The Academic as Student: Report from the Open University Front

One of the life-affirming decisions I made since relocating to the UK was to enroll at the Open University for a Master of Arts in Art History. A complete change of subject and discipline for me. So far, nothing new. There are a lot of people who do the same thing each year. However, my position is slightly different than most people. I am also an academic. So, I found myself in a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde position: I would slip out of the lecture theatre, where I would expound, say, the intricacies of Tort Law, and hop on the Tube to attend a tutorial in Art History in central London.

Despite the fact that the OU is a distance learning HE institution, and that the course I am attending is a postgraduate one, my return to the student desks has made me much more self-reflective about my teaching practice and the way that I organise the modules for which I am responsible.

The obvious example here is too much assessment. I do not wish to criticise the OU, as it is restructuring the Art History MA, but this year I had to write 6 essays of 2500 words on different books and topics. How much honing can critical skills suffer before the student is saturated with repeat tasks? Read the question, interrogate the question, find bibliography, read bibliography, brainstorm, do a draft structure, write a draft, restructure if needed, do some extra research if required, read the extra research, revise and edit, submit? Each month, it was the same story.

For the life of me, if I were an undergraduate student in Law and had to do four essays in Term 1, I am not sure if I would have the patience to do this. But again, my self-reflective attitude tells me that I should not be too judgmental of the UK system. There is an age gap as well as an experience gap here. I can’t remember how it was for me when I was 19, reading Law at the University of Athens. But I do believe that over-repetition does little to help.

Proof of that was my horrible experience during the exam. Yes, exams. Because the OU , in its infinite wisdom considers that 6 essays are not enough in the first year of the Art History MA. Bless them. I had to haul myself to a Victorian dance hall/ music venue in Central London, right after an early morning seminar at Uni, where I had to spend three hours answering 2 questions out of 7. Did I revise, I hear you ask? No.

Simple and shameless no. Out of the 6 essays required of me, I did only 4. The last two I was too fed up to do. As a poor substitute to revision, I just read the course material the previous night and on the Tube. The depth of student engagement, I am now convinced, is inversely proportionate to the extent of assessment imposed on the student.

So what have I learned from my experience? I cannot change the rules at my Uni about the one essay in Term 1 and the exam in Term 2. I provide my students far greater opportunities to informally engage in writing formative, voluntary, short essays to practice questions/scenarios on BlackBoard (for want of a better way to do this). And then I shall hope that this kind of relaxed engagement makes it fun for them to practice writing and hone their critical skills and knowledge. So much fun, that when my students will have to write the ‘official’ string of essays for all the modules in their Level, they will maintain some of that enthusiasm throughout the assessment marathon. It remains to be seen. 

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