Teaching for the OU – having the time of my life!

Dr Lynda Morgan, Associate Lecturer

It is February 1976. I am 23 years old, recently graduated with a degree in English and a teaching certificate, and I am about to walk into a shabby classroom at Sarah Siddons school, Paddington. I have no idea what to expect; I am both excited and nervous. Balancing on rickety chairs in front of graffitied desks eleven students are poised to begin, among them the wife of a leading politician, a prominent woman designer, a young Egyptian man from Paddington’s bedsit-land who is struggling with his English, a woman who lives in one of the most expensive squares in London, an elderly man who left school at fourteen and fought in the First World War, and a middle-aged tube driver who tells us he reads the teaching material in his cab while the train drives itself. What unites this disparate group is hope – the dream of achieving something they all thought was beyond their reach. They are also all dreading the first assignment; it’s almost the first thing they mention. I am daunted, but struck by the realisation that they are more nervous than I am. I am also touched that they think the tutorial is worth coming out for on a cold wet night, and I am determined to make it so. That is my first lesson: it is about them, not me.

They take it for granted that I know what I am doing. By the end of the evening I think I have made a reasonable job of appearing to, but the reality is that I was learning a lot myself that first evening. The one thing I could not know, however, was that in going into that classroom to teach my very first OU tutorial I was stepping into what would be the most important and fulfilling element in a long and varied teaching career. 43 years later I am still stepping into classrooms – some real, and, these days, some virtual – to teach OU students, and still valuing every minute of it.

The course I was teaching was A100 – known in those days as the Arts Foundation course. It was a wonderful module, packed full of material on philosophy, art history, history, literature and music, all brought together by Oswald Hanfling’s regular input on logic. Students tussled with Sophocles and Shakespeare, form and meaning in music, and, amazingly, D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow. The amount and complexity of material they took on at level 1 was breathtaking. On TV, usually at unsocial hours, they could listen to discussions of poetry (with the text of the poem scrolling across the screen), hear lectures on sound and a recording of Bertrand Russell’s memories of Lawrence, and watch scenes from Aristophanes’ Clouds. It is hard to realise now how groundbreaking all this was. I thought it was marvellous, and I realised how little I knew. Yes, I knew a bit about literature, but I was ignorant of all sorts of other things. In a way A100 began what I think of as my ‘real’ education – a rigorous schooling in argument, a bringing together of disciplines into a rich interplay of ideas, and a questioning approach that was to inform all my subsequent teaching, as well as my later postgraduate studies. I was introduced to things I had no idea about, and I can honestly say that teaching A100 took me at least as far in my own education as my first degree had done.

A100 also taught me how to teach. I began to realise that OU teaching wasn’t in essence about how much you know – though knowing things is obviously essential – but about bringing mixed groups of people together, and engendering an atmosphere in which they feel they belong and are safe to try out ideas and ask questions. It is about finding ways of rendering complicated ideas accessible, making apparently arcane material relevant, and empowering people with the belief that they, too, can understand and have a right to respond. It is about enthusiasm and excitement, helping students to think independently, and being able to tolerate it when their ideas are different from your own. Perhaps most importantly it is about thinking on your feet. In the early days I was constantly faced with questions I had never considered, things I had taken for granted in my own very traditional education: Why do we bother to study Shakespeare? Why do we write essays like this and not like that? Shouldn’t good literature be easy to understand? Isn’t making things difficult just showing off? I was also learning how to deal with awkward situations: the student whose first words were, ‘I hate poetry; what are you going to do about it?’; the student who sat in the corner with his back to the rest of the group, tutting loudly, and refusing to speak until he suddenly said, ‘I have never heard so much twaddle in my life’. Who knows whether he was referring to me, or to Jan Kott’s material on A Midsummer Night’s Dream!

A100 was replaced by A101, another demanding course with Hamlet and Jane Eyre as the literature texts, and then in 1982 I was appointed to teach A312, The nineteenth-century novel and its legacy. I was thrilled to be teaching level 3 literature, and the richness of this course enchanted me. This was in the days of summer schools, where we had the privilege of spending a whole day on Anna Karenina, and another on Middlemarch, and in between we fitted in Mansfield Park, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, Tess of the D’urbervilles, Cousin Bette, Germinal, On the Eve, and Huckleberry Finn. Bliss! We ended each week with an entertainment put on by tutors and students – the result of rehearsals squeezed into coffee breaks, and ‘brilliant’ ideas generated late at night in the bar. There were spoofs of Miss Havisham, and unlikely meetings between Pip and Count Vronsky, alongside inevitable jokes about the geese that left droppings everywhere on the lake-filled campus of the University of York; many a skit began with the actors examining the soles of their shoes. Every year I longed to be cast as the seductive Rosamond – every year I was the serious Dorothea … I can’t overstate how wonderful the many weeks I spent at York were, seeing the excitement and discoveries of students who were experiencing full-time study for at least one week of their lives, and benefiting from the dedication and support of marvellous colleagues who all taught me a great deal. Indeed, I met my fellow bloggers Dennis Walder and Richard Allen there, as well as many others I still think of.

I went on to teach a series of other courses, all of which did something new and exciting: A319, Literature in the modern world (which taught high-level critical theory alongside the literary texts. Many said the students wouldn’t cope with it – they did!);  AA316, The nineteenth-century novel (which gave students the opportunity to have fun with Dracula, and to read lesser known novels like The Awakening); A300, 20th century literature: texts and debates (which asked questions about the construction of meaning and the role of readers, as well as including many texts that students loved and said they would never otherwise have read – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Kiss of the Spiderwoman; poetry of O’Hara and Ginsberg); and currently A334, From Shakespeare to Austen (which particularly gives value to students’ own voices and their chosen research). I also played a part in the development of Creative Writing in the OU, teaching the first two 10-credit creative writing modules, A174, Start Writing Fiction, and A175, Start Writing Poetry, as well as acting as what was grandly and somewhat improbably called a ‘supermonitor’ for the award board.  After that I shared with my colleague Lynne Dixon the moderation of the national student and AL online forums for the new 60-credit modules, A215 and A363. We worked on those forums together for 10 years, and we would both agree that it wasn’t always an easy job. It was, however, a privilege to work with and advise so many students and colleagues, and also to work so closely with one another. Not many days passed without numerous emails between us discussing how to resolve this or that problem!

So much has filled my OU years that inevitably a lot has to be omitted. But there is one topic that I can’t leave out: what the OU has offered, especially in its early days, to women. Of course it has been important for men too, but as a woman myself I can’t help but be forcibly struck by the opportunities it made available to women, and its contribution to changing how they saw themselves. It is difficult to remember how unusual it was when the OU started for women to be educated to degree level. In the early years my groups were full of women of all ages and backgrounds who had not had the chance of an education beyond the age of sixteen. They talked about how no-one had thought it was important for them to do anything other than get a job and/or marry and have children. Many said that now their children were at university they wanted to prove they could do it too. It was not unusual for a student to pour her heart out about how her husband resented her study and tried to prevent her doing it. Others said they could only do it without complaints from their families if the study came last after every detail of cooking and housework had been completed. Some were studying secretly, with their study materials sent to a friend’s house – I would be instructed not to telephone them or write to them at home. Some arrived at summer school terrified because they had never been away from home on their own before. In the days before mobile phones there would be queues of women waiting to use the telephone every evening so they could tell their husbands what they needed to do the next day to keep things going at home. Most of them had filled the freezer with cooked meals for the week and had left lists of the order in which meals were to be taken out and put in the oven; they anticipated arriving back to piles of unwashed dishes. Newspapers sometimes reported on the so-called wild goings on at summer schools; but behind the sensational headlines there often lay moving stories of deeply unfulfilled women discovering that there was more to life than hoovering. A week away from home, with like-minded people and the excitement of full-time study, was a heady experience. Some women realised they needed to make substantial changes to their lives; I remember more than one woman refusing to go home at the end of the week unless her husband agreed to a divorce. This was a time of radical social shifts, and although the OU was often blamed for breaking up marriages it was not responsible for the changes taking place. It did, however, play its part in the shifting social landscape by giving women educational opportunities they had never expected to have. Of course plenty of women lived contented lives with families that were proud of them, and they were just thrilled to have gained a degree; others, however, needed the OU to help them lay claim to a different way of living. I received numerous letters from women students thanking the OU for opening up their lives in ways they could never have imagined.

Sarah Siddons, where this all started for me, has been demolished and replaced with luxury flats, and the OU itself has changed tremendously. It is, however, still staffed by people dedicated to offering an opportunity for excellent education to everyone who wants to try it, and it is still full of students excited by academic study who work their socks off to gain a degree. I hope this will remain the case for many years to come. But whatever happens to the OU in the future, nothing can change the fact that it is one of the most important educational developments to have taken place in the twentieth century. I am very proud to have been part of it, and grateful to it for the joy and fulfilment it has given me.

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4 Responses to Teaching for the OU – having the time of my life!

  1. Cathy Baldwin says:

    Dear Lynda,

    Thank you for this – I am supposed to be writing a section of my thesis but it has joyfully distracted me and made me very nostalgic.

    I studied for my Literature degree between 2000 and 2006, starting with A103 (presumably the 4th version of this course), and I also did the ‘Start writing’ courses mentioned, I think with either the first or a very early cohort. I studied with tiny children around my ankles – many thanks to my mother for having them every Friday to give me a clear day – and I made my tutorials compulsory so that I would keep on track. I do remember driving around Watlington and ending up in the police station asking for directions when my final TMA was due for A210, trying to find my tutor’s house so that I could shove it through her letterbox and not be late!

    What happy memories! The two summer schools I attended were fantastic, even if the accommodation was not always so good. Present day students (my sons…) have no idea what accommodation blocks used to be like!

    And now here I am, back at the OU, doing a PhD. Who’d have thought it?

    Thanks again,

    • Lynda Morgan says:

      Dear Cathy

      Thank you for commenting. I have been feeling very nostalgic since I started thinking about this piece! We have to move on, of course – but there’s no doubt they were wonderful, groundbreaking times. 😊


  2. Ed Hogan says:

    Dear Lynda – As a new member of OU staff, it’s both stirring and illuminating to read these memories! Thanks so much for sharing them. All best, Ed.

  3. Dear Lynda,

    I can’t thank you enough for sharing your experience of teaching for the OU with us – this is both touching and inspiring. You are quite right to point out the instrumental role studying with the OU has had for tens of thousands of women in the last five decades.

    My first introduction to the OU was as an Associate Lecturer in London R-01 nearly 15 years ago, when I found myself teaching on the MA course, A813: Literature and Nation, an experience I loved and also found profoundly humbling. All the students who attended the tutorials (and those who didn’t) had complex, interesting and rich life stories; their study and interrogation of the texts on the course was informed by life experiences that I, still a relatively young and freshly minted PhD, simply didn’t possess. Many of the students I encountered showed remarkable determination and single mindedness in pursuing their studies, and this was a great motivation for me. I found myself increasingly acting as a ‘facilitator’ rather than a teacher per se: for the most part, students needed encouragement, stimulation, and a chance to test out their views, rather than instruction in the traditional sense. Sadly I never had the experience of teaching on an OU summer school, but by all accounts, these really were often life-changing.

    Thanks again for sharing these memories, and reminding us again of the valuable role the OU has played over the decades in changing people’s lives for the better. The OU is 50 this year, but I think it’s still very far from being past its sell by date!

    All my good wishes,

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