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AIM: Exorcist Allen
Wed, 09 Sep 2015 13:28:50 GMT
I've been thinking about making a post like this for a little while, for myself, to talk a bit about the experience of doing my MA itself and the impact it had on me as a person and a thinker.
Really, there's no easy or better ways to say that this year has been awful on so many levels and a huge part of it has been my MA at University of Sussex, but it isn't the only aspect. I'm not going to talk in detail about other life stuff though because this is a processing through of the MA experience. I want this to be constructive, but I am angry, I'm hurt, and I have not come out of this MA stronger and more confident than I went in. So it's meant to be reflective and constructive, but also trying to get gunk out of a tender wound so I can start to heal and become myself again.
If there are comments on this I may or may not reply, it will depend entirely on how I feel.
At this point in time I've spent a lot of time in the UK education system. It means a lot to me and I'm invested in it, not just as a student going through it but as someone who thinks education actually fucking matters. I squeezed into university at Plymouth by the skin of my teeth, tried two separate degrees and didn't complete even the first year of either, got sick, came back to education, did a foundation degree that I hated, completed an undergraduate degree that I loved, spent a year in student service work, and then did my MA. I got a lot of training on student activism and issues facing education in the UK, and in the global north, which has served me well. I do love education, but I don't love UK education at all. I love what educators try to do, but I don't love the restrictive systems they work in or how it socialises them.
So last year, 2014, the application process and pre-arrival interactions. In the process of applying for this MA I made some mistakes that are all me. I researched various degrees in the UK and the only one that seemed right for me on paper was the one offered at Sussex. The offered courses sounded good, the approach and ethos sounded great, I'd heard good things about it from people I respected greatly, etc. I didn't visit the campus and I didn't meet anyone currently teaching on the course, convening the course, or any current students. That was a mistake and I'll never do it again, but it was a heavy "live and learn" and the truth is I'll never know if going to visit beforehand would have changed the experience itself in the slightest.
Regardless, I checked the website and course offerings methodically. I checked everything to make sure there were no clashes, that everything I was studying was something I'd enjoy, and the implication from the website was that many of the courses were offered both in the Spring and Autumn terms. Wonderful and legitimately interesting sounding courses-- I read everything I could find on everything and made my timetable. I felt good to have found what looked like a genuinely interdisciplinary MA degree on sexuality studies that offered courses directly related to what I wanted to look at. I was very excited.
Then I got emails about class clashes and this was the first...not great thing of many. I wrote back immediately and was disgruntled; MAs aren't cheap and I had made my choices carefully based on the information on the website. I try to be patient and understanding knowing that start of term is always a pain because I've worked it, but I was still displeased. I was told with term the classes would be in and that I could audit them when Spring came around but in the meantime I needed to pick something else.
I didn't end up auditing, for various reasons I'll get to later.
We found out on induction day that, actually, we weren't an English MA but a joint degree in English and Global Studies to expand the interdisciplinary scope. Great: I'm not an English student. But as it turned out, that didn't translate to interdisciplinary, it translated to dual-disciplinary. More on that later, also.
I took a core unit on Queer Theory and another class. On paper, the second class looked great: non-Western traditions of pornography with a promise of resisting Orientalist approaches. It turned out, to me, to be another mode of looking at (mostly) women's bodies through a form of straight male Orientalism whilst claiming not to be. The lecturer spoke over us constantly, deferred to the guys over the women, and after two classes I changed. I figured to be paying the kind of money I am I don't want to sit week after week to learn from a sexist ass pretend to be ethically sound and racially respectful.
The class I took in its place was genuinely amazing and the only time I felt like a real post grad student. It was on the history of the education institution and calling on us to question our places as cogs in the education machine and what we should expect of ourselves as college educated citizens, or prospective educators. Really wonderful class, challenging ideas, and a workload that felt like a constant pressure to balance time or you wouldn't get everything done and even then sometimes you didn't get everything done. I liked that a lot. That class was very small, only about eight of us total, usually only five-six each class, and there was a heavy slant on Philosophy and English Lit. but that was okay. Retrospectively, it was good to tread through an area that I didn't already know and made me feel mentally unsettled because I didn't know what I was doing, but in context in the moment I had ups and downs in my confidence when I compared it to the other class.
Instead of feeling excited that I was encountering new and challenging content, the way that the MA was set-up made me feel like I should already know the material and how to think about it, not that the point was to learn. I went through swings of feeling excited and engaged by the material, and then anxious and uncomfortable when it seemed like everyone else understood what I didn't. I had one day, I remember very vividly, where I was so low that the thought of going to class just left me a mess and I ended up going to London and King's for the day instead for my own mental stability. And that was the class that was mentally engaging with high quality teaching and innovative thinking behind it.
But the other class, the core module on queer theory, was a very poor counter-point to the other. This class was led by the course convener and ultimately ended up with around twenty-five students, mostly from other English MAs. I noticed very early on that a lot of the reading was stuff I'd already encountered for my undergraduate degree, but also that working closely with the texts was very lacklustre and in part I blame bad classroom management and the lecturer's choice to indulge an undergraduate auditor who was the girlfriend of an MA student on the course. I'm not opposed to auditing and I'm not against advanced undergrads in postgrad spaces, but the inclusion of this student altered the space immensely. She made it so the texts couldn't be discussed frankly and directly under the guise of the content being triggering and bringing psuedo-tumblr politics into the academic space meaning that, in effect, nothing could be discussed in a sophisticated tone.
I had to leave just about every activist space because I just couldn't stand the imagined traumas--not actual lived trauma, but the possibility that someone, somewhere might feel uncomfortable. In the classroom space, the content is all presented clearly and openly before you step into the classroom. There is not mistaking what topics will be discussed and the tone it should happen in. I took my concerns straight to the convener (I was not the only one) and after two weeks of having the auditing undergrad (the module was twelve weeks long, we were three weeks in by that point, a quarter of the way through the module), the lecturer "addressed" the issue, not by stepping up and controlling, steering and forcing constructive and challenging discussion, but by blaming us as an MA group: "My second year undergraduates have more intelligent discussions than this class."
The undergrad stayed in the class for the rest of the module, was never asked to leave or only act as an observer not a contributor, and managed to derail a quarter of our classtime that she wasn't paying for to treat the classroom space as an extension of her activist space where she could giggle with her girlfriend when contributions they didn't agree with were raised.
I learnt from that experience that undergrads for whom the class was just a nice, free little extracurricular activity were more important than the current, paying MA students, some whom were aspiring to a career in academia.
What that class gave me was a lot of texts I'd already read, an uncomfortable classroom environment, a lecturer and convenor who didn't step up and control her classroom, and four out of five of us in our sexuality studies MA (the other really sort of stumbled into the wrong MA, to be fair) feeling very isolated from the rest of the class.
We weren't given much guidance on the essays, only that they didn't need to be in the discipline of English, and I could probably have bracketed the admin shit, the stumbling into one class and out of another, and even the bad handling of the class were it not for the essays and the feedback.
Both my papers received some the lowest grades I'd ever gotten since finding my academic niche. In and of itself, I don't mind needing to improve, but the way everything came together made it feel like a failure that I didn't already know it and the lack of recourse to get real support or mentorship to improve made things so much worse. For the really good course, I knew why I got the grade I did; the idea I had didn't pan out on paper and by the time I realised that it was too late. The feedback reflected that and I was angry at myself for not delivering a piece that reflected how much I liked the course and how much it made me work.
The other, the queer theory paper, I didn't understand why the grade was so low at all. I got the comment that it "read more like a history paper" and I drove myself crazy trying to figure out why that was wrong. I was told consistently that my writing was lovely and I made points well, but I couldn't figure out what was wrong with the queer theory paper and I couldn't bring myself to meet with the lecturer after trying to get her to empathise several times before. All I could deduce was that "interdisciplinary" actually meant "produce me an English essay even when I've said you don't need to produce one."
Now, the UK system is unforgiving: get it right or fail. There are no ways to make up grades, to revise, to ask for lecturer feedback before hand-in, nothing. It's not an education, it's an exposure to a lake and if you can't swim you need to learn when you're tossed in. That, on the one hand, is beyond the scope of what educators in the UK are expected to do and beyond what they're paid for. On the other hand, as a student this is unacceptable and is not an education.
The feedback from the first term lead me to feel like I was actually just an idiot, that I'd be let onto the course by mistake and I actually didn't belong there at all. From January until around July I was a complete mess and went into my second term with shattered confidence and the feeling that queer pedagogy and course conveners that cared about their students just didn't exist. I felt like I'd paid literally thousands of pounds to become emotionally eviscerated and have the sense of personal strength I'd built up taken away with very little to make up for it.
Going into the second term I was shaky, nervous, lacking confidence, and generally in a terrible pace. As it turned out, both classes in the second term were in Global Studies and were quite similar in terms of their content. And they weren't very challenging intellectually. One of the two classes I didn't get along with the lecturer's disjointed teaching style that, again, didn't give much scope for student interaction and engagement. I wasn't blown away by much and, again, I knew the vast majority of the information.
My own engagement dropped as a result. I stopped being so diligent with required readings, I stopped contributing as much in classes, I had to force myself up and out to the classes themselves. It was devastating: I love my field and the MA had made me feel like I didn't belong to it and what would I do if that was the case?
I did get some strong support from these lecturers though and even if I didn't agree with the teaching style of one I won't forget or snuff the support I was given, and that was its own saga here.
I have never asked for an extension on a paper before, but for these last two term papers I needed to. I went to the uni's student support unit and found out that the only way extensions are given were through GP's note. For reasons I don't want to disclose online, I had neither a good relationship with the medical practice I'd signed up with, nor did I want the additional emotional onslaught of engaging with my GP, or finding another sympathetic medical ear to prove that I wasn't just a lazy fuck. I argued with the student support telling them that their system was restrictive and increased student stress instead of decreasing it. They referred me to the wrong people to start with, then suggested I go to consoling.
Consoling is great for some people, it wasn't good for me and I knew it, but I needed the extension so I went to the first session. I filled in the form that basically checks to see if you're a danger to yourself (I was, at the time) and tried to be very candid with the woman I saw. I said I knew where my issues were steaming from and all I needed was a bit more time than I had. I was asked about whether my partners were still together (I haven't lived with my parents for ten years) and how my childhood was. I said none of this was relevant to me because I wasn't trying to uncover a mystery upset: my confidence had been fucked by my MA, I had virtually no support, no means to make it better, and I had five weeks until my last two papers were due. I just needed a week or two extra.
I was told to come in for a six week consoling session, that I'd be emailed a date and if I didn't want the session to not reply to the email.
My brain was going haywire: my student support brain was freaking out about how badly administered Sussex' student support was and my student brain was screaming about failing and being an idiot. I did get an email through, almost two weeks later, and as par their instructions I didn't reply because I didn't want the appointment. I received a message the day after my appointment would have been telling me how "disappointed" they were that I didn't show up and hoped to see me next time, even though by not answering in the first place the appointment shouldn't have been confirmed. To me, that's a terrible system as it is because when a student indicates suicidal thoughts or tendencies and the protocol is to not reply to an email as a means of indicating action rather than direct communication... The implications just distress me greatly and the fact that I did not kill myself in those two weeks does not equate the same for others. I received no contact after that.
Somehow, partly through support from Skyler and support from these two Global Studies lecturers, I did produce two papers and the grades were much, much better. But the gulf between the two terms spun me out more. I didn't feel like I'd been stretched at all, so what had I done so wrong in the first term? Why were this term's grades so much better? I didn't, and still don't, understand and don't feel like I learnt anything.
For the thesis, I had a total of two hours supervision, mostly on the literature review component of the project. My supervisor, though lovely and supportive, had 14 other supervisees, and didn't really know much about the broadest parts of my project at all. We had two sessions as a group and two individual sessions and then I was on my own. He only skim-read one section. This is also standard for the UK, and it's terrible. As I was writing the thesis I flipped back and forth between feeling great and wondering why I was even thinking of submitting 50-some pages of shit. By this point I didn't feel secure or like I'd learnt a lot and grown, I felt like I didn't know what I was doing and was just guessing about what someone, somewhere might maybe want but only if they're not strictly disciplined by their discipline.
I also learnt that the others in my tiny cohort were also struggling. One student said they'd basically already given up on any hope of continuing postgraduate education, another had outside therapy to process through their own incredibly low self-esteem and distress. We all did badly and were socialised by the MA to feel like we were personally to blame for our own inability to meet invisible bars of standard and moving goal posts of expectations with no guidance on how to actually score in a game we thought we knew but didn't and were excepted to figure out in four sessions and a 15k word project.
Our course convener went on sabbatical and didn't tell us who get in touch with and never contacted the five of us again. When I saw her briefly on campus at the end of the second term she just waved at me, then walked right on by without a word.
For many years I've had this belief that it's not worth regretting choices because they're gone and done and you've probably learnt something from it. This is the first time I don't feel that way: I wish I hadn't done this MA. It left me shaky and weak emotionally and intellectually. I don't feel enhanced, I feel demoralised. I don't feel proud, I feel like I stumbled my way through a muddy forest and only found my way out through chance rather than through skill that I thought I had.
But I did complete it. No matter what, even though I desperately want to come out with a Distinction, I'll still have an advanced degree. I survived when there were moments I seriously doubted I would. It's given me a sense that I can't take anything on paper at face value and next time my research needs to be physical. I know I'm not an idiot, but at the same time I only feel sharper academically speaking in marginal ways, not the leaps and bounds I experienced at undergrad. And on the one hand, that's fine, undergrad is a longer period and a lot more is brand new, but on the other hand I expected to feel like doing the MA would leave me feeling SO DAMN READY for PhD work and it hasn't. I don't feel skilled enough or smart enough.
I did fucking do it though. Despite all the upset and this being one of the worst years of my life and this fucking town being so isolated and isolating and Sussex being a shit institution in so many ways, I did fucking do it. I got an MA and it's over and I survived. But I'm exhausted and it doesn't feel like a win right now--it feels like I only just made it out alive.
This entry was originally posted at http://jesters.dreamwidth.org/13305.html. Please comment there using OpenID.
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