Things I’m glad I learned from the Open University

There is a lot of snobbery around education – inverted snobbery from the “University of Life” people and academic snobbery that still maintains Open is not a “real” university.  I’m a proud graduate and have also taught for them and I have found a lot of useful stuff I learned has come back to help these last few months.  This whole experience is quite a bit out of my comfort zone.  I’m a writer and researcher but I’ve found myself planning, designing, gardening, repairing and even exterminating rodents.  It is physically exhausting at times though also oddly exhilarating. In a strange way it seems to have added even more purpose to our lives.

I studied a whole range of things at the Open University, from science and technology to discourse analysis.  It constantly surprises me how useful a lot of this is.  Take the science foundation course for example.  I know how to measure and test a substance and so have established the hardness of the water from the well.  Very hard actually –from 185 to 130 ppm.  It will fur up a kettle in 36 hours unless treated.  Enter basic maths, used for science and statistics, and I can calculate the volume and frequency of salt tablets needed.  Hurrah for our hair!

Hard water!

Trigonometry is often regarded as useless in everyday life but not so for me.  We need a backing wall for solar panels, set at 30o and standing on a concrete base.  Out came the drawing instruments and calculator to work out the dimensions, height, number of blocks needed, foundation depth and cost of materials.  Hooray for technical drawing skills acquired in the “History of Modern Architecture” course!   

There is a strange quirk amongst builders in Ireland to add “Mediterranean” features to their houses.  A friend said it was often a desire to recall holidays in warmer climes.  Well, there are numerous wide porches with Spanish style wide arches around, attached to a remodelled traditional cottage.  These look a bit odd at first but not too bad.  After all, a deep porch can keep out winter storms as well as scorching sun.  What I find deeply annoying is the use of pillars across the front of houses.  Plastic or plaster columns holding up only one corner of a porch.  Or lined up in front, just – there, supporting nothing (or maybe something invisible).   And it is wrong, very wrong, to have Doric columns with Ionic or (worst of all) Corinthian capitals.  I can put my discomfort at that sight down to the Open University courses in Ancient History.

When we arrived at the house there were curtains up, left by our kind vendors until we could get our own.  As we have dogs that wake at daybreak it was necessary to get something as lightproof as possible.  We puzzled over the best way to achieve this, with a range of windows all different sizes and shapes.  Then I remembered something from studying theatre lighting many years ago and formalized by the Open University science course.  Combining all three primary colours (red, blue and yellow) eliminates most frequencies of light making an effective blackout.  Jacqui was astonished as the drapes were only silk weight but took me at my word.  She got out the trusty sewing machine to make green curtains with red linings and it worked!

All of these scraps of theoretical knowledge garnered over a number of disciplines have had real, practical applications.  My varied (some would say eccentric) education has been invaluable as we settle in and make a new home but the most important lessons are less tangible.  My music courses taught me to listen – really listen, not just hear things.  Standing in the wood I can identify a dozen different birds at one time.  I can hear the sudden burst of rain as it rushes up the lane and get inside.  We know the rats are gone from the house otherwise we would hear their nasty, scaly feet scrabbling through the ceilings.

The other great lesson from the Open University is patience.  If you are going to be successful you can’t start looking too far ahead.  Faced with a pile of books, essays to write, an exam looming and the thought of at least six more years it is too easy to give up.  I learnt to focus on one course, one task at a time.  The overgrown bay beside the road, for example, is now filled with rich top soil and some of the abandoned rocks.  One afternoon we clipped the ivy and it will die and wither away.  Then Jacqui began planting, using flowers she grew from seed back in March.  We will add bulbs in the autumn and bee-bombs in the next few weeks.  Next year we will see it all burst into life.

The first phase of the little garden

It is like the old saying – “How do you eat an elephant?”  Answer – “One bite at a time”.  We have an elephant here and one that keeps on growing.  But the wood clearance, partial as it was, revealed a stand of young oak trees.  That is such a wonderful find, previously hidden and choked almost to death.  Each tree is being cleared and is recovering and then we will move on to the next tree, and the next.  If we focus on just one at a time we will suddenly find ourselves on the other side, all finished.

It may take us six years but we will be as proud of this as anything we have done.