Sunday, 31 March 2013

Old is good

Insert your favourite wine/aging metaphor here
Last week I wrote about how old I sometimes feel being around all those young students.  But being (or feeling) old isn't necessarily a bad thing.  In fact, it often offers a distinct advantage.

For a start, age means more life experience.  I've done more than my fellow students, seen more, read more, talked to more people from a wider range of backgrounds - and all that adds up to knowing more about the world.  Which, in the Arts at least, is a big advantage.  I've been to other countries, worked in different industries, I've even been around for some of the stuff they've only heard about from their History papers.  Experience is gold.

I also know a lot more about myself.  Through long experience I've learnt how I learn best.  I know which studying techniques work for me and which don't.  I know what time of day I'm most productive, and when I'm better doing something non-academic.  I know what proportion of study to relaxation prepares me best for an exam.  And I know how much lead time to give myself for projects.  Those are all things I certainly didn't have figured out at 18 (my grades from back then are evidence of that!).  It's taken years of learning about myself and how I respond to many different working and learning environments to find out what makes my brain tick.  So now I can make the best possible use of the time I've got available for study.

And talking of time available for study, I'm a lot more in control of my own time than I was at 18.  The 40-something year old me doesn't have to go to parties just because all my friends are going - not only am I adult enough to know when study needs to take priority over fun, but my friends are adult enough to know why I'm making that choice.  The 40-something year old me also doesn't feel the need to stay out all night drinking when I do go out (actually, I didn't do that when I was 18 either - I was much too boringly goody-good.  But the peer pressure to do so was certainly there).  Yes, I do have work to go to, and a mortgage to pay, but I've had a lot of practice at doing those things, so they're not a huge burden.  And on the plus side, those things give me a comfortable home to live in, instead of freezing in a dingy student flat.  Life is definitely easier now than it was back then.

And of course the other big advantage of being older is that I'm in the same age group as most of my lecturers.  Which means I'm way less intimidated by them than I was at 18.  So I'm much more comfortable about speaking up in class, about going to office hours to ask for help, and generally about making the most of my opportunities.

So, mature students, celebrate your age and the advantages it give you.  You may never be 18 again, but really, who'd want to be?

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Feeling old

A dusty old troll
Some days "mature student" feels very much like "old".  Like on Friday.  I was sitting outside in the sun eating my lunch, and listening to a group of students nearby having one of those debates that seem so deep and meaningful when you're 19, when you think you're coming up with ideas and arguments that nobody else has ever thought of.  And listening to them argue, all I could think was that I'd taken part in almost exactly the same discussion myself when I was their age - and it solved nothing then, either. 

That's the danger of spending so much time around students.  It's very easy to end up feeling old and jaded. Sometimes I catch myself on the verge of going into crotchety old woman mode, about to start the "you youngsters have it so easy" speech when I hear a particularly naive comment.

Like the time in a sociolinguistics class a few years back when we were discussing sexist language, and one of the young female students said she didn't see what the big deal was, because men and women are equal now, aren't they?  My 1980s feminist blood boiled, but I managed to restrain myself from a full-blown rant (well, mostly ;-) ).  It actually turned into an interesting class, with the tutor (who was about my age) and I sharing examples of sexism we'd experienced, but it made me feel so old knowing that so much of what we talked about happened in a time before my classmates were even born.

But being a mature student doesn't have to make you feel old.  There are plenty of times when being around so many young people makes me feel just as young as them.  Their enthusiasm and freshness can be infectious, and their readiness to grasp new ideas inspiring.  It can even be fun sometimes to re-enter those age-old debates about politics, religion, sex, and the meaning of life, and be once again among people who honestly believe their ideas could change the world.  Who knows, maybe they can...

Does being around students make you feel old, or young? Any tips for keeping yourself feeling young? Let us know in the comments.

Monday, 18 March 2013


Autumn, when a mature student's thoughts turn to learning
I've been feeling a bit down about having had to drop out for the year.  A lot of it is because there's been a very distinguished academic visiting the linguistics department this month, and I was invited (by the lecturer from the course I took last year, who has been hosting him) to sit in on the guest lectures he gave to this year's honours class.  The discussion in that class, and being able to talk linguistics with someone of that calibre, was so exciting that it's reminded me of how much I love studying.

But the visiting academic has gone home now, back to his prestigious US university, so my brief foray back into academia is over again, and I'm feeling a bit sad, and realising just how much I'm going to miss it (it didn't help either that when I filled in the census forms the other day, for the first time in many many years I had to tick the "no" box to the question "are you currently enrolled in formal education").

I think though that I did make the right decision in dropping the paper.  Life is still kind of messy, and even though I loved sitting in on those lectures for the last couple of weeks, just keeping up with the reading for them was a real struggle - if I was having to also do all the data collection and writing response papers that the real students were doing alongside the reading, there's no way I'd have coped.  And with the end of term looming up in a couple of weeks, and the first assessments starting to come due, I'd have been seriously stressed by now.

In other words, my head knows I made the right decision to put study on hold for a year, but my heart isn't entirely convinced.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Pobody's Nerfect

No, my tutor didn't really say that, but my brain did

Friday was International Women's Day, and that got me thinking about the Superwoman phenomenon, and the pressure we often put ourselves under to be perfect in all spheres of our lives.

I find that an especial problem with studying.  I'm reasonably intelligent, so I know I'm capable of getting good marks if I try hard enough, which means I put an intense amount of pressure on myself to always achieve the highest possible grades no matter what.  Sometimes that can be a good thing (it's a great antidote to my natural instinct to laziness), but it's easy to take it too far; like feeling like I'd failed when I 'only' got an A- for a course - that's not ambition, that's craziness.

The reality is, it's impossible to achieve perfection in any area, and particularly not in education, where, if you think about it, the whole point is that you're not perfect - that's why you're there.  In fact, in a well-designed course, the assessment forms part of the teaching and learning process - you write a good essay, the marker points out where it's not perfect, and from those errors you learn how to write an even better one.  In fact (unless you're purely being tested on memorising a bunch of facts) it should be almost impossible to score 100% on an assessment, because if you did, that would imply you had nothing left to learn, so what more can university offer you?

 And then there's the question of return on investment.  To raise your grades from a C to a B isn't all that hard - it's usually the difference between using Google as your primary research tool and actually visiting the library.  Getting from a B to an A is a bit harder - you need to really put in the hours to make sure you've truly understood the topic, and then you need to be able to express your ideas about the topic clearly and logically.  And that final step from an A to an A+ (or from A+ to top of the class) is really tough.  That's when you need to show something special - that you've read outside the set readings, that you've understood the topic enough to add your own ideas, and that you've really polished your writing.  Not that you shouldn't be trying to do those things, of course - that's all part of getting the most you can out of your study - but there has to come a point where the amount of extra work needed becomes utterly disproportionate to the tiny increase in marks it will gain you.  And you'll never reach that elusive goal of perfection anyway - the marker will still find something you could improve on, because that's their job.

Which is not to say you should settle for a C (or a B, or an A) just because it's easier (no matter what the "C's earn degrees" types tell you).  Strive for excellence, yes.  But don't worry about being perfect.  If you aim for perfection, you're not only guaranteeing yourself disappointment, but you're going to put yourself under a lot of unnecessary stress in the process.  As Deb Lee of says,
Be excellent, not perfect. Reaching for perfection will make it more difficult to remain stress-free. The notion of perfection is just that — a lofty idea, one that is impossible to attain. Trying to achieve perfection takes a lot of mental energy, wastes your time, and leaves you feeling unsatisfied. Excellence, however, can be achieved by anyone. Have a plan ready, strive to do your best, and put those notions of perfection aside.
Not only is perfectionism bad for your health, it can actually lead to poorer results.  Bill Knaus on Psychology Today discusses the way that perfectionism can easily turn into procrastination:
Perfectionism is a risk factor for performance anxiety and procrastination.  You expect a great performance. You have doubts whether you can achieve perfection. You have an urge to diverge and do something less threatening.  You wait until you can be perfect.
So because you know your essay won't be perfect, you keep putting off starting to write it until you've done a bit more research, until you find yourself the night before it's due with an enormous pile of research notes but not a word of the actual essay written, and you end up handing in a rushed first draft, or worse, missing the deadline completely.  Voltaire had it right, "The best is the enemy of good."

That's why I was interested to stumble across the Good Enough Woman's blog.  She is consciously trying to replace the urge to be perfect with the more reasonable aim of being good enough.  This post explains her philosophy in a little more detail.  It's a fascinating idea, but I can also see the pitfalls.  On the one hand, "good enough", to me anyway, brings to mind someone excusing a shoddy job (or is that just a reflection of my antipodean culture, where "that'll do" and "she'll be right" often substitute for quality?).  And on the other hand, for a perfectionist, will anything ever be good enough? The Good Enough Woman acknowledges that
...many of us never feel as if we get over the good enough bar. Is that because we're truly not good enough? Or is that because other people have confused being good enough with being perfect?
I can easily convince myself that perfectionism is reasonable behaviour - after all, I want to keep my GPA high enough to qualify for a scholarship if I go on to postgrad, so "good enough" for me starts looking pretty similar to perfection.

So what's the solution?  I'm not sure.  I suspect, though, that it's like a lot of things: just knowing it's a problem is the beginnings of a solution.  By being aware of my tendency to perfectionism I can watch out for it, and when I find myself wanting to just do that little bit more, remember to ask myself if that extra effort will actually pay off, or will it just add stress without adding extra value.

Are you a perfectionist?  How do you find a balance between aiming for excellence and overdoing it?  Let me know in the comments below.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Drop out

I couldn't come up with a suitable image for this post, so here's a generically pretty one instead.
So, as you might have guessed, last week's post on dealing with crisis was inspired by a crisis happening in my own life at the time.  I did write the post mainly with the thought of passing on some of the "insider" knowledge I've gained from working for the university, but in writing it I realised that in dealing with my own crisis I wasn't actually following my own advice.  And when I started thinking about what I was facing this year, and how much stress life events are causing me right now, I realised that if a student came and saw me and told me a similar story, what I'd tell her is very different to what I was telling myself.

So, to cut a long story short, after a lot of internal debate, and a lot of talking to colleagues and other students, I finally decided earlier this week to drop out from the course I'm taking.  I just haven't got the energy right now to deal with life and put in the effort the course deserves, and even if I am feeling more up to it in a month or so, I'll have missed so much of the course it would be too hard to catch up.  Not an easy decision to make, because I was actually really enjoying the paper for the short time I had before disaster struck, and even harder because it's a year-long course, so I won't be able to pick it up again until next February.  But I do think it's the right decision.

So what does that mean for this blog?  I don't want to stop writing it just when I'm getting into my stride, but if I'm not actively studying it's going to be a lot harder to find topics to write on.  For now at least I'm planning to keep the blog going - I've got a few potential topics up my sleeve, and I'll still be working at the university even if I'm not studying, so I'll be around students enough that I should find some inspiration.  Who knows how long I'll be able to keep it up until I run out of material, but we'll cross that bridge when it comes.

For now, enjoy your own study, and do let me know if there's any topics you'd like me to cover.