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Posts for September 30, 2004

On having my life back, and academia

OK, so on Monday I posted the final TMA for my OU course, A103: An Introduction to the Humanities. It was long, and broad, and mostly very good (though don’t get me started about the History of Science block). So now I have my life back: I can read whatever I feel like reading, and not just coursework and the texts I’m studying; I can write what I want to, and not just the essay for the current assignment.

You have no idea — or rather, I had no idea — how much reading time a thing like that takes up. I do most of my reading while commuting nowadays, and sure enough, I did most of my studying while commuting. An hour each way makes ten hours a week. Subtract the times I didn’t do that, and add in the other time I spent, and I suspect that’s about the average time I spent overall: ten hours a week. Which is probably more than I did as an undergraduate 22 years ago. Well, OK, not counting going to lectures and stuff.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but these days I frequently wonder whether I did the wrong degree. I’m glad to have a scientific background, and I don’t doubt that it helped me to get job as a programmer; but recently, given that I’ve been doing well on the OU course, I’ve been wondering whether I shouldn’t have done English all those years ago. Maybe, though, I wouldn’t have been so successful at it back then: perhaps I needed the experiences I’ve had over the years before I could tackle the Humanities with enough understanding.

But I certainly think I should have done Computer Science rather than (or as well as) Physics. I did, in fact, express an interest in doing a half course in CS during my first meeting with my Director of Studies. It wasn’t possible (he told me) to fit it in with the half course in Astronomy that I was doing because I intended to do Astrophysics: they were both in the afternoons (unlike most lectures) and that would have left no time for my Physics lab. I was too shy and unassertive to argue the point; he was too uninterested to discuss alternative possibilities. Note that his role was ‘Director’; not ‘Advisor’ or ‘Counsellor’. Indeed, I put my failure to study CS squarely down to the failure of the Scottish educational establishment of the time to give me any careers advice worthy of the name.

I accept partial blame for the latter failure, of course. At the ages of sixteen and seventeen, when I had what passed for careers advice meetings at my school, I wasn’t in the least interested in having a career (unless it involved rock ‘n’ roll); so I didn’t exactly involve myself in my careers discussions. University was just somewhere to go to get away from home, have money, get drunk, and all the usual student things; plus it was what my parents expected (not so much the getting drunk, etc, bits, but you know what I mean). But you would think that they (the careers advisors) could have worked out (or helped me to work out) that the only thing I really liked at school (I was good at Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and for that matter, not bad at English and Spanish, which werere the Highers I did, but I would never have said I actually liked them) was being in the Computer Club, where we learned to program in BASIC.

It really never occured to me that I could study Computers at University. I knew, of course, that Unis had lots of subjects that we didn’t do at school, but I had no inkling of how you would go about starting one. I guess I was pretty unimaginative in that way. There was one guy in my class who was planning to do CS, but he already knew much more about computers than I did (hell, he even knew some Fortran) so that put me off the possibility even if I did consider it: clearly you had to know much more than me to study such things. I wonder what happened to Billy Gibson; the last I heard he had dropped out of Uni.

If I had done CS, I don’t know that my life subsequently would have been that different. I suppose I might have got a job sooner, since I’d almost certainly have had a better degree; and it’s possible that that wouldn’t have been in London, which could have made a huge difference. But even if that had happened, London had been Calling for a long time, so I’m sure I’d have ended up here eventually. The main thing is whether I’d have been doing a particular philosophy course at the City Lit at the end of 1992. Not doing that would have made a big, big difference.