Of dreams and doctorates

Academic snobbery is nothing new. Universities thrive on it, college lecturers live by it and students get caught up in its tailwinds. I loved university when I first attended it which, was during my mid-twenties. After the boredom of the classroom and the ennui of a succession of dead-end jobs I felt that third-level education was radically different then what I had experienced up to that point in time. Now, in hindsight, I realise the error of my ways, but more of that anon. At this juncture I should point out that I was a high achiever in university. I received firsts on a regular basis and was offered a masters degree in English and in History. I chose History for two reasons: History allowed me to become a tutor and the degree was a masters in literature (or an MPhil). The latter was crucially important to me as the Mlitt allowed me to research on my own and to gather primary sources around which to build my thesis. I had hoped to pursue a PhD but it was felt that my particular topic did not lend itself to that particular award.

It plagued me for some time. Feelings of uselessness were aroused. Somewhere deep inside of me I felt I had let people down. I agonised over the rejection. My thesis director assured me that the department did not treat those pursuing a masters or a PhD any differently but if this was truly the case then why mention it? My director was right: the department didn’t treat me any differently but I was looked upon differently. So begin the next part of my journey as I decided that I wouldn’t attempt to make my thesis into a PhD and that I had to move on toward something new.

That something new was teaching at secondary level. Essentially my academic career was now viewed as over. Of course, I had to obtain a diploma to teach but I know (and I felt it) that this was looked upon, by the academic world, as a minor achievement, that I was, for all intents and purposes, taking the easy way out and would be stuck in the backwater of pedagogy. One thing that the diploma gave me, that neither of my degrees ever could, was the tools to look at my educational experiences up to that point. It forced me to interrogate the model of chalk and talk and to challenge middle-class assumptions about the merits of education from the primary to the secondary and on to the tertiary.

Within Ireland the discussion around education narrowly focuses on the first two but rarely on the third. The chalk and talk model is now seen as old hat in the primary and secondary level yet it persists in the third level. A lecturer stands up and talks at the class, the methodology of teaching is absent and the human connection is lost. Jargon triumphs over knowledge and a narrow focus is often pursued. Where do students with special needs fit in? Disclosure time once again: my second diploma is in the area of special needs. The ‘yak and don’t talk back’ model of third level in Ireland doesn’t really leave a space for those with special needs or as our old head of English said in 2003 to the mass of students on their first day: ‘If you have dyslexia then this course isn’t really for you.’

Knowing what I know now, I should have stood up and walked out but then I was chasing the dream (of just getting a degree).  My mother would have said of our old head that he was ‘a know all that knew fuck all’. To my shame I said nothing. How could I? Wasn’t the model just: ‘Yak and don’t talk back?’ In the end the PhD wasn’t to be but you know what I took the right path in the end,

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