Thursday, 1 September 2011

Future things!

1. I've sold my little flat in Cambridge and am buying a little house in Exeter. I haven't let myself get excited about this hitherto because apparently at the moment roughly one in three house sales are collapsing without getting anywhere, but now we've exchanged and my buyer can't pull out. (Or at least he can, but he'd forfeit the deposit, which would be a consolation of sorts.) So now I'm getting all excited about it. I'm going to have a little garden! This is the first step towards being able to get a dog. If I told my eighteen-year-old self that I was thirty-five and didn't have a dog, she'd be utterly aghast.

2. The other thing one needs is a job. I don't know if it's inconsistent to feel strongly that the humanities should be funded, but also to feel strongly that there's no reason why they should fund me, and that anyone who feels entitled to funding would be hard to like. I love the scholarship I do, and I do it well. But trying to love academia is probably the closest insight I'll ever get into a being a follower of one of those football teams that are consistently crap. I'm tired of short-term jobs which are essentially glorified data-entry, and I'm tired of being presented by senior established academics with the opportunity to do punishingly hard extra work with little support or pay as if this were some sort of favour. The example which I'm still working towards being able to laugh at one day is when I set the Part II Anglo-Saxon History paper, one of the more popular options for that year's finalists. I tried very hard to say no to this because it was not part of my full-time paid job, I was already Director of Studies for about a sixth of the department (I had more students than any of the actual lecturers), and I had made it clear at the end of the previous year that I really could not fit examining in on top of all this, but they said there was no one else available who knew enough about the special subject, and I eventually agreed because I thought it important to do right by that year's students. (Of course it's important to do right by every year's students but they were a particularly bright and likeable bunch whom I knew quite well.) Setting it was very hard indeed, and included producing short texts in Latin and Old English (some of which I had to get not from printed editions but from original manuscripts) together with translations. I did all the proofing, turned up to start the exam (luckily the boss of my proper paid job was understanding), marked it, agreed marks with the second examiner, etc etc etc, and was paid a total of fifty-five pounds before tax. I'm not even going to try to work out how much that was per hour for a very highly skilled, highly stressful, important and responsible job. I used to earn more money that that in a Sunday afternoon on the tills at M&S. The thing is, arguably in some sense I consented to this by putting myself into the whole academic environment, and I can't really complain about it too much when I have a remedy in my hands. I'm not a nineteenth-century factory worker with no other prospects.

3. Anyway I'm middle-aged now and it's practically obligatory for me to do a Masters degree at some point (though it ought really to be with the OU). I've decided to rewind to the other great interest of my teenage years. A long time ago I was good at Maths and enjoyed trying to program computers. For a while I was determined to go into Artificial Intelligence. When I went up to the Open Day at St Johns as a sixth-former I hadn't decided between ASNC and Maths or Computer Science (which in retrospect I can see must have been annoying of me). I went for ASNC out of love for the subject, and a bit because the ASNC who showed me round St Johns got out the Lecture List and pointed out that CompSci had nine o'clock lectures on a Saturday. (He also showed me the glorious ASNC section, alas long gone, in Heffers basement.) But sometimes I've regretted leaving all that other stuff behind. (Not least in the Research Associate jobs I've done where, although I was ostensibly employed for my knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England, my actual value to the project was in being able to roll up my sleeves, buy an undergraduate textbook in Relational Database design or whatever (on expenses, I'm not a martyr), and implement a data-management system.)

4. I've got into Imperial College, London, to do an MSc in Computing Science! Yay!

5. This is going to kill two birds with one stone, I hope. For one thing the skills I get should make me able to find intelligent work. Let's hope so, because I do need a job. But also the Imperial MSc has lots of options in Machine Learning and Logic programming etc, which is something I still find really interesting.

6. The downside is that I can't live in my little Exeter house for a year, though I will be renting a room in a friend's house in London (I'm practicing being not too annoying in preparation). Another downside is that I will be surrounded by, I guess, 21-year-old male engineering graduates who find it all much easier than I do. I did ask at my interview whether they take many people from a humanities background, and the man said yes, last year they had a vet. I get the impression that for him "humanities" meant "neither maths nor engineering". One of the things that put me off Maths for an undergraduate degree was the knowledge that I would be learning with geniuses who found it daftly easy, and I think it was a reasonable concern because it's hard for an eighteen-year-old to cope with that sort of thing. But I don't care now, I have enough self-confidence to feel OK with being the slow one in the class. I've always liked mature students when I've taught them. I had one in his 70s during one of my most stressful years, and he always took the time to ask me how I was getting on and exhort me to make sure I wasn't overdoing things. He had been diagnosed with cancer and a limited time to live, and decided to spend his last few years getting a degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic. I think we can all applaud that.

7. I shan't miss Anglo-Saxon England because I shan't leave it completely alone. If I have time I may go to the occasional conference as an Independent Scholar -- I know quite a few Independent Scholars who go to conferences and give better papers than the full-timers, and it would be fun to try to join their ranks. As for teaching, I've given that up already, and I do miss it a bit. I particularly used to enjoy teaching those students whom one could enthuse about the subject, and who would go on to get in all their exams except for a first in the one I taught... that was a pleasant ego boost, and it's a thrill to know you've genuinely helped someone to understand things. But then again it is peculiarly draining work, especially for an introvert like me. The academic politics I really will not miss. And just imagine a life which never again involves the Times Higher Education Supplement! I think the THES bears much the same relationship to learning as the Church Times does to the love of God. I wonder if Computing Science has a depressing trade newspaper? I'd like to think it was all like Boing Boing.

1 comment:

  1. That is all tremendously exciting, multi-faceted congratulations! I hope the house is delightful, and it'll be all the better for a year's anticipation (and mulling over swatches and such things).

    I am very interested in your comments on the drudgery of academia, not least because I am contemplating whether to turn my back on a well-paid though stressful career in order to make the leap into 'academia', and spend my time on things which are at least vaguely connected with my field of interest. Before I left for my current 'break' I had had enough of using up my energy on things I didn't actually care about; but I do wonder whether the kind of below-entry-level work I'd be getting would be any better. Money does give you more freedom to do what you want; maybe it's better to accept amateur status (and aspire to be an Independent Scholar, which is a wonderful term). This of course applies to my situation rather than yours, since you're going to be an expert professional in two fields! Hurray! (Incidentally I wonder whether your MSc interviewer was making some correlation between humanities = humane?)

    And I agree that if you have very limited time left, the only rational thing to do is study Anglo-Saxon or similar. 'Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, / mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað.'