What I owe the Open University

Fetishism was not a personal priority upon applying to the Open University, but it proved too much of a temptation subsequently, when it was the title of an optional lecture at one of the residential summer schools. Despite being on the final half day of our week-long stay that lecture was especially well attended. Thank you O.U., for reconciling me with my fetish.

The Open University is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. It was conceived as a University of the Air and was launched by the U.K. government in April 1969.  It pioneered large scale distance learning with teaching materials being dispatched and assignments submitted and returned by post. Long before the advent of the internet, learning was supported by television and radio broadcasts by the BBC.  Tutorial and pastoral support was available by telephone and regional seminars were held at various places every few weeks.  Some courses required a week of residential study, usually during the summer months.

Thanks for a second chance

A number of circumstances had led to my dropping out of Manchester University after only one term reading Aeronautical Engineering in December 1975.  The only legacy of that misadventure was a huge chip on the shoulder with respect to my perception of my sixth-form contemporaries who went on to complete their various degrees.  Despite being deliriously happy in my occupation as a Laboratory Technician, the urge to meet one’s perceived potential gnawed away inside.  The Open University provided a second chance.

IMAG0885Thanks for exemplifying openness

Open is a wonderful word.  It is boundless.  The O.U. was truly open.  The entrance criterion was simple: apply.  No formal qualifications were required and places were allocated on a first come basis.  Despite having done science A levels there was a burning desire to test myself in the Arts and this proved irresistible in 1981.  Certain courses in the prospectus were classified as Arts/Science and that provided a useful test in transition. To complete the full degree, it was necessary to undergo a foundation course, but being unsure about my ability and not wanting to commit to six or more years of part-time study, I enrolled as an associate student and signed up for The History of Mathematics unit.

Thanks for enabling the counting of one’s blessings

It was a fascinating course.  Aged almost twenty-five, I learned how to count, or more precisely I learned how our forebears learned to count, and how they progressed from that to eventually discover the mathematical procedures that opened up our understanding of the most complex features of the universe whether they be incomprehensibly large, distant, or small.  More importantly on a personal level, was the discovery that this kind of course could be completed successfully.

Thanks for empathising

The great strength of the O.U. is its understanding – and complete acknowledgement – that study comes second.  Lives have to be led.  There are other demands on the student and they must take priority.  They vary from scholar to scholar, but earning a living and supporting a young family cannot be side-lined.  The O.U. not only understands this – it is its starting point.  The courses were carefully structured to fit around a busy life, and while sacrifices had to be made, having course materials that were designed with that in mind was a marvellous reassurance.

IMAG0883For this relief much thanks

There was great satisfaction at completing the History of Mathematics unit and an inner irritation had been eased and that was where the association would have ended were it not for a twist of fate.  Purely as a function of good fortune, over a decade later, I found myself being appointed as a teacher of Drama in the sixth form college where I had worked as a technician. Practical experience was plentiful but my textual knowledge lacked depth.  It was time to brush up my Shakespeare.

That course, too, was undertaken as an associate student, and I now had one sixth of the credits needed for an O.U.B.A. in the bank of academia. The decision was made that it would surely be useful to now consider completing the full degree.

Thanks for the pick and mix

Another brilliant aspect of the O.U. was the ability to mix and match courses across a wide spectrum of study, and while completing the necessary Arts Foundation year, a number of other units were lined up.  That process was informed by a subsequent promotion to middle management where responsibility was held for a range of creative subjects including Fine Art, Sculpture, Music, Dance and Drama; plus Sport, and Leisure & Tourism.

DSCN1872Thanks for not answering the questions

The most fascinating and fulfilling of all the subsequent units was one that had relevance to all (yes all) of the courses for which I was responsible, plus several more that would be subsequently added to my portfolio: Philosophy of the Arts.   Wrangling with the definition of Art, the meaning and value of artworks, the distinction that defined different understandings of perception, or of beauty or kitsch was challenging and intriguing but also superbly equipping for subsequent professional discussions and decisions. This melding of the aesthetic and the ponderous was sublime.  The best questions were never satisfactorily answered, which explains just how important it is to continue to express the inquiries.

cropped pop art warholThanks for the working holidays

Not all courses had summer schools – a week of residential study at a concrete (or red-brick) campus sub-let by a conventional university – but they remain as highlights in the memory. To meet such a diversity of people united by a simple but comprehensively complex common pursuit was as edifying as the lectures and seminars.  The summer schools coming, as they did, roughly mid-way through the eminently sensible academic year that began in February and ended in November, also recharged the motivation batteries at a most beneficial time.

Thanks for teaching me how not to teach

Some units carried more credits towards the final degree, and hence required more time and work. In addition to the aforementioned, I studied Modern Art Practices and Debates, Fifth Century Athens Democracy & City State, and Exploring Educational Issues.  Ironically the latter was the least well taught, but that experience was priceless for someone desirous of wishing to continually improve his own teaching, and who was responsible for supporting others in that process. In the main, however the courses that were undertaken were expertly delivered and being able to simultaneously be on both sides of the learning fence was invaluable.

And for teaching me how to teach

In total it took seven years of study, but the degree was attained. As well as the knowledge and understanding, the O.U. had provided excellent examples of how to prepare worthwhile lessons and materials whilst also empathising with the learner who, in addition to having an interest in the topic, also had a life away from it.

Distance learning does require discipline but the rewards are boundless.  Doors open into new intellectual lands, and while this can be achieved via residential study, being able to access those places whilst conducting the necessary procedures of a full, and quite possibly unrelated, life is of immeasurable benefit.  The O.U. gave insights and techniques that proved to be continuously valuable during the subsequent two decades of teaching. Without those donations it is doubtful that I could have achieved or sustained the levels of success and satisfaction that I was able to pass on to proteges.

As for fetishism . . .

IMAG0886I still have my hand-written notes from the Philosophy of the Arts lecture in the summer of 1995 telling me that concern for the original is a kind of fetishism.   I’ve always harboured and fostered a deep love for the original in aesthetic expression.  Fetishist perhaps – but thanks to the O.U. I’m very open about that.



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