15|09|20: The Open University and I

Last Friday afternoon I, together with 410 other graduates, attended the graduation ceremony of the Open University in London. In the course of an inspiring and at times moving ceremony I received the degree of a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities First Class. This was an extraordinary and memorable event and I thank all my loved ones who supported me during my study and especially on Friday at the Barbican Centre. (For comic relief see images.)

As this chapter comes to an end it seems befitting to reflect on the beginning. The first piece of work of each course at the Open University is a so-called dummy assignment. No proper text is required, it is just a test of your own and your computer’s abilities to format and send a text file to the tutor. In October 2010, I took the opportunity of this dummy assignment to write a somewhat longer piece on my state of mind as I set out for my academic journey. Obviously, this text could do with some comments. On the other hand, these would obstruct the view on my first impressions five years ago. I eventually will find the time to reflect in more detail. For the time being a short note I was asked to provide by the Open University written in July 2015 after my last exam at the end of this article will have to do.  

October 16, 2010

The first target of the dummy assignment is to assess my (and my computer’s) technical capabilities to save a document in the right format and send it to my tutor. But I am going to use this opportunity to tackle a second target: to collect and assort a few thoughts I will eventually refer to in the two reflective assignments (#2 and 7). I therefore – after an introduction of myself – will try to clarify my motives of studying at OU and this course especially, my abilities and deficiencies, and possible outcomes.

I am a trained journalist with a focus on science and research. Lacking any kind of formal degree after dropping out of school at the age of 17, I eventually started as a freelance writer for an Austrian Magazine (profil) and a German daily newspaper (die tageszeitung). I wrote on Austrian politics, business and foreign affairs covering especially the Balkans, which at the end of the 1980’s were turning into a promising hotbed for a novice journalist. The four years with the Falter, Vienna’s equivalent of a left and/or liberal weekly newspaper, was the formative period of my development as journalist. Having to find, develop, research and argue own articles week for week (plus editing the articles of others) in a very self-centered environment like Vienna forced me to think and write fast and sharply, often replacing real insight with Schmäh.

Moving to Hamburg in 1991 opened up a new opportunity. The rather traditional arts and travel magazine Merian offered me to travel and write with an almost limitless amount of time and resources, producing two monothematic issues per year on average on such places as Hong Kong, Cologne, the Cyclades, the Rocky Mountains, Japan, and a number of countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Looking back, Merian and the then editor-in-chief practiced a sprit of journalism that is completely incomprehensible to all colleagues younger than me and to many of my age: Insight comes from a close and long scrutiny of a subject. But while this kind of research has to be applied in all circumstances it does not permit the journalist to take himself more serious than the subject he is reporting and writing on – and least of all it does not permit him to be boring.

After a stint with the weekly Stern I returned to Vienna in 1995 to become editor-at-large for the then newly founded magazine News. Two-and-a-halve years of reporting on Jörg Haider, his FPÖ and the incapability and/or unwillingness of the traditional Austrian political system to deal with the far right, it’s anachronistic contents and its up-to-date strategies convinced me to look for new directions. Working as a stringer for the BBC World Service I utilized my accent acquired from my English mother, diverting attention from my deficiencies in grammar and vocabulary.

One of the traits of Anglo-American journalism I often admired was the ease, with which science writers commit themselves to the most complex subjects. While German science writers tend to prove their assumed equivalency with the scientists they write about by sporting an unintelligible approach, Anglo-American writers – often with a sound scientific background – make it their ambition to simplify findings to the very limits of accuracy. Dumbing down is not an insult but a desirable goal. I had this in mind when I got the chance to found and establish Universum Magazin in 1997. Conceived as a spin-off of the most successful documentary programme of Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF, I soon managed to develop a new (at least for Austria) approach to writing about and presenting science. Co-operations with scientists, institutes and the funding agency FWF taught me that that there was a shared concern for mutual intelligibility between the public and the scientific community. This attitude was founded in the interest of conveying the necessity of science and research, partly for idealistic and altruistic reasons, partly as a result from the pressure to reason the demand of public funding.

When the newly founded Institute of Science and Technology Austria in 2007 looked for a media spokesman I very soon decided to cross the divide between journalism and public relation. Witnessing, accompanying and (sometimes) advising the impressive personalities who were crucial in the process of developing this institute of basic research in the Sciences was and is a fantastic experience of once-in-a-lifetime dimensions. Another formidable experience was to shift almost completely to an English speaking working environment. In a very short period I had to acquire the ability to write in English appropriate for a scientific institution: Fast, but most important precise, neglecting any kind of Schmäh. But acting as a media spokesman also led me to acknowledge the limits of journalism. While part of the media I would not permit myself to recognize these limits.

Some restrictions are the results of contemporary developments. Although it is pathetic to lament about these developments it is necessary to record them. The most important change: media outlets have become business entities, which have to legitimize their existence through economic viability – not be their ambiguous function as a part of the public and producer of the public. Other limitations lie within the changing nature of the media: responsibility and accountability of the writer fade away in a context, in which information is divided into easily delivered and understood parcels (similar to data over the internet). Information because of the speed and the extensiveness of its distribution can’t be assigned anymore to one single creator but becomes public domain. Accuracy looses its value in these circumstances. In the battle for attention ever-intensifying methods of gaining attraction are applied.

Time to move on.

Committing myself to one subject – or at least one course – is an answer to this deterioration I at least would like to try. History has always been of special interest to me, again with a bias for many Anglo-American writers and scholars because of their boldness in tackling huge subjects and periods while at the same time displaying modesty and self-restraint in explaining and conveying their findings. AA100 seems to offer a good path into the subject and especially into the techniques of studying at Open University. Judging from my experience in the first two weeks the course structure makes it feasible for me to combine and co-ordinate the demands made by my family and my job with the necessities of studying.

Another central target is the improvement of my English. This may sound a bit vain but I do notice that English is not my first choice as a writing language. I tend to use to many nouns; I tend to mistrust the power and the elegance of verbs. I would like to acquire a kind of self-evidence using English, which I have when writing in German.

I have not finally decided which qualification I am aiming at exactly. One on hand, I wanted to leave this decision until I had experienced studying with OU. One the other hand, I am not sure if to focus on History, go for Humanities or a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Only at the far back of my head is the question how I will be able to use a degree for my further career. As I have come a long way without a degree – in a country like Austria – I can’t imagine relying on a title in the future.

One of my assets is my joy of writing. I forget this from time to time. But the emphasis on overcoming difficulties with writing in the Course Companion and in some Forum entries reminded me of this gift. Another asset is an understanding of how to conduct research. Acquiring information will not be the problem, assigning it to one specific question and problem could be one.

What I am looking forward to is the experience of learning with a tutor. I am used to edit texts and to have my texts edited. But the goal of that process is the solution of a certain problem or requirement. I am curious how the support of a tutor will affect me tackling the fundamental challenge of studying. Having written this, I explicitly welcome any remark, critic, advice, etc. I am deeply convinced that every text improves when read and questioned by an experienced audience.

Now, after only two weeks of studying I notice a naïve joy of delving into given subjects and challenges (like this text!) without the obligation of exploitation – be it as an article or as a press release. Reading and analyzing the thoughts and comments from my fellow students in the forum is a truly refreshing experience, as no member seems to need a pompous display of his suspected sophistication. On the contrary, a spirit of shared effort appears to prevail.

Possible outcomes are: A good completion of this course and its assignments. A proof that the balancing of the demands of family, job and study is feasible. A reasonable perspective for integrating courses into my daily routine in the future. A hint which qualification I should go for. And many surprising insights into problems and answers I tend to consider solved and given. Cleopatra, by the way, was a good start.

July 7, 2015

I chose the Open University because it offered the subject I wanted to study (history), had the best reputation for distance learning, and enabled me to study in English. Apart from the subjects covered in the modules studying has provided me with guidance in the past 4.5 years as I went through some intense changes in my personal life. Having a goal to work towards proved to be immensely assuring and rewarding. Would I recommend a full undergraduate study at the OU? Only if the student is willing and able to handle unintentional and unforeseeable consequences as the demand in terms of time and attention imposed by studying obliges you to define what is really important – and what can be dismissed. Summing up: this is about determination as much as it is about aspiration. A student will need both. The latter without the former will result in despair, the former without the latter in boredom. Good luck.


Edit 15|10|28: Video of the graduation ceremony. Skip to min 28 for my 10 seconds of fame.