Student Story: David on his first two months studying long-distance

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Well, I did it, submitting my 1st assignment 3 days ahead of schedule. Bejeesus, it’s a miracle.

The last few months have seen heartache, passion, a neglected back garden rise up and demand my attention, a neglected partner subjected to monologues about pro-western bias in the composition of sustainability indicators, and a file full of terrifying articles from journals with names like Ecological Indicators, Environmental Economics, and (my particular favourite) Environmental Impact Assessment Review.
How did it come to this? I joined the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in 2003, at the ripe age of 32. “Once you’re here for five years, you’re unemployable anywhere else”, said one of my new colleagues. Eight years on I am doing my dream job (alas, temporary) in sustainability and climate change at DWP and hoping to prove them wrong, by distance learning with CAT.

What is studying at a distance like? Challenging. So I was prepared, my friend Christine gave me a copy of her handy little text Studying at a distance.

In mid September study material arrived from CAT. Get down to it, laddie. You need to make time, set reasonable objectives and seize those unexpected moments of free-time to study. But I made lots of false starts. Frequently I would start work early, plan to finish early and get stuck into studying, but instead get stuck at work and finish at the usual time, tired and fed up with staring at a computer screen.

I found myself putting aside big blocks of time at the weekend, allowing me to ease in gently and tackle that opening hour where you find yourself strenuously filing emails in an attempt to avoid studying. Hence the neglected garden.

Helpfully CAT provides online seminars, discussion groups, reading lists, and a very patient tutor Saskia, who reins in my highfalutin literary adventures. ‘Don’t essays have to use words like ‘fungible’ and ‘inchoate’, Saskia?’ Apparently not.

I expected fellow students to come from a range of places, but I never realised how international CAT’s reputation was! In my online seminars I found myself sitting with American volunteers in Uganda, Malaysians in Bhutan and furniture-makers in Australia. All typing our expectations of how climate change will affect buildings in our area. Hard to fit into an hour-and-a-half.

How can I describe the smell of the University of East London library? Well – I can’t, because I doubt that I will ever venture in there, but I lurrve their electronic journals. Roll out tired clichés about kids and candy stores, because each article about sustainability indicators tended to reference another 15 who in turn each referenced another 15. And they all seemed to be in Ecological Indicators. I took to thumbing, in a virtualised way, through all the copies, and after a while everything started to look relevant, interesting, or both. I sought help.

Surprisingly, we are normally encouraged to choose our own essay titles for each module. Happily for the opening module, we were given a range of possible essay titles to choose from. I went for a thorny question about measuring sustainability, because I had helped review Defra’s (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) new sustainability indicators, and had also developed tools for measuring the sustainability of DWP’s policies.

I’ve done many new and unexpected things in the past 2 months, but a particular highpoint was retreating to bed early with my netbook so I could listen to Nick Baker’s podcast, whilst my partner watched Downton Abbey downstairs. This is the good life! Ventilation and condensation beckon.


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