I Can See For Miles

I’ve mentioned Cardiff Parkrun before. This is a weekly, free 5k run organised entirely by volunteers. Running is something that I do on a fairly regular basis, and like studying it can be a very frustrating business.
When studying it is obvious that over a period of 3-6 years, that there will be highs and lows. Deadlines missed, disappointing grades, work that is not up to your own standards, other students that annoy you, lecturers that annoy you, and, of course, life events that get in the way of our study. But, counterbalancing these lows will be unexpectedly good grades or complementary feedback, fabulous lectures/seminars/tutorials, sudden realisation that something is easier than you thought, new friends made, old friends rediscovered and, of course, exams passed.
In running too there are highs – personal bests, new distances conquered, new friends, new courses. And, of course lows – poor times, injuries, lack of motivation. In both studying and running landmarks are passed and highs are achieved. That’s the point, isn’t it?
So I was really pleased last Saturday to reach my fiftieth Parkrun. It wasn’t a PB, and I certainly came nowhere close to winning, but nevertheless it was a milestone that, during a year of minor injuries, I never thought I’d make.
Reflecting on the run later I started to think what bigger lessons were there. If I’m honest, I never really struggled as a student, so I can’t think of an essay or seminar that was analogous. Perhaps the day I submitted my PhD thesis to the University of London is the closest. Unlike, the PhD, however, I don’t feel that the Parkrun is the end of a journey, but rather simply a point on a continuing journey.
Which made me think that perhaps, after all, so was the PhD. I have always been an advocate of life long learning. This is where running and learning connect for me. Life long learning implies a lifetime commitment to learning, not necessarily a life long commitment to passing exams. Since my PhD I have tended to avoid exams in which I am the participant. As a lecturer I set and mark exams for others, of course.
In my running ‘career’, I have completed a marathon, a couple of half marathons, a couple of 10k’s and, of course 50 5k’s. It has not been a straight line, gradually doing longer and longer distances, but rather characterised by sudden bursts, unexpected faster times, followed by a diminishing of motivation or punctuated by injuries of one sort or another.
Life long learning is a process by which, over time, we come to realise that the knowledge ‘out there’ is far greater than the knowledge in our own heads. Sometimes, being a life long learner means taking formal courses and exams. More often it is about retaining a sense of wonder about the World we live in. It is often a case of being prepared to learn, rather than being prepared to be taught. Students often set up a hierarchical expectation where for them to learn, ‘we’ must teach. In reality, that makes learning a function of teaching and whilst some knowledge may pass from one person to another, it is unlikely that much real learning will take place. Lecturers often like the relationship simply because it flatters their ego.
Life long running is also a process. It does not have to be about winning, going faster, or going further. Every time I lace up my shoes and step out for a run, I have, in effect, won. Likewise, every time I ask a question, check something on the internet, read a book or simply wonder ‘what would happen if….’ I am improving my mind, and learning.
I would like to thank all the people who organise and turn up on every Saturday morning. It is an incredibly friendly and supportive environment. But, I’d also like to thank all my lecturers, tutors and especially students, past, present and future, for being co-passengers on my journey.
I know that I have more runs and more learning inside me. At the moment, I feel that I am on a hilltop from where I can see for miles. I also know that in that landscape are highs and lows. In the lows it is sometimes difficult to imagine the highs that lay ahead, but, trust me on this, both running and education are really no more than an endurance test..


Born To Run

Can education be reduced to a metaphor? I ponder this question because I’m rather fond of metaphor’s, especially bad one’s. I have often used the metaphor of a journey to describe the research process. This is not just because it is a good metaphor, but mainly because it allows me to use pictures of the Starship Enterprise in my presentations.
But recently a friend of mine lent me a book by the novelist Haruki Murakami. In this non-fictional book he talks about ‘What I talk about when I talk about running‘, which is a great title for a book. I haven’t completed the book yet, but in reading it I was struck by how much the author compares the art of writing to the discipline of running. This struck a chord.
I enjoy a run, though probably using the word ‘enjoy’ in this context isn’t entirely accurate. However, like Makurami I run regularly. I’m not a great runner, but neither am I a disaster. I can complete 10 kilometres in about 54 minutes. And, regularly average a pace of below 5 minutes 30 seconds on longer runs.
Has any of this got anything to do with ‘Thinking Socially’? I’m glad you asked. Reading Makurami’s account of his experiences running I started to wonder if running was a good metaphor for education. When students start courses isn’t it a bit like a distance run. At the start of a long distance race everybody is very positive and excited. They expect to do well. Like education, they are not necessarily in competition with the others in the race, but mainly with themselves – those all elusive ‘Personal bests’ are what rattle a runners chain.
But nobody can compete a marathon, or even a half-marathon (my current goal) without doing a fair bit of training. Is a degree a marathon, or perhaps we should keep the marathon metaphor for the PhD? Researching and writing a PhD certainly feels a marathon undertaking. It fits nicely inside ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ the classic 1959 book by Alan Sillitoe. That book, a fiction, is about the struggle of a young criminal, Smith, to assert his individuality through his running. The run and the training become a metaphor for life. Anybody writing a PhD will recognise the feelings both of isolation and invigoration that are key themes of Sillitoe’s work.
So, yes, a Marathon can probably be a metaphor for a PhD. But long distance, even short distance, running provides a metaphoric language for education.
Starting a degree is not dissimilar to the first few training sessions for a new runner. I regularly attend the Cardiff Parkrun, a weekly 5 kilometre run with around 400 other runners. Times range from 13 minutes to 45 minutes. Everybody there has an individual goal. Everybody wants to complete the course, often a goal of new runners is simply to run the entire 5k. I have never had to walk/run, even if my 26 + minutes is not going to break any records. But new students often make the same mistake of over-doing it. The idea that you can hold down a full-time job, keep your family satisfied and complete two modules simultaneously only appears over-ambitious when you get fired, divorced and fail at least one of the courses. Like runners who have never run the distance before thinking they might win the race, students very often have over ambitious goals.
If training for a run requires dedication it often requires you to face up to truths you have been trying to ignore. Having completed my second 10k of the year last weekend I realised I was nowhere close to being able to complete a half-marathon in 3 weeks time (for which I entered before picking up a niggly knee injury). I had been kidding myself I would be fine. I have now realised that the gap between my actual fitness and my optimism is so large that I am delaying my half-marathon attempt until March 2014.
My inner conversation reminded me of discussions with students who clearly are struggling to find time to put in the effort, but still expect good marks. With Universities under pressure to improve retention and completion rates we are confronted with a moral dilemma. What is in the interests of students is not necessarily in the interests of the organisation. Like demented personal trainers who drive on people to levels of effort their bodies reject (at a recent 5K a runner came past me at the finishing line being driven on by a personal trainer, on completion they threw up), we keep students studying who should defer, or even drop out, the equivalent of walking part of a run, or dropping out of a race we are in no fit state to complete.