothered. All should and could be receiving updated posts on an RSS feed.
Fig.3. Something I drew.
Setting out to become a ‘Master’ of anything at all – ‘Open and Distance Education’ has received my attention, though four years ago I was interviewed to take an MA in Fine Art.
True! It has taken this extra year, a couple of modules beyond graduating with the MA, to feel that I can describe myself as a ‘Master’. It’ll be another six years before I can, some theorists think, a ‘Scholar’. But I, like John Seely Brown, do not believe in this ‘10,000 hours’ thing – I’ve read the original research paper on musicians learning violin at the Berlin Conservatoire. Playing a musical instrument does not readily translate to anything else or everything else, especially where most violinists start at the age of 4. Which is when Picasso picked up a paint brush under the tutelage of his father, an art teacher from the local university. What were your learning at age 4 that you have developed into an expertise ten or twenty years later? Picasso, in his words, could paint like Rubens by the time he was 14. And we know about Mozart. There’s value in starting young and sticking with it: swimming anyone? Singing too.
Web 2.0 allows ‘learning at the speed of need’, to prefer learning over TV or the gym, over friends and relationships, walking the dog and the garden.
I have for the last five months been working on two MA degrees in parallel – not something I would have considered even three years ago. Not only do I think it is doable, I think, with the right course, you can contain it to the 14 hours a week each requires. The magic, the synergy, the insights that come from this greater intensity is, going back to it, what Oxford and Cambridge expect when they ‘hot house’ students through their short, eight week terms. And how many hours are they expected to put in? At the Oxford Internet institute I was advised that the MA students would be doing 44+ hours a week. Intensity works once you are up to speed. For this means getting myself into ‘the flow’ as Mihaly Csikzentmihayli puts it.
Fig.1. Enthralled at the Design Museum
Learning, memory and inspiration fascinate me. This exhibition sponsored by Sworovski intrigued me enough online to pay a visit. The online notes and video clips were enough to get me there – the actual experience drew me in. On their own these items that designers created on the theme of ‘digital memory’ may confuse and not draw you in – listen to the designer talk about their experience of dealing with the topic, their journey and inspiration and very quickly a kind of magic takes place – you are let in on their world, you see into their mind, their construction of this piece. Most work, that is something like 11/16 pieces. If I come away from a visit to a gallery or museum and find ONE thing to inspire me I am pleased. Here I felt, eventually, overwhelmed. Rather like the first time I stepped into the Bodleian Library – millions of minds just a fingertip touch away.
Never have I walked through a museum and series of exhibits before and criss-crossed back and forth recording everything. I came away with over 400 pics … all on the iPad. I expect to frame a picture on an A5 sized pad now. And it fits into a bag far more easily than an SLR camera.
I should now create a visual narrative, more Flickr, Tumblr, Instagram or Pinterest than this WordPress layout. No doubt I will in time migrate some of the pictures to all of these platforms where I have a presence as ‘my mind bursts’.
Even the shop deserved a photo journey – though I supposed what I am meant to do is buy stuff. Perhaps we should be able to download eBooks to whatever device we pull out as an alternative to the hard copy?
More, much more to follow
All images in Picasa so could link and share – or spread to my Google+ circles.
The word that tickles the back of my head is ‘augmented learning’.
Read cover to cover yesterday, into the evening and small hours. I’m now onto the second read, with various notes to add, references to pursue and further research to undertake.
Yet to be published, I’ll give detials in due course of how to get your hands on a copy.
Why read ‘A Life Remembered’ ?
It’s a fascinating life story from surving the Warsaw Uprising as a teenager to achieving as an Academic and educator in England, Scotland then at various leading universities around the world while pursing various interests and causes with passion and dogged determination. A life lesson? I think so.
From early 1982 to graduation in June 1984 I used a Sony Betamax kit to video undergraduate life at Oxford University.
The 18 tapes and some 40 hours of content I am digitizing includes:
- The Oxford Union Debating Society (featuring Hilali Noordeen) The day I was in the Union Chamber I was sitting next to Susanna White and Steve Garvey who were shooting a documentary about ‘Women in Oxford’.
- The Oxford Theatre Group at the Edinburgh Fringe (Featuring all the plays: 13 Clocks, The Hunger Artist, Edward II, Titus Alone directed by Patrick Harbinson, produced by Nicky King and the Oxford Review)
- I shot this over three weeks while helping out behind the scenes at St. Mary’s Street Hall (the OTG venue) and kipping in a Free Mason’s Lodge by the Castle. Nicky King and Matthew Faulk edited in my Balliol Room (now the Oxford Internet Institute) cum edit suite the following term.
- The Oxford Student Union elections.
- The Lightweights Boat Crew in training with David Foster et al (11th March 1983)
- Torpids (various)
- Romeo & Juliet (in which I played Mercutio and lost my pants during the fight scene)
- The Taming of the Shrew: an OUDS production (in which I played Baptista) And the rehearsals.
- Abigail’s Party (directed by Anthony Geffen)
- Various other plays and boat crews
- The May Day Celebrations 1982
- Training for the Oxford Students Union president
- Oxford Television News (Various episodes of OTN in which Hugo Dixon does a Jeremy Paxman and we are introduced to the Chicken Pal Society at the Gate of India + TCG, PWG and CJP) (9th May 1983)
- OTN. Visit of Prince Charles (18th May 1983) + ‘Exter guy in glasses’ or is this in fact a Jesus guy doing a ‘party political broadcast’.
- Oxford University Boxing
- A workshop on how to shoot video (10th February 1983)
- A corporate promotional film for the language school ‘Speakeasy’
- The Oxford & Cambridge Varsity Ski Trip to Wengen
- perhaps a play produced by Tessa Ross directed by Clive Brill
- perhaps Andrew Sullivan directed by Alex Ogilvie in ‘Another Country’
- and perhaps the Women’s Eight.
and various other antics around Balliol College and the university that will reveal themselves in the course of being downloaded, graded and digitized.
I believe my aim should be to use this as the foundation for a documentary.
I need to raise £2000 to digitize/archive this content and am therefore looking for backers.
P.S. It is six weeks since I was behind a camera. I may be about to shoot some swimmers for a swimming e-learning app but if you have anything immediate let me know.
The journey I set out on to get to Oxford or Cambridge took two years.
Not getting along with Economics I switched to History after a term in the Lower Sixth. (Not getting on with Sedbergh School, Cumbria, I left !)
My essays, though long (always, my habit, then, as now – why say something in six words when eighteen will do?) Tell Proust to write in sentences of less than six words, in paragraphs that don’t flow from one page to the next (ditto Henry Miller).
Where was I?
See how a stream of consciousness turns into a cascade?
My essays (I still have them. Sad. Very sad). Were on the whole terrible. A ‘C’ grade is typical, a ‘D’ not unknown. So what happened to get me to straight As, an Oxbridge exam and a place to study Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford?
I was bedding down. Putting things in a stack. And working my pile. Perhaps my history tutors detailed notes and bullet points fed on my poor essays? Perhaps the seeds that took root were carefully tendered?
Repeated testing (my self) and learning how to retain then regurgitate great long lists of pertinent facts helped.
Having an essay style I could visualise courtesy of my Geography Teacher helped. (Think of a flower with six or so petals. Each petal is a theme. The stamen is the essay title, the step the introduction and conclusion).
Writing essays over and over again helped. Eventually I got the idea.
Try doing this for an Assignment. You can’t. Yet this process, that took 24+ months to complete can be achieved over a few weeks. Perhaps a blank sheet of paper and exam conditions would be one way of treating it, instead I’ve coming to think of these as an ‘open book’ assessment. There is a deadline, and a time limit, though you’re going to get far longer than the 45 minutes per essay (or was it 23 minutes) while sitting an exam.
Personally, I have to get my head to the stage where I’ve done the e, d, c, and b grade stuff. When I’ve had a chance to sieve and grade and filter and shake … until, perhaps, I reach the stage where if called to do so I could sit this as an exam – or at least take it as a viva.
Not a convert to online learning as an exclusive platform though.
Passion for your tutor, your fellow students … as well as the subject, is better catered for in the flesh.
The way ahead is for ‘traditional’ universities to buy big time into blended learning, double their intake and have a single year group rotating in and out during a SIX term year (three on campus, three on holiday or working online.)
P.S. Did I mention teachers?
Have a very good teacher, it helps. The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle where I transferred to take A’ Levels delivers.