May Day is a time for DIY, media coverage of SATs angst, finishing up the last of the Easter chocolate and, like all bank holidays, probable rain. If you live somewhere Ambridge-like, there’s Maypole dancing. For secondary teachers, it’s also a time for marking GCSE and A Level coursework, and sending up desperate prayers about the fate of any students whose work is still incomplete.
This year my coursework deadlines have been for my own work. Rather than spending the Easter holiday marking GCSE performances or A Level compositions, I was trying to make sense of Nietzsche. Unlike most UK PhD students, I’ve spent the first five terms of my degree doing coursework. And yes, there are similarities to doing GCSEs. Some courses have very specific requirements about how work is presented – not dissimilar to DT coursework back in 1999, where everything had to be done on A3 paper: the school only had one A3 printer and colour printing was expensive, so woe betide anyone who asked to re-print a page. There are the “big” assignments, often worth 40% of a final grade, that take months and often have a fair degree of freedom over topic and approach. And there are the “busy work” assignments, as my friend Amy refers to them, which are reminiscent of experiments for Double Award Science both in weighting and intellectual freedom.
For me, there have been huge advantages to this system. I’ve read diversely and become aware of relevant theory, learnt from several professors (yes, in Canada we make university sound like Hogwarts), had regular writing deadlines, explored other disciplines, and had weekly opportunities for face-to-face interaction with other doctoral students. Crucially, I didn’t need to have a research proposal before starting the PhD, which is often the case in the UK. Instead, the coursework process has allowed me to really explore the field of music education and dip into other areas that interest me, and I hope that the research and dissertation-writing process (not called a thesis, as in the UK) will be easier as a result.
Of course there are drawbacks too. The whole PhD process is longer, there will bits of courses that are unpleasant, and my perception is that coursework creates a bigger hierarchical divide amongst PhD students than that of the upgrade system in the UK. Plus it’s a bit demoralizing when I have to explain to UK colleagues that not only am I not nearly finished, I haven’t even started data collection.
Some ‘concluding thoughts’, if I’m being scholarly, and ‘takeaways’ if I’m being teacher-y. Coursework is tough going at any age: I didn’t blog at all in March or April, and I know that most GCSE and A Level students probably faced even more pressure with deadlines. PhD structures vary considerably (some doctoral degrees at Western have actual written exams post-coursework, which sounds horribly like doing A Levels again), and we should try not to make assumptions about what others are experiencing. Finally, finding opportunities for choice and individuality has made my own work more valuable to me: from the infamous bacon and coconut bread of DT coursework, to analysis of music education provision for children with SEN in mainstream schools. And since I’ve been too busy unravelling Nietzsche to find a course-work related photo, here’s something generically moody and intense.