Sometimes, working adults may change their minds and actively choose to revisit the learning community – following their dreams and ambitions out of choice. Other times, people often require degrees to progress in the working world, prompting many to consider joining university life for the sake of their career. At first glance it seems a worrying prospect to pause one’s income and career to pursue a degree, however one of the benefits of an interconnected, online 21stcentury is that most people have access to the internet, giving rise to distance learning.
Working through a degree via distance learning comes with plenty of trials and tribulations – often with increasing dependence on technology and internet availability. Though the comforting prospect of managing your time between work and studying may sound promising, as well as having the benefit of lenient contact hours, the social aspect of university could feel very different indeed, even isolating at times.
In this article discussing her experience with distance learning is Emily Reason, a PhD student at the University of Nottingham, specialising in the meaning of θυμός (thumos) in Epic and philosophy.
What inspired you to pursue higher education?
The first question is, as I have always loved learning, why didn’t I pursue higher education (until I was 29)? Being raised in a coal-mining community, I suppose it would be the same for any really industrial area, there can be a sort of inverted snobbery about being working class – we’re poor and proud of it! University is for the toffs; WE go to work. And even then we have jobs, not careers.
After 13 years in a very fulfilling job (medical secretary firstly in a private hospital and then in the NHS), I realised that if I was to progress into management, I needed a degree. The problem was, I had been home-schooled from age 11. Consequently, I had 13 years of work experience in my background, but no GCSEs or A-levels. Naturally I looked to the Open University and decided to go for a history degree. Had they offered it, it would have been Egyptology all the way, which is my first love, but even with history I chose the classical subjects wherever there was the option to do so.
At my first tutorial, I realised that I never, ever wanted to be a manager in the NHS! It felt like I’d come home. Were it not for the increase in tuition fees, I might still be doing one degree after another with the OU. I finished my BA History in three years, and went on to attempt a BSc in computing, IT and statistics as being more useful for work, but eventually abandoned that and finished off the BSc (now “open”) with a Shakespeare module.
With the increase in undergraduate fees, an MA was my only option but the OU only had one course of study available in Classics, so I looked around for other distance learning providers and found University of Wales Trinity St David (there are many others too, but I liked their module choice).
What topics piqued your interest the most?
My opening module with the OU was AA100 – The Arts Past and Present. The first subject was Cleopatra. There was also art history, music, philosophy, and literature, but it was Cleopatra that I enjoyed the most. We looked at reception as well as the “real” Cleopatra, so included films and Shakespeare, but the main historic source material was Plutarch. I found that I engaged with words far better than pictures, and literature analysis is still my strong point even now. I did side-track into Shakespeare later, but that will always be a hobby rather than a focus. There were two compulsory modules for my BA – History 1400-1900, and Empire, but for my three optional modules I chose “Introduction to the Classical World”, “Power, Culture & Identity in the Roman Empire”, and “Myth in the Greek & Roman Worlds”. In Classics, I’d found where I belong.
When I started my MA, an ancient language module was compulsory. I chose Latin because I already knew the alphabet, but almost as soon as I started what I call the “proper” modules (everything after the foundation module), I was pulled towards Greek. In my two years of modules with UWTSD, I became more and more interested in Greek literature and for my dissertation focused on Medea and the Greek heroes. It’s one aspect of Medea’s character, thumos, that has obsessed me sufficiently to be researching that one word for my PhD.
What were the challenges and benefits of studying via distance learning?
The benefits are clear – flexibility and the ability to keep on working and earning. I was one year too early to apply for an MA student loan, but even with that I would have needed to work as well.
The challenges are also very clear in hindsight! Not knowing what to expect, and consequently not knowing what help was available was a problem for me. There are lots of little things that I probably should have known but didn’t. For instance, an early MA assignment was to write an abstract. I thought that was odd – surely the abstract comes after weeks of writing and months of research, not first thing. Anyway, I picked a subject, researched it as much as I could in a couple of weeks, and wrote an abstract. Then I read other abstracts and realised that hardly any contain footnotes. So, I painstakingly removed all my references before submitting my abstract. I barely passed, because I hadn’t included any references which the marker put down as laziness. I was gutted! The following year, I spoke to another distance learner who was then doing the same module. She’d found an article in a journal and written an abstract based on that. Was that what was intended? I had no idea! I also found out much later that it’s possible to ask tutors to review parts of essays before they’re finally submitted – again, I had no idea at the time.
There were two other people in my area who were also doing distance MAs with UWTSD, and I met up quite regularly with both of them, which was a big help. In particular, one had been an on-campus student at Lampeter campus for her BA, so she could tell me anecdotes about the tutors which made them more human. I was, and still am, very grateful to Lampeter for taking me, and at first, again I thought might just do MA after MA in various subjects, but by partway through my dissertation I was already obsessed with my PhD topic.
How has distance learning shaped what you do now?
In two ways. Firstly, ten years or more of practically solo learning has prepared me for the loneliness of PhD study far more than being an on-campus student could have done. I actually have more peer-contact now than I ever have before!
Secondly, having been without the advantages of really knowing my supervisors before, I now make the most of seeing them every week. It would never have occurred to me during my MA to get in touch even with my favourite supervisor with little queries or bits of news, but seeing them now regularly, and often just in passing, makes for a much friendlier relationship.
Do you have any advice for people considering distance learning programmes?
1) Do it. For many of us, it’s our only option. Especially for mature students – we simply can’t relocate and take three years out of earning.
2) Ask. They probably don’t mind. Even if it’s a little question like “what font should I use”, ask.
3) Find someone else. I was lucky in having two people in the same county that I could meet up with, but even an email exchange to blow off steam occasionally would have been useful. The first person, I met at an induction week. The second, she wrote on a module forum in my second year and mentioned that she lived in Nottingham, so I emailed her separately and we’re still in touch now, probably always will be.
4) Really. Do it.
Emily Reason is a PhD student in Classical Studies & Philosophy. Her BA and BSc were done with the Open University, and her MA was with University of Wales Trinity St David – all were done as a distance learner. She began her PhD in September 2019 at the University of Nottingham, and her subject is θυμός (thumos) in Epic and philosophy – looking at the works of Plato and Aristotle on the philosophy side, and then Homer and Apollonius representing epic.