mature students

Pierce Penniless and the vegbox

Not long ago the River Cottage chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was famous, notorious even, for his red-blooded approach to meat eating.  At a time when most people’s meat came in polystyrene trays from the supermarket. Hugh was out there fearlessly slaughtering his own pigs and even tucking into roadkill.

Then he shocked everyone by bringing out a book extolling vegetables, and a very fine book it is too, with over 200 recipes and not a shred of meat in sight. The reason? Well, as someone who hates factory farming and fears for the future of our fish stocks, he realises that we need to eat far more vegetables and much less flesh if we are going to stop damaging our planet.

I love it when my studies connect in unexpected ways with other parts of my life. It’s one of the advantages of being a mature student, I think – the upside of having to keep so many balls in the air simultaneously. I am doing a wonderful module this semester on Renaissance literature and could not help thinking of HFW last week when the set text was Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil by Thomas Nashe. More than 400 years ago, Pierce was saying stuff about the English diet which chimes remarkable closely with Hugh’s thoughts on the subject.

It is not for nothing that other countries whom we upbraid with drunkenness call us bursten-bellied gluttons, for we … eat more meat at one meal than the Spaniard or Italian in a month. Good thrifty men, they draw out a dinner with sallets (salads) … and make Madonna Nature their best caterer.

It gets worse. We are, says Pierce,

‘such flesh-eating Saracans that chaste fish may not content us but we delight in the murder of innocent mutton, in the unpluming of pullery (poultry), and quartering of calves and oxen. It is horrible and detestable; no godly fishmonger can digest it.’

Since our family started getting a weekly veg box, we too have been proving that ‘Madonna Nature’ is the best caterer. In fact, veg has played such a starring role at the dinner table that I’ve barely needed to go near a butcher or a fishmonger, godly or otherwise. It’s not that we’ve turned vegetarian, but rather a shifting of emphasis. As HFW says, it’s quite liberating not to have ‘a tyrannical piece of meat dominating the agenda, making everything else feel like a supporting act’. It’s also loads cheaper, which is pretty amazing given that our veg is now organic and delivered to the door.

The contents of the box got used up with unusual speed this week so I don’t have a photo of the beautiful curly kale or the little fat carrots that were so fresh I could smell them before I even cut them. Here’s some romanesco instead – unfortunately not in season at the moment, but surely one of the most stunning vegetables in Madonna Nature’s treasure chest.


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Advent blog calendar

Two years ago I blogged through December in a bid to fight the winter blues and it seems I need to do the same this year too. I know what depression feels like and I’m not there yet, but I can sense it lurking on the margins. Maybe it’s the short days or the huge uni workload or, indeed, the sense of imminent financial Armageddon across the western world – whatever, I find myself wanting to cry for no reason and stay in bed rather than do things I normally enjoy.

I had coffee with a young friend of mine the other day and she told me she thought she might have a ‘depressive mindset’. Without really thinking too hard I found myself saying that I thought a tendency to depression, if kept under control, could be a creative thing. I’m not for a minute suggesting that it is always possible to keep depression at bay but I have learned through experience that noticing symptoms early and then doing something creative in response can be very therapeutic.

So on the grounds that attack is the best form of defence, I plan to blog every day during Advent: a daily post, probably pretty short, with a picture taken on that day. Seeking out things to photograph when you are feeling down is a really good way of taking your mind off the negative and noticing the good that is around us. It’s a shame that today’s picture is so crappy, though.ImageIt’s supposed to be an illustration of why I enjoy being at my uni so much. You can sit in the library and look out over the bus and railway stations as well as the much debated Park Hill Flats and I thought it would sum up the way both universities in Sheffield make a real effort to engage with the city rather than being ivory towers. My brain is seriously stretched with literary theory these days and it’s good to be reminded that there’s a real world out there, not too far away.

Finally, a huge thank you to Jacqueline whose blog always makes me smile, and who had me positively beaming today thanks to her very sweetly bestowing on me the Jennifer Avventura Reader Appreciation Award. I’m very honoured and very heartened. So thank you again, Jacqueline – and thanks for your unfailingly cheerful blog posts!

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a bit less baffled

I have to thank my blogging pal Christy for a really thoughtful response to my rant about students who don’t participate in seminars. She raises some interesting questions about whether 18 is the best age to start a university education, but on top of that she also made me wonder whether the problem doesn’t lie more with the system than with us individual students.

Along with something that Colleen said in the comments, Christy’s piece made me wonder if the problem might be down to me – perhaps my presence as a much older woman was actually making it more difficult for students to participate. At first I thought, no – my children are this age and they talk to me about almost everything. What’s more their friends seem to like talking to me too. But then I realised this was a stupid comparison. My kids and their friends generally relate to me in the kitchen, where I am chopping and stirring, baking cakes and making cups of tea – in other words, whether I am talking about Virginia Woolf or my daughter’s new shoes, I am basically a nurturing mother figure.

Christy and Colleen on the other hand made me wonder how I come across in the seminar room. I realised there is probably a huge gulf between how I might look and how I actually feel. Christy describes how when she was in uni, the few mature students she met ‘always seemed to have something eloquent and interesting to say’. Now, this is definitely not the case where I am concerned, but I do see that it might appear that way to a nervous 19-year-old.

If so, I wish I could tell my teenage colleagues that I really do not feel confident or eloquent at uni at all. I wish I could tell them that I often feel really stupid and that I even cried in a tutorial today when the creative writing tutor gently tore my latest submission to shreds.

The more I think about this, the more I think that the problem with seminars might not actually lie with any of us students but in the way they are set up. After all, in what other situation are you expected to talk to near strangers about ‘love, joy, death, dying, redemption, forgiveness, sorrow’, as Christy neatly sums up the themes of great literature? Not to mention sex, which was the elephant in the room at this week’s session on French feminists.

When I worked in EFL teaching, the entire point of classes was communication. Our students were there to learn English and they were never going to do that if they didn’t speak. But we didn’t expect communication to happen spontaneously; we worked really hard to ensure a good rapport among the participants. In fact one of the most rewarding parts of the job was seeing friendships spring up between people of different nationalities who might, in other circumstances, have been deeply suspicious of each other.

I think higher education teachers would do well to learn a few tricks from the EFL classroom. Occasionally I have been to a seminar where the tutor has worked like this, dividing us into small groups and setting us specific tasks around a text. Those sessions were much more rewarding than the rather loose ‘let’s all talk about this together’ model.

The university where I study is extremely responsive to students’ views on the learning process. I might just take this up with the staff-student committee. But I’d be interested to hear what other people think first.