Why Art History Matters: Isabel Alexander

So, what does art history mean to me? It means the return of my intellectual life. It means identity, it means stretching my wings, it means being more than a mother, it means being myself again.

I began my art history journey as a nerdy eight-year-old when someone gave me a copy of the National Gallery Children’s Guide and continued it at school where I was one of five students who took art history AS level with a delightfully eccentric teacher. I begged to be allowed to continue to A level but had to settle for English Literature until I arrived as an undergraduate at the University of York in October 2005 clutching my copy of Gombrich. At university, I felt I had finally found something I excelled at. I adored the interdisciplinary nature of art history and developed a particular fascination with nineteenth-century photography. I was one of the top students in my cohort, graduating with a 1st, a high dissertation mark, and a funded MA place lined up. There was even distant talk of PhD funding and my academic future seemed assured, if I chose to accept it. Unfortunately, with the kind of lack of foresight that only 21 year olds possess, I decided that a better use of my early 20s would be to give up my funding and move in with my then-partner at the other end of the country.

Unsurprisingly, I regretted that decision on an annual basis for the next seven years. Friends finished their MAs, started their PhDs, finished their PhDs, published, taught, and inhabited a world that I had voluntarily cut myself out of. By 2015, I had a good job in publishing, was married and had a baby. While on maternity leave, student loans for postgraduate students became available for the first time and my husband, who has been my greatest cheerleader throughout, insisted that I go back and do the MA I felt I’d missed out on. The only course that even came close to working with my schedule was the OU Art History MA, so I decided to apply.

I’ll be completely honest here – I had never, until that point, considered the OU. But now here I was, a mature student, a ‘stay at home mum’ (how I loathe that phrase), a non-traditional MA student. Gone was the cocky undergraduate who’d always been top of the class. I was absolutely terrified as I wrote my first TMA – what if I’d forgotten how to write academically after nearly a decade of writing website copy? What if I’d just been lucky with my undergraduate tutors and was actually not cut out for academia? What if having a baby had drained my brain of its critical faculties? Fortunately, I had the wonderful Dr Veronica Davies as my tutor and she supported me every step of the way. She listened patiently to my sob stories of toddler meltdowns, chickenpox, house moves and other obstacles, gave me extensions for TMAs (which I then frantically attempted to complete with a small child in tow) and generally jollied me along.

When I sat up all night feeding my baby and reading module materials on my phone in the dark, it gave me an incredible feeling of purpose and mental alertness that had been missing from my life for far too long. When I got my first distinction back I cried and felt like I’d come home, as absurd as that sounds. When I went to my first Courtauld symposium in nearly a decade and asked the panel questions and nobody laughed me out of the room, my confidence started to come back. When I had my first conference paper accepted, the feeling grew stronger. When I stood up to give that paper and received nothing but positive feedback afterwards, I felt like a ‘real’ academic for the first time in my life.

I cannot recommend the course [the MA] enough – in fact, I’m now glad I didn’t take that funding all those years ago because I would have missed out on the unique and transformative experience of OU study.

I’m currently writing my MA dissertation and have two more conference proposals in the pipeline. In the autumn, I’ll be starting my PhD applications, again with the support of the incredible OU MA team. I cannot recommend the course enough – in fact, I’m now glad I didn’t take that funding all those years ago because I would have missed out on the unique and transformative experience of OU study.

So, what does art history mean to me? It means the return of my intellectual life. It means identity, it means stretching my wings, it means being more than a mother, it means being myself again.

-Isabel Alexander, OU MA student

For an overview of the MA in Art History, see the Art History Department’s website or take a taster course on Open Learn on Artists and Authorship: The Case of Raphael

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