A Fresher at Fifty

The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit

Jennifer Shelley

Episode Four

On realising I know nothing – but am starting to learn

There’s a rather lovely sense of back-to-school in Newcastle at the moment: there’s an autumnal chill in the air, the leaves are turning and I’ve bought some splendid new shoes.

It’s the start of the new academic year, and for me, as a research student, it’s also the end of the old one, which technically finished mid-September when I had to submit the third and last research assignment of my first year.

In one sense it seems like yesterday that I started the MLitt in children’s literature as a mature student; in another, it feels like a lifetime (largely in a good way). As mentioned in previous blogs, I’m taking the course over two years, as a part-time student, so this is essentially the half way point for me.

So what have I learned?

The first and possibly most important thing for me was not to underestimate just how much there is to learn: many years as a keen reader of children’s books are certainly not a passport to academic success. There’s a song by Dean Friedman from the 1970s where the chorus goes something like you can thank your lucky stars that we’re not as smart as we like to think we are. It’s not a track I ever particularly liked, but unfortunately it’s been going round and round in my head, almost since my first meeting with my supervisor, and certainly since I started getting feedback on my work. It turns out that academics can be – how can I put this? – blunt in asserting their opinion of one’s hard-sweated efforts, and any notion that I’d walk in being brilliant was quickly dispelled.

The second lesson was somewhat connected, in that it involved a growing appreciation that challenge and criticism is not only good in a ‘swallow-your-medicine’ kind of way, but that it can also be thoroughly enjoyable. It can be disconcerting at first to be forced to justify everything you say or write (at some points when asked why I’d included mention of a particular critic, for example, I just wanted to wail ‘well I don’t know, it just seemed a good thing to write’). But actually, being forced to anticipate that kind of challenge has made me much more stringent in my own writing, both in my academic and professional life.

And that’s probably the nub of the third lesson: academic writing is a skill in itself. Having been a journalist for almost three decades, freelance for half of that, I’m accustomed to writing for a variety of different audiences from the general public to policy-makers and specialists. Before I started this degree, I was aware that I’d have to abandon some of my most dearly-held tenets, such as never writing an introductory sentence of more than 30 words; I also knew that I’d have to get to grips with proper referencing. But I had thought less about other aspects of academic writing, from the simple (such as not using contractions) to the harder-to-judge, like avoiding colloquialisms. In each of the three research assignments I’ve submitted, I’ve been picked up for using informal language, even though I’ve tried very hard to stamp it out in my writing.

Has it been worth it? Well, I have to say I’ve absolutely loved it, challenges and all. It’s been possibly harder than I anticipated to balance my professional life and university life (not to mention life-life and all its inevitable issues), but it as also been hugely satisfying. I’ve genuinely had a sense of progression, not just because my marks have steadily grown higher over the course of the year, but because I can see myself that while my work still has an enormous way to go, it’s definitely improving. In case anyone’s interested, my research topics covered my existing interests – mid-twentieth century books for girls – but through a lens that was new to me, that is, the feminine middlebrow. The first essay was on career novels for girls, the second on the family novels of Noel Streatfeild, and the most recent on Mabel Esther Allan’s coming-of-age novels, specifically the Drina series (written under the name Jean Estoril).

So now it’s time to plan the dissertation – probably in itself the topic for another blog – and to jump in to my second and final year as a mature student. I’m looking forward to it very much – and did I mention I’ve got some great new shoes?

A Fresher at Fifty

The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit

Jennifer Shelley

Episode Three

Making Connections: 20th-Century Style

When I was studying for my first degree in the 1980s, I knew just one person with a computer, a final-year PhD student. Unlike the rest of us (lecturers included) who were still wedded to paper and pen – he was able to commit his wise analysis of the works of Christina Rossetti straight onto hard disk.

Today, of course, it’s a very different story: looking round the seminar room, the majority of students are tapping away on tablets or laptops, with only the occasional diehard making use of an actual paper notebook as opposed to a computerised one.

The MLitt in Children’s Literature, for which I’m studying as a mature student, is a research degree, largely involving one-to-one study and working on research essays with a supervisor. But learning about research methods is a requirement of the course, so we are obliged to study a module with the students who are undertaking the MA in English Literature – hence being in the seminar room with other postgraduates.

Learning about various aspects of research – such as how to formulate a dissertation topic and how to go about doing it – is obviously useful in itself, but for me, as a mature student, the best thing about doing this module has been the opportunity to meet other postgraduates on a sustained basis. This has been good socially – I was hugely heartened after the first seminar to be invited for a drink with a couple of other mature students – but also academically. As the first year has progressed, the MA group has coalesced into a largely friendly peer-support network, setting up a Facebook group to answer each other’s last-minute panics and queries, and regularly meeting up in person to share works-in-progress, or just to let off steam.

Being an MLitt student, I’m in an insider-outsider position with this group, especially as I’m still based at home in Scotland most of time. But I’ve appreciated the opportunities (in class and out) to discuss ideas, talk about dissertation or essay intentions, and get input and fresh ideas from people with very different research interests to me (artificial intelligence, post 9/11 fiction, and digital apps, to name but a few). It’s also been rather nice to get the odd invitation via Facebook to student house parties – not something I thought would be happening at the age of 50.

Widespread use of mobile devices (my laptop seems practically archaic by contrast), and social media apart, the actual process of academic study and research has also undergone a technological revolution in the last 30 years. I remember learning to use microfiche to read archived copies of newspapers, and very fiddly it was too, but that was as good as it got; e-readers were the stuff of Tomorrow’s World, and journals and books were shelved on, well, actual shelves. Thinking about it, it’s absolutely amazing today to be able to gain access to such tremendous amounts of information without even having to make a physical trip to the library – in effect, you have a library in your hands.

Then again, sometimes the old ways can have benefits: just as attending the research methods seminars has led to valuable social and academic relationships, actually visiting the library can bring its own advantages. This was brought home to me in one of the earlier seminars, which included teaching about the university’s special collections and took place in the library itself. Sitting waiting for class to start, I idly turned over a letter that had been left on the table in front of me.

Wait, surely that wasn’t H.G. Wells’ signature?

Indeed it was. This was one a number of objects that library staff had strewn about to entice us – others included material from the Bloodaxe archive, and (most excitingly for me) an early edition of one of my favourite books, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer’s The School at the Chalet. Lifting it up, feeling its heft, and smelling its smell, I felt a connection that stretched back to the first half of the last century – even the fastest broadband can’t beat that.

 

A Fresher at Fifty

The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit

Jennifer Shelley

Episode two: an Ancient Monument

Driving to the station to catch the train to Newcastle University last September my mind went back to 1984 when I was starting university for the first time. Back then, my mum and dad drove me from Dundee to Edinburgh, where I was to spend four years studying English literature – and making friends that I’m still close to today.

Now, however, my mum’s sadly no longer with us, and rather than being an 18-year-old excited about leaving home for the first time, I’m 50 years old, married, and living in the Perthshire countryside with my husband, greyhounds and chickens.

But the me of today still has a few things in common with that eager teenager: for one thing, my taste in music hasn’t changed much – David Bowie is blasting out of the car’s CD player, just as he was back in the 1980s, although back then it would have been a cassette player. And the 50-year-old me was also excited about starting a new degree, although a bit nervous about what it would entail.

Jen in her halls room back in the 80s
Jen in her halls room back in the 80s

Even getting to this point had been a bit of a journey: having decided to apply to do an MLitt in children’s literature, one of the first steps was pulling together the information to prove I met the entrance requirements. Essentially what I needed was a 2:1 or higher in a related subject, so that should have been tickety-boo: but I hadn’t reckoned with my great age.

The application form required ‘transcripts’, by which it meant a documentation that showed all the courses I had taken – and the marks achieved – in my undergraduate degree. I had my degree certificate, but had never even heard of transcripts.

A call to my alma mater – the University of Edinburgh – confirmed that they could send me an academic statement, but the kind young man on the other end of the phone explained it might take some time. ‘You see, our records don’t go back that far, so we’ll have to dig it out of the archives,’ he said. Yes, it seems there is a room somewhere in Edinburgh University filled with big books containing the details of past students – and to retrieve mine would involve someone physically going to the room and wading through these tomes and taking a copy. This process was set in motion, and when the document finally arrived, it turned out to be merely confirmation of my first degree and overall result. The ever-helpful and patient postgraduate admissions staff at Newcastle confirmed that this was okay – they are happy to be flexible with mature students, it seems – so the application progressed, and ultimately was successful.

Arriving at the university campus in all its freshers’ week pomp also brought back memories, although there were of course some differences: this time, I was (sadly) largely disregarded by the eager young students peddling leaflets about societies, or offering cut-price beers or nightclub entry to people who looked like they might be freshers. ‘I’m a student too,’ I screamed (but silently).

After the process of registration was completed – one member of staff kindly confirmed I wasn’t quite the oldest she’d seen that day – I had an initial meeting with my supervisor, Lucy Pearson. More of an informal chat, we discussed my areas of interest and she recommended some initial reading. She also reminded me of events set up to welcome postgraduates, including a get-together (with quiz!) held by the Children’s Literature Unit, and a drinks reception organised by the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics.

The latter, I confess, was an eye-opener: chatting with a couple of recent graduates about to embark on PhDs, I enquired about their subject areas, and realised I didn’t even understand what they were. What on earth was ecocriticism, for example (when I found out I immediately started wondering if I could apply it to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books – and why not?).

All in all, it was a lot to take in, and a lot to think about – would this ancient monument be able to cope?

 

We really hope so! In the meantime, if you missed episode one of A Fresher at Fifty, read it here.

A Fresher at Fifty

The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit

Jennifer Shelley

Episode one: deciding to go back to study

At a recent family meal my nephew was bemoaning the difficulty of getting back in the way of studying after taking a year out to gain some work experience.

I’m afraid I just laughed – and told him to try it after 28 years.

Because that’s the gap between my first graduation (in English Literature from Edinburgh) and the decision to study for an MLitt in children’s literature at Newcastle.

So why did I decide to do it? Of the many reasons, the first impulse probably came from children’s books themselves. A long-time collector and enthusiast, I had agreed to give a paper at the Fourth Bristol Conference on Twentieth Century Schoolgirls and Their Books this summer. My talk was on the Drina books by Mabel Esther Allan (written under the name Jean Estoril), a series about a young girl’s fight to learn to dance and subsequent rise to become a ballerina. The books were written between the 1950s and 1990s and most were updated once or twice. What fascinated me was how the books unwittingly provided clues and evidence of the social and other changes that were going on in the second half of the last century – from the building of the Forth Road Bridge to whether it was okay for young girls to go out without a hat and gloves.

I thoroughly enjoyed doing the research for the paper and realised that it made me feel very alive – as if my brain was working in a different way, and waking up an enthusiasm I hadn’t felt for a while. It almost felt like a drug and I wanted more of it.

A couple of people asked afterwards whether the paper was part of a formal research programme, which probably planted the seed, but there were other reasons too. Like a lot of people, I’d often vaguely thought about studying for a second degree. I lived through my husband’s PhD (as a mature student) a few years ago so knew it was no sinecure, and had thought it might be something I’d like to do when I retired. But a couple of wake-up calls (in terms of friends’ and colleagues’ early deaths or illnesses) made me think that waiting wasn’t the best plan. Plus, although I enjoy my work (as a freelance journalist and health writer) I’ve been doing it for a long time. All in all, change was in order.

Having made the decision, I then started looking around for the best course. Living in Highland Perthshire, I checked the Scottish universities first, but the only children’s literature courses seemed to be hooked in to education departments, which wasn’t really my interest.

A friend suggested a distance learning MA in children’s literature in the south of England, but the content of the course didn’t particularly grab me – then another friend mentioned the MLitt at Newcastle; it sounded very good.

I’d already checked out the Newcastle University website, partly because I’d heard about its collaboration with Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books, and partly because I know and love the area having worked on one of the local newspapers 20 years ago (although I must say the city has transformed since then).

The beauty of the MLitt, or so it seemed to me, was that I could structure it around areas that fitted my interests, rather than what some great authority thought should be part of a children’s literature degree. The course involves writing three or four shorter research assignments totaling up to 24,000 words, then a dissertation of the same length, in a year full-time or over two years part-time. It was also, somewhat to my surprise, given that there is a lot of contact with a dedicated tutor, cheaper than even distance learning options elsewhere. This was a consideration as I’m self-funding.

A telephone call with one of the lecturers, Dr Lucy Pearson, confirmed that this would be a good option for me, so I decided to apply…

 

Did you know Seven Stories is a member of IBBY, the International Board on Books for Young People? Earlier this spring CLUGG had the opportunity to explore the latest IBBY Honour List. Learn about it on the Vital North blog

Books from the IBBY Honour Collection. Image: Newcastle University
Books from the IBBY Honour Collection. Image: Newcastle University.