Wednesday, 4 July 2012


Some things are impossible to explain. Like why I find the Scots accent irresistible, how I can be middle-aged when I still feel 22, and why it’s so important to me to gain something many of you had by the time you really were 22: a degree.

In my early 40s I studied English and Scottish Literature at Edinburgh University. It was a lovely time, unfortunately cut short by a lack of funds (grants had already gone, fees were just coming in, an idiotic bureaucrat ‘forgot’ to process my application for a bursary). I took a job which I hated, and to console myself I started to write seriously in my spare time. Yet that dream of achieving a degree never went away.

Several years later we were a lot better off but I could no longer face regularly driving 50 miles each way to Edinburgh. So I applied to study with the Open University. My time at Edinburgh gave me credits which meant I ‘only’ had to do four courses to gain a BA (Hons) in Humanities with Literature (though sadly without a specifically Scottish element). I was self-employed by then, and could work half the week, study the other half.

I did three courses in as many years, my favourite being History of Cinema and Television. My husband enjoyed all that mandatory film-watching; I hated having to take exams again. My marks were pretty good, once I stopped being pulled up for writing lines and paragraphs which were ‘too short’ (they probably lacked sufficient adverbs and adjectives as well). So I’m well on the way to achieving dream number 2: getting a degree.

However, dream number 1 – being a published novelist – still rules. I took 2011/12 off to complete my first novel, start my quest for an agent and begin writing book two. This week, as June became July, I faced a big decision. Is this the right time to embark on my final year of study, the most important course of them all, the one which decides how good a degree I get?

The answer had to be ‘yes’, even though it means I must be more organised. I’ll have to go back to designating set days for specific tasks, abandon the luxury of fiction-writing every day. And you know what? I think this will concentrate my mind, make me more productive, not less.

Another choice: which course? I swithered between A300: 20th century literature – texts and debates and AA316: The 19th-century novel. Heaney, Woolf, Ginsberg, Du Maurier, Eliot and Brecht versus Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Eliot, Flaubert and Conrad. Conrad? Memories of A-level English all those years ago flooded back, of wading through Nostromo and hating every line of it.

The reading list for A300 also includes a Scottish classic, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, as well as sci-fi in the shape of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Finally, the clincher: while both courses require six Tutor Marked Assignments (essays), only AA316 has an exam at the end of it. A300 has an End-of-module assessment which is done at home at one’s own pace.

Decision made. A300: 20th century literature – texts and debates, here I come! Eventually, I hope, earning the right to hire one of the fetching gowns seen here for my graduation ceremony.

Nineteenth or twentieth century literature: which would you choose?


  1. Go for it Janet. I am full of admiration but was slightly terrified at the list of authors you will be studying. I look forward to a picture on the blog of you in your graduation robes. BTW I have never heard the word 'swither' before. It's wonderful!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and the encouragement. I too am slightly terrified at the list of authors I'll be studying, but it's always good to be taken out of one's comfort zone. Swither is indeed a lovely Scots words which is now part of this Englishwoman's everyday vocabulary.

  2. I did an OU degree some years ago now - it took me 8 years, even though I had some credits before I started, mainly because I took some half credit courses. One of the courses I took was Literature in the Modern World. It sounds as though the 20th century Literature course has replaced the one I took, although it did have an exam as well as the TMAs. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I took the OU courses because I wished I'd gone to university after I left school instead of doing a librarianship course at college. I didn't like the exams, but I did like watching the plays at the theatre for the Shakespeare course.

    Good luck and I know you'll enjoy it!

    1. Thanks for visiting, Margaret. I meet so many people who have done OU courses for all sorts of reasons. It truly is a marvellous institution and has opened my eyes to many new-to-me things, like French cinema.

  3. I ditched the day job to return to uni in my 40's too Janet so I know how you feel about the challenge and commitment.It was a big decision for me too but not one I've regretted for a minute. Best of luck with your final course- I don't envy you tackling such heavy-weight writers! I'm not sure which course I'd choose- they both sound scary to me!

    1. Thanks for reading my blog, Helen. You're right, it is a big challenge but very worthwhile. The set texts are indeed heavy-weight. I hope that some of the writers' skills will rub off on me.