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Mourning in the Garden

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 20 May 2019, 11:34

Square garden full of young vegetables and flowering plants, gardening tools to the left.

This post is for Ven, John, Michael and Gill.

Some of my students, fellow students and colleagues have been recently bereaved, and as they go through that experience which we all have to suffer - but for which none of us can prepare, I wanted to offer my sympathy, or more properly - my empathy. 

I lost my mum about a year ago. It was very sudden, although she had been frail for a while. I did not expect the phone call when it came to say she had had a stroke. I wasn't sure what to do, didn't know how serious that was. People do recover from strokes, right?

It was the busiest time of my working year. I emailed vaguely to my managers, not sure what to do about my hefty workload. Fortunately one of them, realising better than I did how serious the situation was, immediately offered to provide cover for my students. I then also asked this of my other managers. I only took two weeks. I realise now I should have taken much longer and done more to get time away during a period when I needed to be with family and friends, and when I found it difficult and painful to focus on work.

In today's world we are often managing ourselves and may feel great responsibility to those we work for and with. Perhaps for the lost person's sake, we want to continue to be a good colleague, a supportive teacher, a diligent student. 

Camus's novel LÉtranger - The Stranger begins with the protagonist asking for the day off to go to his mother's funeral. His boss looks strangely at him and he assumes this is because he wants time off work, but in fact it's because his boss finds it hard to understand how he can be so factual and unemotional in his request. I feel as if nowadays we have all become strangers to emotion in the workplace, so much so that we have to try to provide special resources to support anxiety, stress and depression rather than look to see if these are created by the way in which our normal emotions are not supported at work and in other areas of our lives.

The psychologist Freud suggested that if grief is not appropriately felt and expressed, then mourning becomes melancholia. We can become stuck, start to behave in odd ways in order not to let go the person we have lost. We need time to experience the overwhelming emotions of loss in bereavement, to come to terms with the sudden huge gap where someone once lived alongside us.

It may be that time at work or in study is a welcome opportunity to engage with people who are supportive of our grief. For myself, although I tried to struggle on for a while, I deferred from my own studies. I couldn't sit still and concentrate on abstract ideas. Once I realised that I had not given myself sufficient space at the time I lost my mum, I began taking sporadic time out of work whenever I could. As it comes up to the anniversary of losing mum, I am mindful to look out for time for her and my own feelings. 

Painful and difficult tasks had to be tackled after mum's death: sorting through books and papers, closing her Facebook page so 'birthday' reminders didn't pop up for her grandchildren (the page can be left as a memorial page), listing with my Dad their belongings to agree how these might be eventually shared with my brother and sister, choosing some jewellery and other items for her grandchildren.

As I went through mum's books, I found a familiar set of gardening books by writers whose gardens we had visited together: Vita Sackville-West, Beth Chatto, Margery Fish. I had a patch of boring lawn in front of my house which I had always intended to dig out for a flower garden. I began to do this, on bad days throwing myself into the task in the mud and rain. I bought flowering plants which I put in, along the philosophy of figuring it out as I went along, as 'all plants look pretty'. They didn't. Some flowers I had bought in an access of grief were in colours that clashed with themselves - quite an achievement for a plant.

On a second trip to sort out more of mum's possessions, I found some books about decorative vegetable gardening by Joy Larkcom, a writer whom mum had become close friends with after translating Japanese seed packets for her books on oriental vegetables. I had always wanted to grow vegetables at the front of my house but felt my neighbours might object to ugly rows of cabbages. (They once complained because I hadn't mowed the lawn! OK, I hadn't mowed the lawn for about four months and it was a bit messy). Decorative vegetable gardening seemed perfect. I knew my mum would have loved the idea and even my neighbours might like it. (They say now: "It's messy - but arty.") 

 Herb and vegetable garden with black cat walking down pathway.Partly dug out flower garden.

On the left, the ugly flower garden. On the right, the 'potager' - mixture of vegetables and edible flowers. 

I post pictures on Instagram of my #PotagerProgress, sharing with friends and the world. I'm often reminded of mum, as I feel my chapped hands (mum's hands at the height of her gardening days were also rough with digging), or put in a plant she would have liked to hear about, or find some disgusting pest she would have sympathised about. Sometimes I still burst into tears as I grub about putting in seeds, and that's OK - nobody even knows (my secret is safe with you, right?). Gardening is a forgiving activity. If you get it wrong and the seedlings shrivel up - they are just plants, you learn from your mistake. If you bought plants that even clash with themselves you can throw them out. (No, of course I didn't! I'm still trying to find places in the garden for the awkward ugly plants. There are lots of plants people will throw away after a year, even though they're perennials, but I'm unable to dig out my own violas and throw them away and have surreptitiously picked up plants other people have thrown out.) There can also be happy accidents - that lovely bank of white flowers in my garden are some salad rocket that bolted; the flowers are edible too - they have a delicious sweet yet peppery taste. 

Plant pot with purple violas in a clump and white violas spilling over the side

Two flourishing pelargonium plants with pink flowers and red buds against a background of white flowers

This white viola is 'leggy'  in its second year - seen as a fault if it's meant to be a clump in a flower bed. On the right are two 'rescue pelargoniums' I found thrown out on a path last autumn. 

Sometimes as I garden, I think 'mum would not have done it like this', and feel anxious that I'm not honouring her memory properly. Actually, mum changed her ways as she went on in life. Remembering her is a process that is part of my changeable life, not something which preserves the things she did and loved as if under glass. 

You never get over losing someone so close. However Freud suggested that if we move through mourning appropriately, it's as if the person we lost becomes a part of us. We get that great gift of recognising them in ourselves, and can move on in life celebrating their memory rather than clinging to something material which has gone. Rather than get over it, we recover - lay sympathy, love and acceptance over grief so that it softens and the pain is no longer unbearably sharp. 

For this, though, we need to allow ourselves time and space in which to mourn, to remember, to regret. We mustn't be a Stranger to the intense emotions of rage and sadness which do seem as if they may overwhelm us at times. These too will pass, but not if we try to block them and push them back. Only if we allow them free passage, and ourselves what time we need for recovery. 

(My Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/rhiwbinapotager/?hl=en

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The best laid plans of mice and mums ...

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Sunday, 10 Dec 2017, 22:03

In my previous blogpost, I proudly set out what I called my 'project life balance plan'. Naturally, this attracted the attentions of the Gods and Goddesses, who promptly threw the divine equivalent of poo at it mixed

Poo emoji

  • I had planned for two loads of marking, I managed to acquire a third load.
  • I noted the workshop I had to attend, but forgot about the five loads of laundry I would have to rush through in order to ensure that my child had enough shirts and PE kit for school the following week, as I would not be there over the weekend to do this.
  • One of our cats went AWOL sad, and turned up at 5.30 am the day before I left for Glasgow approve (After I had spent hours sticking up posters round the neighbourhood - of course.)
  • The workshop didn't quite go as I had thought it would mixed, in fact it took me about a week to recover from it and figure out how to write up the notes dead
  • And there was a family emergency which led to me having to spend the afternoon driving to a nearby city, then back in the middle of rush hour - narrowly missing a three car pile-up off the motorway and screeching into my personal parking space with just 10 minutes to go before the first of the two tutorials I had to teach that night was due to start dead dead

In fact, this part of my plan originally looked like this:

Gannt plan showing tasks

And now it looks more like this:

Gannt plan as above but with extra tasks and large brown splotches on it

mixed Yes - time for working through the second block of materials and preparing TMA02 (which we are supposed to share in draft form with our fellow students) has been severely truncated.

At this time of year, I keep a sharp eye out and circulate my students gently enquiring if they might be a little more behind in their studies than they would ideally like to be? They usually say: "Yes, but there is the Christmas break coming ..."

I know that in spite of their good intentions, they are very unlikely to switch off Mariah Carey or It's a Wonderful Life, and log in to their study calendar. I suggest we do a session identifying what they could skim and what they really need to concentrate on, then they can have a break - and start the New Year all set up and ready to go.

I'm not sure I can skim any of my own study materials mixed I get the impression most of it involves going online and sharing my ideas with my fellow students. Plus, in my own TMA01, I didn't properly define one of the key terms tongueout (stop laughing DD103 students! big grin), and now I'm going to have to scrap my intended project and write a whole new one.

Poo emoji 

So-o-o, I am at that crunch point which many of my own students are at: Withdraw, Defer, Stagger on? thoughtful

I'm not going to give up on this thing. I enjoy it too much! I might have to defer, if any more divine poo hits my plans. I will give it a good go first, though wink

Poo emoji at the end of a rainbow

First thing to do, is sign onto the Study Calendar and check out how far behind I actually am mixed I put this off for a while, but eventually I get my courage up with one of the mince pies a student brought to yesterday's tutorial. (Yes, that is how messy it is round here - sometimes it's a choice between studying and tidying.)

Computer open at StudentHome with cup of coffee and mince pie

Phew! that's not so bad. I do have to tidy round now, so the kiddo and I can put up our Christmas decorations some time before Easter. But if I can get a couple of hours in tomorrow morning and some time on my 'day off', I might get back on board in time smile

(If I struggle, I'll have a good chat with Student Support before making any final decisions.)

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Plan to Succeed

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Thursday, 26 Oct 2017, 06:09

As an experienced researcher with decades of project management under my belt, I plan my work without even thinking about it. I often get by without even writing my plan down, but for a course of study, you are far better off making a proper written plan.

Open University modules are already carefully planned, with assignments designed to gear you up in gradually accumulating skills areas so that by the end, you have been gently taken on a journey to higher academic abilities. To some extent, you can rely on the plan laid out in the module. However - 'real' life has a bad habit of poking its nose in and making a fine mess out of the module's carefully laid out plan.

The module I'm currently studying has a brilliant way to help me: writing a plan is part of the first assignment. There is a link to this short, free course from OU Business Studies about project planning, in which we are shown Gannt plans. If you have got time to spare, this course is well worth working through. If you are short of time already, you could just sketch out a plan for yourself on a piece of paper or in a spreadsheet as I've done here.

This is my Gannt plan for my studies.

Excel spreadsheet laid out as a Gannt plan

(The free course provides a Gannt plan in a pdf, but my pdf reader will require an expensive upgrade before it will allow me to edit pdfs, so I decided to draw up my Gannt plan as an Excel spreadsheet.)

Well, that all looks great! Ah, but, what about 'real' life? I have gone back over my plan to put in points showing where I might have peaks of work or want to take extra time off to cover a school holiday.

Another Excel spreadsheet laid out as a Gannt plan

I can see that just before TMA01, I have got two loads of marking due in. I am down to give a workshop right afterwards too, for which I will have to do some preparatory work. Looking at this Gannt plan, I can consider doing my workshop preparations now so they are out of the way, and putting in some early work on my own TMA01 (such as writing the plan bit of it!), then I will have time to do my marking and check my TMA before putting it in. If I am coming up to the dates for marking and still have a lot of work to do on my TMA, I can ask for an extension in good time.

I am actually going to work on a more sophisticated plan in the OU's software application Compendium. I was hoping to just run that off and show it here in this blogpost. When I started, however, I discovered that it will take me a little while to re-learn how Compendium works. (I used it previously on the e(LATE)D course I studied, but have mis-remembered it as being very easy!) I have therefore had to adjust my Gannt plan to show that project planning will take longer than I had first supposed. (I want to use Compendium because it's designed for planning teaching projects. I think it will be useful to me later on, so it'll be worth putting in the time to learn how to use it properly.)

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Top Tips for Studying

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 9 Oct 2017, 14:09

I am a social anthropologist by training, and so whatever I'm doing, I am always observing it too, and making little mental field notes.

As I gear up for my own studies (see my Student Blog - which is an example of a blog being used as a Learning Journal), I'm seeing how I go about that and what tips I could pass on to my own students about studying.

My top tip for years has been If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing badly. As a busy mum myself, I have often had to just put something in that I knew wasn't anything like my best piece of work. But if you put in nothing, you get nothing. I have managed to get countless students through their first set of studies by telling them to just put in an unfinished draft, or scrappy bit of writing which they think is not good enough. It's not usually good enough for a Distinction (although that has happened once or twice!) but we get through the module, get a Pass mark and are able to go on with the next set of studies - and a better understanding of how to manage study time. That's a far better outcome for everyone than failing altogether because you didn't want to show your tutor something that wasn't 100% perfect.

Course certificate

Certificate of Completion for course where I only got through by sometimes submitting draft assignments, late - but I did it!

Time management is one skill that students often say they want to improve. To manage your time, you do have to have time to manage - which is not always the case if you are studying and working while bringing up three children, a small dog and some guinea pigs, plus popping in to make sure your elderly parents are OK.

Remember that 'time management' doesn't mean getting everything in on time - the university will sometimes allow extensions to your assignments. Make sure you talk to your tutor about these (negotiating proper support is part of proper time management). Think too about a good time of day when you will be able to put your head down to your studies for a couple of hours. (More in this blogpost, although if you read my whole blog you'll see there were plenty of occasions when I had no time at all and had to put aside my own studies. I am therefore very sympathetic to my own students about time management wide eyes)

Read to write - the world is full of knowledge. There is so much already written about everything that nobody can read it all. Grownup Academics therefore do something called 'read to write'. We focus on the things which are directly relevant to what we are going to write about. When you start reading a block of material, read the assignment question first. That way, you can make focussed notes as you go along, rather than reading everything, then reading the question, then going back over all the materials to see what was most relevant.

Photo of online assignment page - with mug resting on laptop keyboard

I didn't wait til Weeks 5-6 to read this, I read it right at the start. I will go back through it again, carefully, in Weeks 5-6.

Skim read, read and read ahead - I quickly skim over the whole of a week's work, then I go back and work through it slowly - doing the exercises. When I have finished working on an exercise, I quickly re-read the next bit of material without doing the exercise for that part. I'm thinking about the exercise as I get on with my day, and when I go back to do it, I am well geared up for it.

Screenshot of study activity with advice note

Have you got any top tips for managing your studies? Share them in a comment here, or in a thread in your Student Forum. 


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The Associate Lecturer as Student

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 11 Sept 2017, 11:02

This autumn I am starting a module on the Masters in Online and Distance Education. I do, of course, have substantial practical experience in online and distance education - as I have been teaching for the Open University for over ten years. While doing professional development (on the e-LATE(D) and Tutor Moderator courses), I enjoyed reading up on the pedagogic theory behind my teaching and even writing up some of my work.

If I am not careful, the ironing, washing the floor, playing with the cats, watching cat videos on Facebook and ferrying my daughter to her after school clubs can take over my life. Like all of us, I need a community within which to find support and challenges so that I can continue with this scholarly activity. I hope that the Masters degree will provide a learning community within which I can further develop my thinking and practice in online and distance education.

To begin with, I have been getting into the swing of learning by doing a less important subject over the summer. I started doing some Welsh courses, with the OU's free short Open Learn module: Discovering Wales and Welsh. I used some YouTube videos on Welsh too, and have learned to say: "Great!" and "Interesting", and some other handy phrases. I wasn't very good at signing in to do my Welsh studies every day but I started to get myself into the habit.

Now I'm setting aside time each morning to study. Once I have made sandwiches for my daughter, and breakfast, fed the cats, done any necessary floor washing, I have decided to put in an hour or two on my studies every working day. There isn't very much to do yet, so I just sign into my StudentHome page and explore for ten or twenty minutes, check out the Forums and then do some other learning activities before getting on with my day.

Many of my own students are New to the Open University. I sometimes think that the main lesson they learn on the Level 1 modules I teach is how to learn. They come to a better understanding of the amount of time they need to put aside for their work, and when is the best time in the day for them to do this. Many of them start by putting aside a whole day for studies, but find that this lovely large block of time can quickly get colonised by other activities. I recommend them to do their studies in a 'little and often' way: short bursts of time every day, rather than one whole day in the week.

At a recent Day School, one of the students was someone who herself advises people on time management. She gave us a good tip: the best amount of time for most people to do work is 90 minutes: that is the optimum time for humans to concentrate. I mean to do good bursts of focussed study, but not to let these drag on. It can lead to shoulder and back problems as you crouch over your computer for long periods of time, and if I do 120 minutes today, and get tired, I might be put off from doing any studying tomorrow. If I do 90 minutes today, and 90 minutes tomorrow, I will do 180 in total.

Screenshot of powerpoint slide on Time Management

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Starting the reading for my Applaud application

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Edited by Anita Pilgrim, Monday, 28 Nov 2016, 13:05

For several months I have had to put aside my application for Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (being conducted through the university's Applaud programme), owing to a sudden upsurge in work.

I have felt just like my own students! pleading a mixture of work-related, family-related and medical reasons (I had a chest infection as well), as I explained to my students that I would not be quite as quick as I usually like to be over marking their assignments. My HEA Fellowship application was actually delayed because my two referees were put under pressure at work too, and didn't have time to do the references.

In the meantime, I felt I should bump up my mostly drafted application with some fresh reading so I did a desultory Google Scholar search for relevant articles. One of my colleagues also mentioned a highly relevant article she had written in a powerpoint presentation. I put these into a list 'for later'.

Much later! I realised that my plan to do my application and other personal development work on Thursday was just not happening. I am always telling my students that setting aside a special day for studying is not a good way to manage time, and I have found this out the hard way myself. I am switching to trying to read an article per day instead.

That habit also takes time to get into! Today I had to rush off to the supermarket at first light as my daughter revealed late yesterday that she had forgotten she would need a pepper, a courgette, some sweetcorn and frozen peas for her Home Economics class. However, mindful of setting a good example to my students, I did try to do some reading a bit later in the day.

I spent about fifteen minutes trying to track down my colleague's article. The internet link she provided in the powerpoint took too long to download. The OU online Library disclaimed any knowledge of the journal in which she had published. I guess I will have to ask her to email me a copy! sad

I moved on to one of the Google scholar articles (one of the few relevant ones I managed to pick out of a big list of irrelevant ones!). When I looked it up in the OU online Library, I inadvertently found out that their search engine will throw up all articles with relevant terms in their titles and key words, so I found a few more articles that way approve

By now I was a bit tired and time was pressing on, so I just carefully put the details of a couple of the articles in my newly formatted Annotated Bibliography (more on this soon). I think I will have a cup of tea after all that!

Cup of tea and slice of cake

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