Back to college 2

Why do you go back to college? To explore a new career – what’s the matter with the old one? To make sense of what’s going on? Masochistic pleasure maybe? All of these things. In the September before going to Nepal, I enrolled for a part-time masters in behavioural science, an amalgam of sociology and social psychology. The final bit, eighteen months later, was a dissertation on retirement.

My application went in a week before the course was due to start. Didn’t faze the course leader at all. Was it the pounds, shillings and pence?

‘I don’t doubt you can complete the assignments, but you might struggle with the language and some of the ideas.’

You can say that again.

We met in the old Technical College building, which dates from 1883. All wood panels and civic pride at the front, austere and serviceable in the back. Nine or so started, flotsam like me really: nurses, philosophy student, lecturer, voluntary worker, graduates who couldn’t get jobs and then did. Greek, Irish, W. African, Cockney and West Riding. The staff were the same. The only difference between us and them was they stood at the front and looked tired.

It’s weird, but why do I get the feeling that half the battle with courses is managing tutors and supervisors, stroking their egos, as well as learning a load of new stuff, getting assignments in on time and all the other hurdles that they put in front of you?

Then there’s the written feedback on assignments, read alone back at home:

50% –  all that work and that’s the mark, what a pain in the arse. What do you have to do to get more? It’s never talked about. Last time it was, we got the facile answer – a beginning a middle and an end. Do they really care? What does a good piece of work look like? Can we have some guidance please?

Interestingthey always say that, just before kicking you in the knackers, here we go.

Some additional detail would have helpedtold you.

The basis for certain earlier statements only emerges laterwell perhaps.

Good to connect it with life experiencesthere was something good about it then?

You need to be clear why these directions were chosen and why other perspectives were discardedhow could I include all that?  Its 3000 words you know, not a mucking PhD. thesis.

You have ignored deficit theoriesI bloody knew it, hobbie horses coming out.  How are we expected to know that, bloody deficit, I’m not a bloody mind reader.

Summary – you set yourself a difficult task in this essay. The analyses are interesting and relevant, but the essay would have greater impact if you had concentrated on one. The essay pulls in three different directions, and each of the directions is not explored as thoroughly as it might bebut can’t you see, I care about this. I’ve bled onto this paper, late nights, worried about completing, doing my best, getting everything in. You can’t leave things out that are central to how I feel about this – it wouldn’t do it justice. You don’t understand, this is more than an intellectual exercise. How do you assess passion?  How do you measure joy? What are the units of depression and misery? Don’t suppose you know – cold fish.

They don’t know what to put sometimes – just dream it up. Hundreds of essays to mark, never as good as they would do it. Who wants to be a mucking psychologist anyway? But it’s me all over. I don’t select enough, always in the clouds, dreaming away, never on the ground, following the rules. That’s all they are, local rules to get by, you just need to learn them, fool the bastards. And then do something which stands out, from the rest of the woffal that they have to read day in and day out. It’s a skill.

Do you know she’s got a great pair of legs, and she knows it. They go all the way up, super.

I volunteered to present on retirement in one of the seminars. No big deal, but you still have to get organised and do some slides. There were half a dozen regular attenders in the class, and they don’t want you to fail. The tutor sidled over to me as I was leaving,

‘Good piece of work, well done.’

He then went and marked me down on the assignment. I didn’t quite fathom that.  So, after the next assignments, I decided to get the feedback from the horse’s mouth and arranged to see two of the tutors in turn. The first thought it was a good effort but my arguments were opaque. They needed broader relevant literature and I had to outline more sharply the basis of the critique. So crap really, was that what he was saying? The second tutor was more succint,

‘I thought you were a high flyer.’

Shit, must’ve been bad.

The research wasn’t much better – on early retirement and I floundered. Six months to do a major piece of work.

January – the course leader didn’t think a lot of the proposal:  additional detail and clarity would help; research question needs to be more explicit; other research designs could have been chosen; you need to show how your choices were made.  Ooops.

I got the short straw when they allocated dissertation supervisors – the flying instructor. I guess he didn’t want me either. I had to be a mind reader,

‘This is where I am at the moment. These questions seem important.’

‘Mmm . . . ,’ frowning and looking out of the window. What am I doing wrong here?

‘Here’s my final twenty questions for the interviews.’

‘Yes.’ Gosh, he smiled and nodded, enthusiasm maybe or has he simply got wind. I must be onto something.

‘Writing a journal is a good idea. The things that went well and not so well. If there’s a problem with the results, the external assessor can see the process was thought through enough to give it a pass.’

Oh, cheers. An insurance policy. Already its rubbish. I’d experience of writing something similar in the past, unread since – it simply got me through the course.  What will I get out of this? Well, I might have a heart attack or die in an avalanche, in which case there will be evidence of my valiant failure.

‘You’ll need a plan, and when to complete the steps.’

More work. These guys don’t live on this planet. I do have a life and it’s not filling in an organiser or a computer diary. You can spend more time organising than actually doing.

February – I go away and beever for a month on the literature, slowly getting nowhere –  management and business studies, management development, social psychology and sociology. Do I invent it now or make it up after the study? What are the standards? Either I cannot manage them so no worries or I haven’t been informed of them yet. But I’ll get some sort of star or a turnip when I score or miss.

‘Let’s see your plan and where you are now. Mmm . . . you need to get interviewing.  Have you started writing? Well, you need to. When I did my PhD . . . ’  So this is really all about him isn’t it?

‘ . . . I had to resubmit. I didn’t leave enough time to complete and I’d no supporting evidence to show what I’d done.’

Ah, sorry, I’ll get on with it.

‘Retirement is not my field, have you seen so and so?’ Terrific they’ve given me a real turkey.

Whatever the course leader thought, my good idea was to research mid-life career change in local choirs. There was the one I sang in, conducted by Len Williams and there was the ladies choir, conducted by his wife, Katherine. We’re mostly over fifty and we’re all singers, so not totally addicted to work. I needed to chat them all up, get a short questionnaire going and then select so many from each. It was nerve-wracking, especially standing up in front of all those ladies. Everybody said yes – great.

Forgot to use a long tape in the first pilot interview. Only got half a story. The earlier questions could be modified, see how the next one goes. Think about your interviewee, he or she is trying to help. Don’t forget to write some personal notes after. Keep an eye on the time. Goodness this going to be hard work.

Typing all the interviews will take me too long – I need help. I ring my former secretary,

‘Jill will you? You will?  Oh good.’ The tapes are the wrong size for her machine at work, too small. Mine’s micro and her’s is mini. But James sold me the whole system at a special rate. What was he thinking of?

‘Here take the kit home with you – see how you get on.’

The next two interviews were with ladies, shorter than expected, work not the most important aspect of their lives. Had I taken enough time for them to feel they’d helped?

Finished the pilot interviews. Everything seems to work: the tape recorder, the questions, me. The first schedule of questions was too long and involved – I actually got lost in it once. Shortened the whole thing now.  Remember, write down time and place on the interview paperwork as well as the diary otherwise you won’t know what you are doing.

The interviewees keep you on course,

‘I was thrown a bit by the first question – no one has an idea what they are going to do at 15.’ Don’t change it, ask it differently.

‘I don’t think the way you are doing this will allow you to compare us all.’

I was being too conversational, too involved, insufficiently distant. I need to be much tighter – like the questions, keep it direct and simple. I need to be two steps back.

‘Do you understand?’

Oh, no, am I too distant? Give us a break.

‘I had a lot of people under me. They respected me. I think they did. It’s a danger to analyse yourself.’

‘You felt valued?’

‘Yes.’ Got that right anyway. Get it all down in the journal.

So this is what my supervisor has been hinting at – an average project, compensated for by a confessional of how it all went pear-shaped.

March – two weeks into the interviews proper and they’re going really well.   Arranging them can be a pain. No one’s in during the week – Sunday lunch times are best. I’m on for four interviews this week, it needs stepping up.

How embarrassing, I’ve rung that number once already. No one told me half of Len’s choir are shacked up with half of Katherine’s. I had batteries run out on me this week.  Good job I had read the manual and kept some spares.

‘You don’t give anything away.’

I’m only doing my job. Wouldn’t get what I wanted if I told you the answers. Hang on, maybe I do need to give them my answers, when the interview is over maybe.

‘Did I give something away?’

‘Er, yes.’ Done something right then.

‘I knew it would end up counselling.’ Was that good or bad?

‘You’re probably right.’ Eh, I haven’t said anything or expressed an opinion. Don’t blame me mate. Something she said has finished up as my idea. Oh, well so be it.

‘How would you have answered the questions?’ You can’t refuse?

‘I’ve never thought about it before.’

‘I’ve never thought about it in that way or that order.’

‘Its crystallised something for me.’

‘It felt good.’


‘I’ll have to think about this after you’ve gone.’

‘I hope you have got what you want. I wasn’t expecting that sort of interview.  I thought it would be more about change in technology and computers.’

‘I wonder sometimes or I hope I have made a difference.’

‘Sounds a bit boring.’ Was it my dead pan expression or had my attention wandered a bit? Is it me or is it them?

I begin to realise my question schedule is a life review – they are going over decisions and events from twenty and thirty years ago and assessing how things had gone.  Mostly well thankfully. Apart from two where it got a bit personal, but even they got something out of it –  a chance to talk maybe.

My last question was, ‘Could you achieve your dreams differently?’ A silent two or three minutes usually followed. It’s all about the time they have left.

So it may be good for them, but is it going to give me what I want? Stick to the skills and the results will look after themselves, I wish.

Take the new tapes in and collect the transcripts. Bollocks, the machine is broken, fell off the kitchen table.

‘Sorry, take the cost of the repair off my bill.’

I take it back to James – twenty quid’s worth.

May – another tutorial. I must make it on time or else he buggers off after five minutes. Got the wrong key last time, scratching around the basement for ages.  Rooms all booked up, tutors with too much to do. Smiles and grunts. Seems pleased that there is something to write about and the project is on course.

‘The generational theme is interesting – all born in the late fifties or early sixties, mmm . . shared influences, similar approaches to various issues, perceptions of old age. I remember . . .  ‘

He’s off on one again. If retirement isn’t his theme, then I suppose he will struggle to find something to say,

‘Well yes, that’s useful. I’ll read up something along those lines.’

I have twenty-one interviews now including pilots and a fortnight or so to stay on the plan. He says to press on and complete, and analyse what we have, but really – it’s a bank holiday.

Let the choirs know how its going. Am I going to do a proper presentation, at the end of it all – with a pie and pea supper?

Right, got all my interviews. The final ones were a bit short. Got used to the whole thing, focus on what I wanted, tired, not sure its all going to work out.

Thanks Jill. I’ve checked round a few of the secretaries, no one seems to know the right amount. She looks a little crestfallen at the cheque – she obviously expected more – shit.

June – gee I’m full of this stuff, paper and more paper, trying to make sense, cutting and pasting, confused. 101 ways of organising the data – who is to say which is the right one? There’s something here – a good chunk seem to be shocked and surprised by it all. Major turning point in men and a couple of the women – work meant everything. Still glad how things turned out. Others rubbed along – nothing major befell them. Wonder if it could have been different. Nobody planned anything – just happened. People you meet are important – teachers, work mates, bosses.

July – I think I’m getting somewhere, enought to write it up. Life is about telling stories – thank goodness there is someting between what I’ve done and the masses of literature. Need now to get on with writing. Interesting, at last something that makes sense. They didn’t tell me you learn it all as you go along.

My supervisor goes away – holiday, research sabbatical, whatever. Great planning thanks. He’s embarrassed.

‘Don’t worry about it. You’ve got  me this far. The journal and the plan were really important and good ideas.’

It’s all on to write up.

‘Eric have a look at the first draft will you?’

‘I don’t understand all this management stuff, but the empiric stuff is OK. Do you really want to write in the first person?”

Knickers I’ll have to change it all back to that impersonal turgid academic style I suppose. Won’t take long.

The printer’s on the blink, need more ink – is this a conspiracy to stop me submitting on time?

August – it’s in on time. Six months. Phew, what a sweat, more like a marathon – stamina’s what’s needed, not brains.

Its a pass. 65% – not bad really. ‘A great deal of thought and effort. Interpretive depth quite dense. Needs more introductory overview; interestingly written. Conclusion too short. Good reflection and self critique – I liked the assessment of what you had learnt.’ So the journal really came into its own – thankyou supervisor. It’s never going to be good enough for them let’s face it.

You need to get it bound says the course leader, here’s an address. A smashing little man who writes books on alternative long distance paths – you never see them on the shelves.

I bump into my supervisor,

‘Well done. Got something in the end then?’

‘Yes, thanks for your help.’

I’ve always published my previous work, ‘How about it?’ I use the chance meeting as an opportunity.

‘Its not my field, I’ll have a word with so-and-so.’ Nothing happens, he doesn’t answer my e-mails – obviously thinks its all crap. Bet he was surprised I got through. It’s never what’s said is it?

September – We all go to the graduation. I’m second on and Sheila nearly misses it.  All those twirps with funny hats on – still there can’t be many days they can have some fun.

We meet the course leader for red wine. After this, they’ll all be going for a slap up meal in the catering department. We’re going for a pub lunch.

She’s wearing her PhD gown and plucks it with her finger and thumb.

‘Don’t you fancy one of these David?’

Well someone must have thought it was OK then if she thinks I could do a PhD.

Formal session with the two choirs. Pie and peas twenty five times and only six turned up. Still I’d finished where I’d started and said thankyou – important.

And I’d learned quite a lot. How to write essays again. New information that made some sense. Not taking the feedback personally. Keep your bosses and tutors happy – they don’t want problems. Finish properly. There’s loads of guys just like you out there.

Going back to college.

  • 1989 Yorkshire region management development
  • 1990 Ashridge
  • Ashridge survivors
  • 1991-92 Cert. counselling skills
  • 1992-93 Cert. consulting skills
  • 1995-97 G. Dip. Couns     Maggie F.
  • 1997-99 MSc
  • 1999-2000 Computing
  • 2000-2002 English Studies
  • creative writing evening classes
  • creative writing Sheffiedl Hallam

Not written a proper essay since 6th form.

New information, difficulty with building on existing knowledge.

Not clearly understanding what was required – tutors not clear themselves sometimes.

Getting used to negative feedback in an ostensibly supportive environment.

Being stretched.

Making some sort of sense.



Make sense through learning and logic initially, patterns etc.


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