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The Accidental Student

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This had not been the plan. The initial idea had been to further my knowledge in film, perhaps through a gentle foundation course. Not a part-time MA in World Cinema at Birkbeck, University of London. But it was the end of the summer, I'd left applying quite late and the course administrator had been so encouraging, 'I think you should just go for it,' she'd said in her soft Australian drawl, 'I'm thinking of signing up for one myself.' It did look fascinating and anyway, as a journalist, research, writing and deadlines are what I do, so how difficult could studying really be?

Extremely, is the short answer. I am 46, mother to two teenage boys. I hadn't written an essay in over twenty years. For 11 weeks last term, I left our north London home once - sometimes twice a week - at 5pm for a 6pm lecture in a chilly cinema, followed by a seminar. Words have eluded me; paradigm, hegemony, indexicality (don't ask) and epistemology. I've had to sit with my dictionary to hand when reading preparatory texts and I swear some academic writers just make up words.

After two weeks, feeling utterly overwhelmed and de-skilled and having attended one particular seminar of which I had understood absolutely nothing - not one word - I find myself in a tiny attic office, tucked at the top of Birkbeck's School of Arts. Practically sitting in the neatly stacked bookshelves, which line across one wall, I'm having a self-initiated tutorial with my course director, telling him how difficult I'm finding it. The readings, the academic theories, I lament my lack of critical thinking skills. I tell him I feel like a grandma. I admit that I thought the description 'mature student' meant someone over 40. It is anyone over 21, if you must know, which rather disturbingly means my eldest son will be mature in four years time. He listens calmly, totally unperturbed. I ask if he's heard it all before and he nods then tells me that the older the students, the better they are. We have Life Experience apparently and that means our approach to study can be less rigid, more independent. We are more confident, self-assured. Before I know it, the 60-minute hour is over. He recommends two books, assures me that I'll be fine and I climb away back down to soak in the evening student buzz.

I am now aware that these feelings are not unique to me. I seem to keep meeting women who are also studying for an MA. Maybe it's some sort of mid life crisis for professional middle-aged women. One described it as a sadomasochistic venture. Another laughed when I told about seeing my tutor after two weeks. She'd made it to six before doing the same.

Sometimes, it feels as if I'm sporting three heads: MA, work and home and often I sit at my desk and stare at my computer screen, unsure of what to do first, where to start. I found myself waking early, quietly fretting when it came to writing my first essay. So, why do it? I'm still unsure but I don't think that it matters. The course is stimulating, the teaching exemplary and it's an opportunity to further my interest and knowledge of Israeli film. And I absolutely love the library. The place exudes such an aura that I have fantasised about setting up an office there.

Considering this MA course is relatively new - it has only been running for two years - it means flexibility is possible and we can have a say in how the course is shaped. When I say 'we,' there are 9 of us; most of whom I should add are young enough to be my children. It should have been 10 but someone called Seamus abandoned ship after week 1. Somehow he's still on our email list though; a fact that we realised only recently. However, I'm sure he was very relieved to know of the extended essay deadline.

Having children close to university age I'm attempting to be a positive role model, and although admit to finding it a challenge, I've tried not to display too much hair pulling. I reserve that for my husband and my close friends. One term down and, as of last week, two essays submitted, a week ago I had to return to the rabbit warren office. This time to discuss my research project proposal. The battle of the texts continues.