Term Completed

The term is over, exams included. The last month was a veritable maze of studying – finishing out the coursework after the last assignments, and then studying and distilling down the contents of the course, and making the nerve-wracking choices of what topics to study in depth.

The whole thing came out fairly well in the end. The Sociology exam was not problematic, and I’d covered enough of the topics to be comfortable coming out of the exam hall. The History exam was, to be honest, a pleasure. I could have answered six of the eight questions, and I only had to answer three. And while the literature exam had some curve-balls on it, I still got my three questions in without difficulty. I’m confident of passing, which is all I need, and I might even do well.

I’ve a large pile of summer reading lined up – starting with Naomi Klein’s No Logo, which is of interest in terms of both sociology and, I think, literature – brand in literature seems like something that’s under-examined. It ties in to William Gibson’s Zero History, which I read earlier in the year and enjoyed immensely. A good chunk of the reading pile is unashamedly academic, too – some of my own, including one of the history textbooks for next year’s course, and some interesting looking items pilfered from my wife’s PhD reading.

I expect this blog to be quiet enough over the summer, and to pick up again around August/September, as I start planning the second year, wherein I’ll be doing two literature modules, and one history.

Insomnia

I’m sitting down to write this post at five minutes to three on Sunday night. Tomorrow is a bank holiday, and the only appointment I have is to go and look at a potential new allotment in the afternoon, so I’m not worried about sleeping. Not that I’m ordinarily worried about sleeping – I only get insomnia when I’m well rested. I’m well rested because I’ve been taking it easy on the study front in the last week. And I’ve been taking it easy because the last lot of assignments pretty much knocked me out.

I mean that in a more literal sense than usual; there were three assignments to do, two with the deadline on the same day, one a week later. I powered through them, doing research and planning on weekday evenings,  and writing each assignment in a burst over a weekend. I cleared the last assignment at 17:30 or so on a Saturday evening, when it was due at midnight on Monday. And then I just about made it up the stairs to collapse and sleep for an hour. I woke up to one of the cats sitting on my chest and poking me in the face; something she only does when I haven’t woken up for any lesser motions, like the nose under the hand, or the loud purr in the ear. I reckon if she hadn’t woken me, I would have slept through to morning.

Exams are in a little over a month. I haven’t finished out the course materials yet, but I’m reasonably confident of doing well enough in them – I can deal with just about any question the literature course can throw at me, I can talk around points and principles well enough to pass the sociology exam, I think, and I intend to have a few select areas of the history course very thoroughly memorised before I set foot in the test hall – which will, conveniently, be here in Maynooth, not in the harder-to-reach DCU. Besides, for these exams, I really only need to pass; the assignments count for half my final mark in the modules, and the modules themselves don’t – can’t – count toward the final result of the degree.

I’m a little puzzled by the exhaustion reaction to the assignments. I didn’t feel, at the time, as though I was putting in vast amounts of work, and indeed, I did a lot of mining in Wurm Online in the background while I researched and structured and planned the essays. But it’s pretty clear from the resulting sleepiness, and from the fact that I dreamt in weird combinations of CSO statistics, south-west India in the 90s, and Enlightenment-era Russia for a few nights that they were weighing more heavily on the psyche than I knew.

I’m expecting the exams to have similar effects, but I reckon that’s a fair price.

Sociology 1; Assignment 2

I’ve started work on the second batch of assignments. They’re getting a week each, starting with Sociology. At this point, the optimal arrangement seems to be to use three evenings a week, plus about 4-5 hours one day of the weekend, for study. That can be new material, or assignment work, although I suspect that the assignment work may run long for Sociology.

This one comes in two parts; the first is a discussion section via Moodle with six contributions of 150 words each. Two new posts on a broad topic, and two responses to other people’s posts, with the last two of either kind. I’ve done one original and two responses by now. Responses are harder, because I need to make some sort of salient point about a subject I probably know little, if anything about, and back it up with references of some kind.

The other part is an essay, on how a person’s gender and social class limit their life chances. 2100 words, and normally, I can get my points across concisely enough, I fear the word limit on this one. Thus far I have a reference list – four papers, five books, apart from the course texts – an outline plan, and an introduction and conclusion written. Both written sections will probably change once the main content gets under way, but that’s ok.

It’s a very broad topic, so there’s plenty of reading available. Annoyingly, despite the thousands of online journals I can reach, one particularly useful looking article in Sociology (Oxford) seems only to be available in hard copy, and not on loan. I have a massive preference for etext of whatever kind, for three reasons: I don’t have to physically go to the library, I can cut and paste my quotes, and I can use text searches. I can probably get along without that article for now, or get a photocopy of it, but it’s frustrating to run into the limits of the online world. I suspect that this is only the first time, though.

The French Wars of Religion & The Thirty Years War

The second-to-last unit of the available history units (more out soon, we’re assured) was concerned with the French Wars of Religion, and the Thirty Years War. We’d been warned about the Thirty Years War, and the incomprehensibility thereof, but in the event, I found it easy enough to get a grip on. I may criticise Merriman on other fronts, but this chapter was one of his better ones, and I felt I had a reasonable idea of the material. A map helped, of course.

The French Wars of Religion, though. The switching of sides. The similar names. The three Henries. The prince who renamed himself after his own older brother. The question of what the Montmorencies actually did to be noted as one of the three great families. And very much the way in which Henry of Navarre maneuvered himself onto the throne, changing religion whenever it seemed convenient.

I had to draw myself some diagrams, stare at maps, and remember repeatedly that Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon wasn’t siding with the majority of the House of Bourbon. It took some serious poking around in other sources to work out that Henry of Navarre’s claim to the throne wasn’t through his marriage to Henry III’s sister Margaret, but via his position as head of the House of Bourbon. I have not yet worked out what made Henry of Guise think he could get the throne, if indeed he thought he could.

But overall, the whole period is clearer in my head than any other part of the course so far, precisely because it was difficult. Interesting.

Assignments & Learning

For the last three weeks, I’ve been working on assignments. The three due dates were neatly staggered, one a week, with the final one next Monday. They’ve all been delivered on time; I’ve been happy with the content where it’s possible to be happy with it, and pretty sure it’s correct where that’s an issue – mostly in the two bibliographies we had to construct.

What I haven’t had time to do, really, is look at the course material for more than a few minutes. And I don’t think I’ve learned much from any of the assignments; being the first ones in each course, they’re very much of the formatting and make-work variety. There’s not much thinking going into them, just ensuring we know the mechanisms of putting together and submitting assignments.

So in a very real sense, those assignments have been preventing me from learning for the last three weeks.

I don’t expect this to be an ongoing problem – I reckon the next assignment in each course will be a considerably more solid piece of work, most likely some form of essay. And that’s great; that I’ll have to do research for, and learn something in the process. And I suppose, too, that it’s better to make sure that the mechanical stuff can be covered before we get dug into the real thing. But it’s still frustrating to have interesting course material to read, and to not be able to get to it because of an uninteresting assignment.

History, Events vs. Thinking

I am having some disagreements with the structure of my history course. These come down, in essence, to the choice of textbooks. Our core text, pretty much, is John Merriman’s History of Modern Europe Vol 1. We also have a secondary text, a collection of essays on the same era edited by Beat Kümin, entitled The European World 1500-1800. The thing is that I find Merriman incredibly, unbelievably dull, and the essays in Kümin’s collection vastly more interesting and worthwhile.

In ploughing (and it’s hard work!) through Merriman’s chapter on the Renaissance, I took one single note, because it consisted of roughly categorised renditions of what happened, in more or less chronological order. There’s little thinking around why things happened, no attempt to illustrate thinking on general processes in the era – in short, all facts, no theory. Whereas the equivalent essay by the gloriously named Humfrey Butters in Kümin’s collection starts straight in to challenging the notion that the Renaissance was anything special, and does so by coming to general conclusions, theorising, and generally giving some shape to the thinking. I don’t agree with it as such – I think – but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Result: two lines of notes from 30 pages of Merriman, and not much memory of what was in there, other than that the Sforzas were founded by a mercenary. And two pages of notes from 10 pages of Butters, with some considerable enthusiasm about the whole era and the processes and events therein.

Wouldn’t it be better to have the more enthusiasm-inducing text as the core one, and leave the other as a backup?

Tutorials

The first tutorials of the year, in History and Sociology, were on last Saturday. Both were good, in a number of ways.

For History, there was a set of introductions from the 20 or so people present, a general overview of the course contents, some recommendations about the main textbooks, and some supplementary ones, and then a run through the first assignment. A few questions were cleared up here and there. The tutor for the group I’m in is the person who wrote the notes, and she was at some pains to make it known that this is the first year for a new course, and that it wasn’t her decision to include all the learning skills material. I was starting to grumble a bit about the content of the HIS1 module, so I’m much happier about it now.

Sociology, in contrast, was straight in. Some background on the history of sociology, some theory, and then into group work for a while. Then onward to discussion of research methodologies, and talking over the upcoming assignment in some detail. It was quite a bit more intense, and I think some of the people attending – 16 in this group – were a bit shell-shocked by the end.

I went on to the library afterwards, to return some books, and pick up a few that both tutors had mentioned in passing. The history ones give more background on the period of study, and the sociology ones are more incidental, although one of them – The Spirit Level – could well serve as a case study of how sociological studies are carried out.

Overall, it was well worthwhile, and I’m looking forward to the first Literature one, in mid-November.

China Miéville on Estrangement & Recognition

There’s a very nice short piece by Sarah Crown in yesterday’s Guardian about a recent comment from China Miéville on the notions of estrangement and recognition in literature. Miéville is one of my great literary heroes, and in this he seems to have turned an old argument – genre vs. mainstream – into something much more meaningful in terms of literary analysis.

Study Progress

I sat down last week and worked out a study schedule. Divided up the number of modules across the weeks, took account of Gaelcon, when no study will be done, and Yule,  and the trip to Norway early next year. I puzzled over why the courses have widely varying numbers of units – 18 in one, up to 36 in another. Wouldn’t it make more sense to divide them evenly into, say, the number of weeks in the academic year, minus a couple to allow for some room? But eventually I got them assigned to dates in the calendar, and while it looks intimidating, it’s one week at a time.

And then on Saturday I sat down and ran through the units assigned for the following three weeks.

Now, it helps that these are introductory units still. Some of them are about study skills, which I’ve largely already covered from the book that was sent out before term started. Some are even more basic, explaining what a textbook is. But still, it illustrates how much the planning can be off by.

The first tutorials are tomorrow, for His1 and Soc1. I’m still not completely clear on the format, but that will pretty much explain itself as soon as I get there. I’m looking forward to them greatly.

 

DCU Oscail Welcome Day

The Welcome day for the Oscail programme was on Saturday. It was for everyone on any Oscail course, so we had BA Humanities, BA English & History, an IT course of some kind, and post-grads all in one place to begin. They then split off the post-grads, and then later on divided out the BA and IT people, all of which seemed to go very well. It was particularly useful to put faces to the names of staff. There was also a tour of the library, and demonstrations of various online facilities. There wasn’t a lot of new information in it, but it was pleasing to have a sort of threshold point at which the academic year could “begin”.

There was one oddity, though: it was very clear that a number of the people attending hadn’t read the material they’d been sent. There were a number of questions being asked to which I already knew the answers, and I didn’t think I’d dug into the reading that much.  Indeed, I was mistaken for staff three times – I suppose I look kind of academic-ish – and was able to answer the question my fellow student had on two of those occasions.

The staff for Oscail have a palpable enthusiasm, particularly the fellow in charge of the Humanities side. There’s the slight peculiarity that many of them are the same age as – or younger than – the students, although I reckon that’s to be expected in a distance learning course. The students themselves ranged widely, from a few people who were in their mid-twenties to some people who were probably north of sixty. I’m looking forward to meeting tutorial groups when they get under way.