Return to Study

By Helen

Months before lockdown, I signed up for a two year post-graduate university course. Perfect timing, as it turned out. A good friend, who knew that I mainly wrote non-fiction, put the idea into my head by enthusing about this wonderful lecturer and fantastic course called Science Communication that would be just up my street. After years of writing textbooks, I had run out of things to write about. I felt becalmed with a fossilised use of language, and sentences that arrived on the page in the passive voice. I studied science more years ago than I care to admit so I guessed my knowledge was out of date. New ideas have replaced the old facts that we regurgitated onto exam papers decades ago.

Science communication as a subject you could study hadn’t been invented when I was at school, so what is it? It is about examining the many ways the general public learn about science. But it’s also about how social and economic policy influence the context in which people learn, and scientists work. I learnt a lot about the history of science and history in general, which I hadn’t studied since I was thirteen. I’ve also learnt about the way film makers change real events to create a winning formula that will do well at the box office. I have always watched nature documentaries but now I’m watching with a critical eye and ear; trying to spot where animal noises have been added afterwards to a scene that would have been naturally quiet. Now I notice how the emotions are ramped up using music. I also watched the film Hidden Figures to analyse how the three Black women scientists were portrayed, and compare that with other stories showing scientists in books and on television.

There are lots of distance learning options these days for anyone who needs the flexibility and doesn’t want to travel away from home. But there’s a lot to be said in favour of learning face to face in groups, and I’m definitely a groupie, even if it’s on zoom or Teams. I found part time study was useful because it gave me the time to think that I needed. It took me a while to ramp up to writing essays again, but I have been delighted with the results. When your future career doesn’t depend on getting a good grade it takes the pressure off straight away. But I must say I was horrified to hear that some postgraduate courses still have exams and I wasn’t prepared to put myself through that again. The modular structure gave me the chance to put together topics that interested me. But I also asked around about what the lecturers were like and decided to follow the good ones. A good lecturer is just as important as an attractive topic, though that can be complicated by staff often being engaged on short term contracts.

I am not quite old enough to start boasting about my age, but one of the things that put me off signing up was worrying about how other people would see me. Would I be seen as a grey-haired old lady with a bus pass in her purse? At enrolment, I bristled a bit when some helpers assumed I was either a member of staff or somebody’s mother. But once I joined my lecture/seminar group I felt completely at home. The age and gender mix was good, with a couple of other grey heads: there were three PhD students as well as the five us doing MAs. Only two of the group had just completed their first degree, and all of us had work experience of various kinds, which made discussions really interesting. To start with I was anxious about expressing my thoughts but I found the others listened to me and said they valued my ideas. One thing I noticed was how easy it is to get stuck in a particular point of view, and find yourself defending it long after you have forgotten why you thought it was true. People of any age can get stuck and well-managed discussion is a very good way of challenging fixed ideas.

When I told friends what I was going to do, one thing that surprised me was the number of them who couldn’t imagine wanting to study for pleasure. Some looked puzzled and asked how I would fit in the work. But I don’t see reading and writing as a chore, especially at the moment when I can’t go anywhere or do any of the other things I usually do. The big benefit I hadn’t expected was the feeling of belonging to an academic community where I found challenging things to think about like colonialism, and the way so many museums were financed by the profits from slavery. But equally important, I have been encouraged to write differently, which was what I really wanted.