Rites of passage (1): lunch and visibility

Yesterday marked a double rite of passage. My first pension payment arrived in my bank account (always a relief to know that this sort of thing works!) and we had lunch with my former department to mark my retirement. Held well away from the office (as in, not in Milton Keynes but in Oxford – distance learning meets distance partying), it was thoroughly enjoyable, with nearly everyone managing to get there and many travelling long distances (in one case, by public transport with small person in pram); I was suitably honoured! The food was good, the speech in my honour was witty and accurate, and the card and gifts brilliantly-selected.

I’ve been to some ‘interesting’ retirement events in my time. In a previous university, these were often of the wine ‘n’ nibbles type, held on the premises near the end of a working day in order to maximise the number attending. The speech of the person retiring often consisted of some truly scurrilous stories about their colleagues, complete with an uncensored attack on the senior management. It was alarming, and thrilling, and embarrassing, all at the same time. You wanted to hear more, but you knew you couldn’t un-hear it. I don’t, as it happens, have very many stories I could tell about my most recent colleagues, but over the course of the meal they did find out a few things about the person from a previous university in whose honour I took the Twitter handle @fluff35. I made a very minimalist speech in which my main message was the importance of remaining visible, as individuals but also as a department.

I think this visibility can be an issue for Classical Studies more widely, but it’s a particular issue at The Open University. When I took the job, back in 2011, I met a colleague from Oxford in the supermarket and she was amazed to hear I was going to work for the (other!) OU. She asked how I could afford it; I replied that they paid much the same as any other university. It slowly became clear that she had assumed that I was going to work as an Associate Lecturer, one of the staff paid per module to work with the students, supporting them through the course materials the ‘central academics’ have designed and produced, and grading the students’ work while providing detailed feedback. The going rate for working as an AL on one module is in the range £1100 to £6600, depending on the subject. So I see what she meant. Some ALs work part-time for other universities as well; some work on more than one module; some take more than one group on a module. All, as far as I know, share the same uncertainty, in that they won’t find out until shortly before the start date whether ‘their’ modules have recruited well enough for them to be employed.

My point here is not just that there are different ways of ‘working for the OU’ but that even people working in other universities don’t know what the OU is, and think of it as a place offering correspondence courses. I proposed yesterday that it’s the role of those at the OU to get out there, and tell people what the university does, and specifically to promote the point that there’s a single honours Classical Studies degree they can take, as well as lots of interesting subject combinations, far beyond those offered in most traditional universities.

When I arrived home and checked my Twitter account, there were some lovely messages from people on my retirement, but also one which was entirely unexpected. A current student (I’ve never met him or had any contact with him) tweeted:

 Hearing you on is why I’m now doing classics at the OU. Enjoy your adventures and thank you.

So there you have it. By accepting an invitation to do ‘In Our Time’ (it transpires it was the episode on Galen) a potential student investigates the OU, and enrols. I was really excited by that confirmation of my one point.

Rites of passage (1)? There will be a (2), as there is still one more official farewell to be negotiated, early next month… and you’ll hear about it here.


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