I have handed in my MA dissertation.
More last minute than it should have been, not read through as many times as it could have been, not the masterpiece it was never going to be.
But it is done.
It’s been a tortuous journey, especially for an academic doubter like myself.
I have been a permanent lecturer for a year now. And don’t get me wrong, there is much that I love about it.
I still wake up every morning wondering how someone like me got is doing something like this.
I love the teaching.
I love watching those “wow,”‘moments . ..that look in a student’s eye when something you have said suddenly opens a door, when a previously obscure concept suddenly makes sense to them.
I love that our university is full of students who perhaps never dreamt that they would ever get a degree.
I love watching their confidence grow as they realise that they are definitely ‘clever enough,” to be at university, it’s just that their intelligence has been hidden beneath a pile of self doubt and a lack of self-belief.
I love that their blue- sky thinking becomes the cloak they wear.
And I love that every time I read and prepare for a lecture, I learn something new.
What I struggle with is the link that often seems to be missing between academic research and it’s usefulness to anyone outside academia.
I do understand the importance of research. I have friends and family who would not be here if it weren’t for medical research.
Our lives are shaped by technology that is the result of research.
The research that has been partly responsible for the destruction of the world, will hopefully help us to save it.
But there are times when research appears to do nothing more than add Dr in front of your name, when self absorbed hours are spent reading and writing to improve an academic’s CV rather than help anyone or make a difference.
And I struggle with that.
Because the truth is, if I have to choose between my inherent gregarious humanness and research, I will choose humanness.
If I have to choose between actually helping someone or writing about how to help them, I will choose actually helping them.
Or perhaps those are just an excused for not actually starting to write my dissertation.
And good excuses for not writing it became my reason for being.
Aside from the fact that every time I sat down to write, I immediately started thinking of great children’s stories which I definitely needed to write before I forgot them.
Or the million other little things that absolutely need doing before any book can possibly be opened or pen picked up: the washing up, the hoovering, the texts that need answering, the phone calls that have to be made, the tortoise that needs finding, the alcohol that needs drinking….distraction is the antidote to sitting down and writing.
Distraction becomes an addiction. I took a shot of distraction with my morning coffee and absorbed it gradually throughout the day.
But one of the things I have learnt from this process is that I can only be me. Chaotic, last minute, well intentioned, me.
At the beginning of my MA , I thought it would help me become someone else. Someone well organised, erudite, good with long words.
I am none of those.
I’m just more tired, more grumpy, more stressed. All of which I express in very short words.
I filled the house with books… mountains of them.
Balanced on every table and chair, every available surface area. I thought perhaps that if I looked at them for long enough and sat close to them, then I would automatically know what was inside them.
“Where are we meant to eat?” my long -suffering husband would ask, trying to balance a plate on top of “Research Methods Made Easy.”
And in the end, I had to admit defeat. I ran out of space on my library card, surfaces in our house and reasons to procrastinate.
So one day, I got home from work, opened my computer and started writing.
That’s what I learnt: You just have to start.
I think perhaps, I had known that all along.
But what I didn’t know or expect were the things that happened because of writing my MA.
The encouragement from friends: “How’s it going Becky? Nearly there? You can do this.” The freshly baked banana bread, my neighbour’s expresso martinis (which help you get get drunk and still stay awake.).
And most unexpectedly: the kindness of strangers.
It was the night before hand-in and I had spent 2 days, with the help of our ever-patient librarians trying to sort out my references .
But at 5 o’clock the library closed and I was many references short of completion.
I moved, all alone, to my office.
That’s when it happened, I got logged out of the system. Lost access to everything, to my whole MA…. the clock was ticking,, the library staff had gone home, there was no one who could help me log back in.
That’s when the academic deserted me and the primal instinct to run set in…. without knowing it, I found myself running, at the door of the closed library, my reflection in its shining glass running helplessly back towards me.
I knew the doors were locked. I knew the staff had gone home. But desperation makes you do meaningless things.
And there, standing if front of the building with its empty-windowed stare, was Vito.
“The library is closed,” he said helpfully. (Like I didn’t know).
He was a complete stranger. ( I only learnt his name later) and laptop bag slung over his shoulder, keys rattling in his hand, he was trying to go home.
But desperation is as blind as love, so even though I saw all this, even though it was nothing to do with him, I still had to tell him my story.
“…and I have to hand it in tomorrow,” I ended, taking a deep breath which wasn’t meant to sound like a sob.
And instead of shaking his head sympathetically and heading for his car, this man, this complete stranger, did something amazing.
” You know,” he said, ” I have to hand my MA in in 3 weeks. I understand how stressful this is, I’m not going home until I have helped you sort this out.”
And right then, I heard it…the celestial music.
His working clothes replaced by white robes, a halo hovering just above his head, we walked back to my room together.
” Are you my guardian angel?” I asked, as he managed to change my password and log me back in.
He laughed, ” No but I think the problem is your computer keys…..they’re very, um… sticky.”
Any other day that would have embarrassed me.
Sticky keys are not something to be proud of.
My husband tells me that often enough, but when it’s pointed out by a complete stranger, even if they are your guardian angel, you know something is very wrong.
That day though, even sticky keys could not diminish the sense of elation and relief I felt at being logged back in.
” I’m going to stay until you have started typing,” he said ” just in case…”
And that’s what he did, he watched me start referencing again and then slipped out of the room.
I tracked him through my window, walking back to his car, already, in his head, explaining to his wife, that he was late because he had had to rescue a sticky-fingered, MA last-minuter.
I saw him the next day, after I had handed in my dissertation, and I couldn’t help hugging him.
“I was just doing my job,” he smiles.
But I know he wasn’t.
An hour after he should have been at home, his one early night of the year ( the library usually closes at 10pm), he was at work, helping me.
And that, right there, is what made writing my MA worthwhile.
Because embedded in the academic language and the pre-formulated minutiae, hidden between the literature review and the methodology section, is the beating heart of human kindness.
And if that is always part of research…then I’m a convert.
Thank you Vito