One of the nice things about the School of Museum Studies is the tremendous sense of community. We hope that when our students join us the feel they have become part of that community and that, when they leave us, they remain part of our community and networks. It is true that our students are all over the place and can be found in the most unexpected places…
One of the challenges, however, is how to support our distance learners (who make up the vast majority of our students) to feel part of that community. Studying remotely can be challenging and isolating – something I know all too well, having done it myself. There can be a sense of frustration and exasperation at not quite getting something, or wanting to check that you understand something correctly and having no one there to chat it over with. Of course, our students all have access to excellent personal and module tutors, but it’s not quite the same as sitting in the pub with a mate and saying “so y’know that bit of the course on…”, is it?
One of the ways we encourage our students to engage more with each other is through our Distance Learning Summer School – an annual event that took place here in Leicester last week. Around fifty students from at least seven countries arrived looking forward to a healthy mix of study, networking and, yes, fun.
The programme ranged from lectures on, for example, ‘The Emotional Museum’ to tutorial sessions that discussed, amongst other things, the role humour in the museum as well as practical sessions on ethics and making the most of the facilities for distance learners provided by the University Library. Of course, the obligatory Richard III content was also present, including a trip to Leicester’s Guildhall to see the Richard III exhibition and chat to the curator.
Perhaps the week had two highlights, though. The first of these was our inaugural ‘Speed Tutoring’ event at which students had the opportunity to talk to up to six tutors about anything they wanted. Academic members of staff and associate tutors lined the edges of our lecture hall, which buzzed as students moved around from one tutor to the next every fifteen minutes with questions and comments about assignments, modules, dissertations and just general chit-chat too.
The second highlight was the study visit to the wonderful Snibston Discovery Museum where we were met by four members of staff who spoke about the various challenges and opportunities involved in running a large local authority museum in the current climate. Whilst there was talk of restructure and budget cuts, there were also inspiring case studies of work with artists, the impact of volunteering in the museum and targeted work exploring, for example, how artist-made objects could be used to support people suffering from dementia or how museums could work with the siblings of children with disabilities. There was plenty of time to explore the museum, its diverse collections and stories, and perhaps, more importantly, the ‘Science Play’ playground outside (well, the sun was shining, after all).
It’s not all work, work, work, though. The week allowed for plenty of time for everyone to get to know each other. The annual Museum Studies quiz night was well attended, characteristically difficult, and, as ever, officiated over by Museum Studies Stalwart Jim Roberts. After a guided walk led by our own Amy Barnes, we enjoyed a drink and a Pizza at Manhattan 34 and many enjoyed one of Leicester’s finest curries at Kayal too.
Throughout the week, the building was filled with a lively, happy atmosphere with students, tutors and other members of staff enjoying each other’s company and the programme on offer. The feedback was great…’inspiring’, ‘inspirational’ and ‘inspired’ were all words that came up time and time again, leading our colleague Alex to comment that the School of Museum Studies should perhaps adopt the motto‘we inspire in three tenses’.
I hope that, having had the chance to meet us and each other, and having been to visit us at our home here in Leicester, our distance learners feel more confident in their studies as well as feeling a full and important part of our community. I know they’ll stay in touch with us and each other, and, importantly, I know that they have all made friends with whom they can have that all important ‘well, what did you make of…’ conversation (albeit, perhaps online or on the phone rather than in person). I look forward to seeing some of them next year.
Oh, and just to address one important comment in the final evaluation: Do rest assured that next year I will personally ensure that Jammy Dodgers are available throughout.