Back to college

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, Arthur 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.

The 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.

The course members 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 Arthur: 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 the students and them was they stood at the front and looked tired.

Its weird, but Arthur got 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? Its 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?

Interesting – they always say that, just before kicking you in the knackers, here we go.

Some additional detail would have helped – told you.

The basis for certain earlier statements only emerges later – well perhaps. Good to connect it with life experiences – there was something good about it then?

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

You have ignored deficit theories – I 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 be – but 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 Arthur knew it was accurate enough. he didn’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. Its a skill.

One of the course tutor had a great pair of legs, and she knew it. They went all the way up, super.

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

‘Good piece of work, well done.’

He then went and marked the assignment down. Arthur didn’t quite fathom that. So, after the next assignments, he 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 the arguments were opaque. They needed broader relevant literature and the basis of the critique had to be outlined more sharply. 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. And he’d said it in front of another tutor. Humiliation or what?

The research wasn’t much better – on early retirement and Arthur 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.

Arthur got the short straw when they allocated dissertation supervisors – the flying instructor. Arthur guessed he didn’t want him either. Arthur 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. Arthur thought he 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. Arthur’d experience of writing something similar in the past, unread since – simply got him through the course. What will he 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. Arthur was irritated, I do have a life and its not filling in an organiser or a computer diary. You can spend more time organising than actually doing.

February – Arthur went away and beevered 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? he thought. What are the standards? Either he couldn’t manage them so no worries or he hadn’t been informed of them yet. He chuckled to himself, 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, good point 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, Arthur’s good idea was to research mid-life career change in local choirs. The singers were mostly over fifty and not totally addicted to work. He 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. Arthur made a note to ring his former secretary.

‘Mrs Ward will you? You will? Oh good.’ The tapes were the wrong size for her machine at work, too small. Arthur’s is a micro and her’s is mini. But James sold him the whole system at a special rate. What was he thinking of? James always prided himself as a salesman and Arthur could see why.

‘Here take my 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.

Finished the pilot interviews. Everything seemed to work: the tape recorder, the questions, him. The first schedule of questions was too long and involved – Arthur had actually got lost in it once. Shortened the whole thing. Remember to write down time and place on the interview paperwork as well as the diary otherwise.

The interviewees kept him 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.’ Too conversational, too involved, insufficiently distant. Needed to be much tighter – like the questions, keep it direct and simple.

‘Do you understand?’ Oh, no, he’d got too distant?

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

‘You felt valued?’

‘Yes.’ Got that right anyway.

So this is what Arthur’s supervisor had 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 going really well. Arranging them was a pain. No one’s in during the week – Sunday lunch times were best. Four interviews this week, it needs stepping up.

How embarrassing, Arthur’d already rung that numbe. No one told me half of Male Voice choir were shacked up with half of the Ladies choir. Arthur’s batteries had run out this week. Good job he’d read the manual and kept some spares.

‘You don’t give anything away.’

Arthur was only doing his job. Wouldn’t get what he wanted if he told you the answers. Hang on, maybe he did need to give them his answers, when the interview was 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?

Arthur eventually realised the question schedule was a life review – they were 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 said they’d got something out of it.

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

So it may be good for them, but was it going to give Arthur what he needed? Stick to the skills and the results will look after themselves, he wished.

Arthur took in some new tapes in and collected the transcripts. Bollocks, the machine wa broken, fell off the kitchen table.

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

Arthur took it back to James – twenty quid’s worth.

May – another tutorial. Arthur 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. Seemed pleased that there was something to write about and the project was 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 went off on one again. If retirement wasn’t his theme, then he will struggle to find something to say,

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

Arthur had twenty-one interviews including pilots and a fortnight or so to stay on the plan. The tutor said to press on and complete, and analyse what we have, but really – its a bank holiday.

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

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

Thanks Mrs Ward. He’d checked round a few of the secretaries, no one knew the right amount. She looked crestfallen at the cheque – she’d obviously expected more – shit.

June – Gee he was 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 – Arthur thought he was getting somewhere, enought to write up. Life was about telling stories – thank goodness there was a connection between what he’d done and the masses of literature. Need to get on with writing. At last something made sense. They didn’t tell him you learn it all as you go along.

Arthur’s supervisor went away – holiday, research sabbatical, whatever. Great planning thanks. He was embarrassed.

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

It was all on to write up.

‘Larkin, please 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 he’ll have to change it all back to the impersonal turgid academic style.

The printer was on the blink, need more ink – this was a conspiracy to stop him submitting on time?

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

It was 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 was never going to be good enough for them.

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

Arthur bumped into his supervisor,

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

‘Yes, thanks for your help.’

Arthur had always published his previous work, ‘How about it?’ a chance meeting as an opportunity.

‘Its not my field, I’ll have a word with so-and-so.’

Nothing happens, he didn’t answer Arthur’s e-mails – obviously thought it was all crap. Bet he was surprised Arthur got through. Its never what’s said .

September – everyone went to graduation. Arthur was second on stage and Jane nearly missed it. All those twirps with funny hats on – still there can’t be many days they can have some fun.

We met the course leader for red wine. After this, they’ll all went for a slap up meal in the catering department. Arthur and Jane were going for a pub lunch.

She’s wore her PhD gown and plucked it with her finger and thumb.

‘Don’t you fancy one of these Arthur?’

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

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

And 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.