Category Archives: PhD

Being There: Full-time PhD Study at the Open University

When I applied for a full-time PhD place at the Open University, I had no idea you had to go anywhere particular to do it. I was completing my MA at Manchester University at the time and I had never seen Milton Keynes, let alone the Open University campus. During my undergraduate study with the OU, I had thought of them as distant, perhaps imaginary, places and there had certainly never been any reason or occasion to try to visit them. So it was quite a shock to find out during my (telephone) interview for a Phd studentship that full-time students were expected to live within 40 mins and 40 miles of the Walton Hall campus and to see their supervisors face to face on a regular basis.

The flat in Fenny: my living room is the one with the door open
The flat in Fenny: my living room is the one with the door open

When I was offered and accepted my place, I still didn’t go to see Walton Hall because I was knee deep in an MA dissertation and grateful that my son, Matthew and my sister, Pat, were willing to go and find me a place to live while I carried on writing. The first time I saw the flat in Fenny Stratford (a couple of miles from campus), was the day I moved in. Thankfully it turned out to be a great place to live though I was also a bit shocked that I needed to buy a car to get about in MK – I don’t know who designed the public transport system, but they certainly didn’t have the Fenny to Open University journey in mind and two miles each way was a bit much for my little legs.

Walking onto the campus for the first time – it’s just over that bridge

But eventually, I saw the campus and fell in love with it, and I met my supervisors and I suppose it would be a bit odd to say I fell in love with them, but I certainly felt I had been extremely lucky to end up with such kind and generous  and intelligent people as I staggered my way round my PhD topic trying to connect with some concrete ideas for exploration. The Open University is an amazing organisation, totally accepting of whatever you are as long as you direct your efforts into your subject with enthusiasm. I think all PhD candidates probably suffer from some degree of ‘impostor syndrome’ where they think that any minute now someone is going to spot that they are really just some random person who wandered into the programme by mistake, but I always felt that, even if my supervisors had spotted it, they would have been far too kind to point it out and would have found some way of making a success of things. Perhaps that is what is happening after all 🙂 Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself.

The on-campus chapel where two OU choirs hold their practices

The first year is not so frightening. There are skills workshops at least once every couple of weeks and they are mostly quite easy to understand. Some of us have already gathered some of the skills in previous lives and that take the pressure off nicely. There are some topics that are more difficult though – I struggle with ontology and epistemology and frameworks but, at they end of the day, they are just words and I will have to get over it! There are other students, actually a surprisingly large and eclectic mix of students, at first all of us trying to look as if we know what we are doing, and then swinging to the other extreme and admitting that we really don’t. Then starts the long habit of supporting each other and trying to understand and help with each other’s problems. We don’t see each other enough though really and our topics are mostly very different. I still haven’t met anyone researching pedagogy and technology for Latin (that’s where my PhD topic has settled now). We do have desks together, at least in my department (the Centre for Education and Education Technology – CREET). My seat is invariably empty though – I never did like working at a desk or in an open plan office. I generally stay at home and wrestle the procrastination monkey alone. I join a couple of on-campus choirs though and that makes me feel more part of the place. At the end of the year, we have to submit a probation report and do a mini-viva defending our plans for the rest of the PhD. This is very worrying. If there is going to be a moment when the impostor thing gets spotted, this is it! Somehow, I end up with extremely kind and generous and intelligent assessors – I am beginning to spot a theme now – and they give lots of encouragement and helpful advice. I can stay for another two years!

Coming in to land in Lexington on my way for a week of speaking Latin

In the second year, the workshops dry up, but we still have supervisions – mine are once a month, but some are more often. This is data collection year and I find myself gadding off to America to speak Latin, all courtesy of my research grant. I think I have gone to Heaven. There are trips to conferences around Europe and the UK as well as Work in Progress (WiP) seminars on campus. I can see everyone’s ideas beginning to take shape and my own seem to be settling down a bit too. There is some hope that I might get away with this after all  …

But no, the third year is really scary. I am going to have to write stuff! Actually a real lot of stuff! I hate writing! Why did I not think of that before? I start and it isn’t so bad. My supervisors stay true to form and tell me it is all ok while managing to tell me about the bits which are not ok as well. I write and correct and write. The amount I haven’t written doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller though. I am still at that stage where the mountain to climb seems insurmountably large, but I keep plodding along, sometimes forward and sometimes back, hoping that by some miracle I will sneak up on the summit and the PhD will make it through the impostor filter too. Doing a PhD is really hard – harder than any academic thing I have done before – and I suppose that is as it should be. But, whatever happens, I have learned an enormous amount in some really excellent and inspiring company. I would certainly recommend the Open University to any of you intrepid enough to take on the PhD journey.


#CA14 Nottingham – a two-paper booking on my PhD road show

A gratuitous picture of the beautiful Nottingham University campus, taken on my iPad mini

So … I’m just quickly reporting on my appearances at the Classical Association Conference held at the beautiful Nottingham University campus between 13th and 16th April 2014.

The conference was, as ever, a real treat.  Lots of old friends to catch up with and some really exciting new ones to share interests.  Plenty of wine to help the conversation flow too, whilst of course maintaining a keen intellectual focus on Classics in all its forms.

My involvement this year was in two newish areas which are gaining a solid foothold and increasing popularity at the event (as you will see from the number of live-tweets about each).  My first paper was given jointly with Dr James Robson, Head of Classical Studies at the Open University.  We have formed a very productive partnership working together on the Council of University Classics Departments Survey, and organising the very successful #iLeG conference in February.  Our double-act at Nottingham covered interim results for the survey, and exploration of the benefits and pitfalls of eLearning at the Open Uni.  This slotted into a two-part eLearning panel convened by @banatoli, aka Dr Bartolo Natoli, currently at University of Austin, Texas but soon to be at Randolf-Macon college, Virginia.  The panel ranged over various areas of research and practice in eLearning with honest assessment of successes and failures.  The atmosphere throughout was enthusiastic, happy and supportive.  A lovely, friendly group of people has gathered round this field and its future looks to me to be in excellent hands.  The Twitter community came out in force to support this, and their presence added a great deal to the collaborative feel of the gathering.  Here is a flavour of that involvement:

New Approaches to eLearning:
Part 1: [View the story “#CA14 eLearning Part I” on Storify]
Part 2: [View the story “#CA14 eLearning Part II” on Storify]

I was also part of a panel called ‘Defining Classical Scholarship: the Research / Teaching Interface’, convened by Dr Jonathan Eaton of Newcastle College.  Here, I did a solo paper called ‘Theory and Practice in Ancient Language Teaching in UK Universities’.  I spoke about the lack of a sound theoretical basis for some ancient language pedagogy and explored the possibilities of benefiting from engaging with modern language theories and practice.  This might help make ancient languages more accessible to a wider group of students and also enable Classicists to ‘read’ rather than ‘translate’ ancient texts.  I focussed on the possibility of using Latin actively and this provoked some lively debate from the audience.  The whole panel was really well-received and a clear joint message about the positive effects of connecting research with teaching emerged.  Again you can sense the enthusiasm and support from the twitter story:

Defining Classical Scholarship: The Research/Teaching Interface:
[View the story “#CA14 Defining Classical Scholarship” on Storify]
photo (1)
Another iPad mini image of the beautiful Nottingham campus

I was delighted to be in the company of some very erudite and energetic people on both panels and I enjoyed the experience immensely.  I will hope to be back for more at #CA15 and to see more new and enthusiastic faces emerging in my areas of research.  It has certainly enriched my PhD experience and reassured me of the value of my efforts.  Thanks Classical Association! Thanks Nottingham! Ad proximam!

2014 Tour Dates

So … my PhD life has somehow turned into a roadshow.  After a rather difficult finish to last year, where I managed to stagger through my probation assessment despite various medical traumas, I think (hope!) my mojo is returning.  Anyway, I have gathered enough chutzpah to start submitting abstracts to conferences and even to help organise one.

For anyone interested in catching a performance (and as a memory jogger for me!), here are my current commitments:

Three Minute Thesis Competition, 28/01/2014 – speaker on Open University team

iLatin and eGreek, Camden, 01/02/2014 – co-organiser and speaker

Classical Association Conference, Nottingham, 13-16/04/2014 – two papers

CALL 2014, Antwerp, 07-09/07/2014 – one solo paper on methodology


Now, I just need to gather enough self-discipline to prepare something to say at each of these!

A Rose by Any Other Name … Part 1

‘Rosa Black Prince’ photograph by my lovely Classicist friend, Maddy Bowman

Over the past year or so, since I first submitted my PhD proposal in February 2012, my title has gone through three different version … hopefully a quick history of them will show progression …

The first version was:

Technology-Assisted Learning for Ancient Languages‘.

This showed that I had a clear idea that I wanted to help (‘assisted’) by using ‘technology’ and that my focus was on ‘learning’ ‘Ancient Languages’.  All that is still true, but I now know that ‘Technology-Assisted’ doesn’t really coincide with the specialist vocabulary of any of the disciplines with which I will be interacting (education, educational technology, second language development, ancient languages, Latin, Ancient Greek).  It does have a plain English meaning and that is fine, but now I see it from the perspective of someone who does know some of that specialist vocabulary, it might look as if I have just got one of the specialist acronyms wrong, or that I have never even heard any of the acronyms and don’t really know what I am talking about (which was actually true at the time I wrote the proposal and is only slightly less true now!). So, for those of you who haven’t taken the plunge into the world of second language development and related technology, here are the acronyms I just missed when I was making up my title:

TELL = Technology-Enhanced Language Learning

Kirkwood and Price tell (No pun intended!) us that
‘Technology-enhanced learning (TEL) is used to describe the application of information and communication technologies to teaching and learning. Explicit statements about what the term is understood to mean are rare and it is not evident that a shared understanding has been developed in higher education of what constitutes an enhancement of the student learning experience’ (2013:1).

CALL = Computer-Assisted Language Learning

Meanwhile, in 1987, Levy defined Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) as ‘the search for and study of applications of the computer in language teaching and learning’, noting that ‘the nature of CALL at any particular time is, to a large degree, a reflection of the level of development of technology’ (1-2).  Subsequent developments in technology have taken the scope of CALL far beyond the ‘computer’.

So, I avoided making a decision about aligning myself with either of these modern language acronyms and a made small amount of progress by changing my title to ‘eLearning for Ancient Languages‘.  I was quite pleased with this because the phrase ‘eLearning’, now subsumed under TELL in modern language learning scholarship, is just coming into favour for Classics-related stuff or at least that seems to be the case from the Classical Association panels of 2013 and those under construction for 2014.  This lets me cherish the illusion that I can get a bit ahead of the game by keeping one foot in modern language learning, while contriving to keep the other foot in ‘proper’ Classics circles by attaching myself to current parlance there.  How this will all work out is yet to unfold, but my ‘eLearning for Ancient Languages’ title was very short-lived – I think my supervisors and I agreed on it for all of 20 minutes before deciding I needed to move on to something altogether more descriptive of what I was actually going to do … of which more in Part 2 🙂

Kirkwood, A. and Price, L. (2013) ‘Technology-enhanced learning and teaching in higher education: what is ‘enhanced’ and how do we know? A critical literature review’ in Learning, Media and Technology (In press)

Levy, M. (1997) Computer-Assisted Language Learning: Context and Conceptualization, Oxford

The Poster and the PhD …

So I started to explain in an earlier post about a crisis brought on by a poster …

This is what happened.  I entered an Open University competition to produce an academic poster explaining my research topic.  It was going to be a practice exercise for taking posters to academic conferences, but it turned out to be much more important than that.  I started by thinking of images to use.  First, I thought it would be fun to use the ancient vase painting by Douris (c.500 BC), which seems to show a young man with a laptop and touch-screen stylus (really a wax tablet and good old fashioned wax-scraping stylus).

After spending a while looking at the young man writing and  smiling, it came to me that I also wanted to use an image of a recipient of whatever message the young man seemed to be sending.  I wanted this to be in some way a mirroring or inversion of the young man, partly because the receiver should be facing the sender but also perhaps because I had made some connection in my subconscious with being able to see though a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12) or with Plato’s Cave Allegory.  So … I searched wikimedia commons for a suitable photograph without success, but the idea of the image had become so important to me that I eventually commissioned a photograph from my professional photographer son.  This is the image he produced.  You can read his blog about it here.

Now it occurred to me that the amount of thought and effort going into this second image was surprising and I began to wonder why it was so important and why I wanted the paired images to dominate my poster.  After all, my PhD proposal had led with the idea that I wanted to improve exam success for students beginning ancient languages at university level and the twin images don’t really represent that.  They convey to me the transmission of ideas from one age to another,  a connection between ancient and modern minds.  I realised that that was what I really want for myself – the ability to make a close connection with the ancient world through its textual legacy.  I want to hear what is left of the voices of Ovid and Aeschylus, without the intervention of translators and without wading through ancient writing with a dictionary in one hand and a grammar reference in another (or even with the amazing Perseus on my screen).  I want to read so well that I am not even consciously translating …  And so,  I want to explore what activities and experiences contribute to reading fluency and I want to make those activities and experiences as widely accessible as possible through technology.

But how does that coincide with exam success?  Is reading fluency the ultimate aim of a university education in ancient languages?  I tend to think it is, though I will be trying to confirm that by listening to the views of university staff and students.  Meanwhile do respond in the comments here if you have a view …

So, the poster and the photograph have turned my attention to a very specific theoretical area – that of developing reading fluency – and made me question whether the aims of my PhD need a bit of tweaking or a complete rethink …

What’s it All About?

I am having one of those crisis moments about my PhD topic.  What do I really want to achieve here?  But since I am starting in media res, as all the best authors do ;-), perhaps you better know what I thought I wanted to achieve to begin with. So here’s a diagram of my original rationale.  The problems I want to address emerge from two areas. First, I have seen several fellow students fall brationale orangey the wayside on initial language courses and, second, to be brutally honest with you (and myself), I am disappointed in my own reading fluency.  After quite a few years of studying Latin and Ancient Greek, I still can’t read ancient texts without good old Perseus by my side, never mind getting anywhere near the pleasure of reading meaning without having to translate at all.   This contrasts quite strongly with the relative ease with which I can skim some modern second language texts for meaning despite far fewer years of study. On the positive side, as you see from my blog list, I have had loads of fun developing or curating eLearning tools for a variety of Classics topics, including learning ancient languages, and that gives me hope that help (though sadly not a magic bullet!) might come from that direction. Finally, I think, that I am here doing this PhD mostly because I love being a student. (I have put ‘Love Learning’ in the diagram because it looks slightly less self-indulgent than ‘Love being a Student’). After some of the pointless political shenanigans of public sector IT Management (c.f. my last lifetime!), I feel as if I have gone to some unlikely and undeserved academic heaven.  So … I am going to make the most of my time here!

Meanwhile, back to my crisis, which has been prompted by trying to put together a poster for an Open University Council event and a poster competition … though, now I think about it, that little lot deserves a post all of its own … at least you now have some idea what I thought I was doing …

New challenge, new blog …

I have been blogging for over 5 years now and during this time my life has changed beyond all recognition.  I have morphed from being a local government IT Manager, via a distance-learning BA Humanities and Classical Studies at the Open University and f2f MA Classics and Ancient history at Manchester UK, into a full-time, on campus, PhD student back with the Open Uni at Milton Keynes.  My blogs have been a combination of autobiography and study, telling the tales of my student adventure and collecting resources which might be useful to others.  I haven’t blogged about my new (October 2012) PhD research before because the experience of becoming a PhD student has been quite overwhelming (whatever gave me the temerity to do that??), but I am now beginning to understand what I don’t understand and that seems to me to be enough progress to start 🙂