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 by Nicola Lilley
, posted on 8 Feb '19

A (Very) Mature Masters Student Learns to Swear Like a Viking

Obviously this is just between the two of us, but I have had a yearning to learn Anglo-Saxon (aka Old English) since I was 17. 45 years later, I helped to supervise 50 Year 10s on a field-trip to Iceland, read a couple of the Icelandic sagas, and thought it would be brilliant to know Old Norse and read them in the original language. I spent my professional life teaching Latin and Greek, so you can see that old* languages and literature mean a lot to me.

*NEVER say ‘dead languages’ in my hearing!

Deciding to do a Masters

In my search for retirement projects related to my hobby, this very website led me to the University of Nottingham, just 40 minutes from home. They offer an MA in Viking and Anglo-Saxon Studies, with a strong emphasis on the two languages and their literature. I started the course in October 2016, choosing the part-time option over two years. I would certainly recommend this, as it allowed me time for other retirement activities while giving me the chance to prepare really thoroughly for seminars and assessments.

As I write this, my 14,000-word dissertation has been submitted for marking, so this is a good vantage point from which to review some of the ups and downs of the last two years, and see how my initial hopes and fears played out.

My experience as a mature postgraduate

When I started, I was quite nervous about taking on a completely new subject at postgraduate level, and my anxiety was fed by well-meaning friends telling me how brave I was! I see now that I had three trump-cards. The first was an advanced understanding of inflected languages, fostered by taking Latin and Classical Greek to degree level and German to O-level; the second, confident writing skills, courtesy of my 1960s grammar school; and the third, all those professionally-acquired skills of organization, time-management and personal negotiation that you take for granted and forget you have.

On the downside, my lack of computer skills was a source of angst, especially navigating those creakingly old databases which ‘aid’ medieval studies; and, for all I know, my computer could have helped me with time-saving ways of handling my own data. The Nottingham intra-net (Moodle) and the Turnitin system for checking plagiarism literally kept me awake at night.

I also found it frustrating that a lot of useful information was apparently available online, but could only be tracked down by the magical intuitive powers of savvy millennials. The latter, my delightful co-students, were really keen to help me by giving me demos of indispensable processes at lightning speed – but they never seemed to work when I got home!

The other thing which caused anxiety at first was preparatory reading for seminars, as I had little or no basic knowledge of the subject. I mention this, as it may be helpful for other students.

Things came to a head in Week 4 of the first semester, when I was actually on the verge of abandoning the course altogether. I had never done Linguistics and I was a raw beginner at Old English, so reading long, dense chapters on historical linguistic changes to Old English was horrendous. I could only absorb a fraction of the terminology in time for the seminar, and could not understand the Old English examples given. Yet in the seminar itself, most of this technical detail was glossed over and the discussion was much more general and accessible. It was a defining moment: I realized that I was not expected to know everything, but simply to be aware of the issues, know where to find the information to address them, and approach them critically. I never looked back after this!

Bridging the gap

I faced my first end-of-module assessments with some trepidation, as I had not written an essay since 1974 and had no experience of referencing. (I attended a very reputable university back then, but the only bibliographical requirement was the title ‘Reading List’, followed by just the authors and titles of a couple of books.)

However, there was plenty of advice available at Nottingham, and one tutor even compiled especially for me a sheet of all the common referencing formats. Taking note of the written and oral feedback, I got to grips with assessment and steadily improved over the two years of the course.

I inevitably made frequent comparisons with my undergraduate days, but my current experience always won hands down. With my professional background as a head-teacher, I found myself observing the teaching and learning process in seminars, and was impressed by the quality of the tutors’ subject knowledge and preparation, their passion for their subject, and their thoughtful approaches to teaching. I was also impressed by their willingness to offer help outside class to anyone who was struggling, and by their thorough and helpful assessment feedback. I had not expected such welcoming warmth, humour and personal engagement, as my own undergraduate studies in the 1970s had been very poorly taught, and conducted in an atmosphere of chilly formality.

Rediscovering student life

Finally, the social side. In September 2016, I had wondered how a woman of 64 would fare on an MA course, but I need not have worried.

The cohort of 14 in my first year were renowned in the department for their academic diligence, liveliness and good nature. Personally, I found them universally friendly and supportive. On day one of the course someone started a Facebook group, but my dislike of social media held me back from joining! I thus missed out on the group photos and postings, but would always receive texts from several people if there was a party or outing in the offing. This group has remained remarkably close, with many of them now doing PhDs at Nottingham, and through them I have got to know many other School of English research students and tutors.

As I mentioned above, I have received a lot of encouragement, warmth and practical assistance from these young people, which I hugely appreciate. In return, I have baked cakes for seminars and puddings for parties, knitted scarves, and conducted informal tutorials on the use of the comma. I have also acquired a role as a sort of ‘tribal elder’: I find that individuals like to confide in me their hopes and fears about their research projects or relationships, and I am happy to offer support and reassurance based on my experience of life and of working with young people.

Final thoughts

I hope that anyone of mature years considering enrolling for an MA will be encouraged by my wonderful experience of modern university life. I have found the academic content, the social side and the extra-curricular activities thought-provoking, exciting, and stimulating. I feel proud to have met the challenges, and to have become a more discerning reader and thinker. Now I need to contemplate my next move. . .

P.S. If you have read this far in the hope of a tutorial on Viking swear-words, I am afraid discretion has got the better of me!

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