Interview: Thinking of a Community Studies Degree? Your Adult Education Options.

By Gemma Creagh - Last update

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It’s not easy returning to education after a break. The thought of going back to the realm of homework and exam stress can be very daunting, but Maynooth University is delivering something a bit different. Their Part-Time Degree programmes in Community Studies and Local Studies allow students flexible options to study at their own pace. We had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Derek Barter about what they had to offer. 

Derek Barter is the Continuing Education Co-Ordinator in the Dept. of Adult and Community Education (DACE) at Maynooth University. He is also the manager of the night-time degrees BA Local Studies and BA Community Studies. Completing a PhD in modern history in 2009, his dissertation focussed on Irish nationalist identity construction, social and constitutional relationships through the competing discourses of popular culture.

How does your research help you in your work as an adult educator today?

The PhD looked at the topics of nationalism, the media, and personal identity, which have probably never been more in focus as they are now. Especially in light of Trump’s America First and the English nationalist Brexit campaigns and the rise of the right across Europe. The research looked at propaganda and how language, in this case, the very powerful medium of songs and song lyrics, shape the way we think and feel about things like country, or who belongs and who doesn’t belong.

I spoke to the well-known balladeer Frank Harte not long before he died; both of us considered that old Andrew Fletcher quote ‘Give me the making of the songs of a nation and I care not who makes its laws.’ This refers to the difference between how people ought to be, that’s what is written in laws, and how people actually are, as their feelings are revealed through the songs. So going back and asking questions from different types of sources, trying to get to the truth, if such a thing exists, is what historical research is about. If you can get as close as possible to the source of an idea or an event then you can eliminate as much ‘Fake News’ as possible.

How did you end up in Adult Education?

I had returned to study as a mature student myself and knew the difference it had made in my life. However, I’d never really thought much about getting involved in education as I was on an academic history track. It was while I was completing my PhD that, out of necessity, I began working for what was then the City of Dublin Vocational Education Committee. I was an Education Development Worker in the Soilse Drug Free project in Dublin’s north inner city. This completely changed my way of thinking; I could see the impact that education had on people recovering from drug addiction – both on their recovery and how they saw themselves.

I was lucky, I guess, as the really hard, personal work had been taking place in the years and months previously between the person and their key workers and addiction specialists. So by the time I got to work with either an individual or a group, there was a real sense of hope about moving forward. I was in my second year in Soilse when I contacted Josephine Finn, the then head of the Department of Adult and Community Education in NUI Maynooth, and asked if I could run a Return to Learning programme, like the one that I had taken part in when I started back in college, in Soilse with Maynooth’s backing. She agreed and this helped Soilse to win two Aontas Star awards and a NALA ACE award.

Out of that Return to Learning course, a number of people went on to college and then university and I know that two people went on to complete degrees and masters out of it. But to be honest and not wanting to paint a totally rosy picture, not everybody made it. That’s the nature of addiction and it took me a while to get used to that.

Just as I was finishing writing up my PhD, I also began working with the Canals Community Partnership managing, designing and developing community-based educational programmes in the south inner city. This was in Dolphin’s Barn, Fatima Mansions, Rialto, and Inchicore. This was less hands-on and more of a coordination role, but it was through both of these posts which expanded my interest around Adult Education and later Community Engagement and Widening Participation within Higher Education began.

What is your role in the Community Studies Programme?

As BA manager I look after the administration and co-ordination of the degree. So that means working across 8 of the university’s academic departments including History, Geography, Nua Ghaeilge, Sociology, Anthropology, Applied Social Studies, Classics and of course Adult and Community Education. I also lecture, or rather facilitate, on the introduction to Study Skills/Student Support module. On this programme, I get to meet and work with new students on the degree in their first months in the university. The first thing I like to do with new students on the BA is to try to create a learning environment where they can feel at home – so they can start to think that studying at university at this time of their life is the right thing for them.

How does that work?

In the first semester, we have all of the night-time degree students together. This means that the Community Studies and the Local Studies students are in the same class. The one thing that we all have in common is school. For many – but not all – of our students, school and particularly the Leaving Cert, is where ‘enjoyment’ and ‘fun’ in the learning process are not words that easily spring to mind. I didn’t complete ‘the Leaving’ myself, and I wouldn’t be the only person in the class like this.

But we, as a group of adults, can look at this event and other school, educational or learning activities with a degree of objectivity that we get with the passage of time. We examine and reflect on our past personal experiences and then broaden these outlooks to academic questions such as: ‘What is the purpose of education?’ Once you give adult students a chance to think about questions; the opportunity to carry out research into the subject; and a place then to discuss the issues that they have raised; you can see they are ready to take off.

That sounds fun and challenging!

It is. Many of our students will have raised families of their own. What is really interesting is looking at our own past educational experiences: the innovative and imaginative ways that adults who see their own kids going through the same thing as they did – with its attendant stresses – devise as possible alternatives. The debates that are carried out in class around learning and education can be very challenging. It would be great to have the minister of education present at some of these classes, he could learn a lot.

What you come to realise very quickly is that once a subject has meaning for the student and is not just some distant academic subject divorced from the student’s reality and life. Then the learning goes in deep and is an enjoyable transformative experience. I should also say that the group process is really important in this. That is something that I learned from my time in Soilse and later while studying group psychodynamics. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not therapy but the social nature of learning is something that often gets overlooked particularly when education is seen as a competition as conjured up in that horrible phrase: the ‘Leaving Cert. Points Race’.

On this Community Studies BA, you cover such a broad range of relevant topics. What’s your own background in these?

My own undergraduate degree is in Anthropology and History. Anthropology gave me a good insight into the social sciences and the theorists that try to comprehend the world or reality as constructed by the people who live in it, depending on place and time. This followed through into my History post-graduate work was very much social and cultural history. However, I just tutor on the study skills student support module for the new students. The departments involved in the Community Studies degree namely Anthropology, Applied Social Studies, Sociology and Adult and Community Education all provide their own lecturers for the modules that they deliver. So the students are in good hands for each module that they take.

Are there any supports that students can avail of?

On a practical level, we have a dedicated Academic Support Officer, Dr. Fearga Kenny to give people help with assignments and understanding the workings of the university. We also have admin support with Kay Loughlin (who is also a Local Studies student) who works with people when they need help with the university’s offices such as fees, registration, records etc.. Also our students are fully registered so they are entitled to use all of the facilities and services that the university has to offer.

Also for the first time this year, the Dept. of Education has recognised that Part-Time students have costs around childcare, travel, bills, etc. and have given the Student Budgeting Service a fund that people can apply to once they register to help meet these costs. There is also the 1916 Bursary and the University Bursary that people can apply for. These will pay for up to 5 years of tuition so the student may have their entire fees paid for, with a bit left over.

There seems to be a great deal of flexibility with regards modules – how does this work?

The modules appear on a carousel and it takes about 4.5 years for the modules to come up. There are some recurring modules but these are flagged to the students as they appear. The only compulsory modules are the Introduction to Programmes that the student takes in their first semester and this means that they have to attend both Tuesday and Wednesday nights for the first 12 weeks of their study.

After that, they can decide how quickly they go through it by taking 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 modules over the two night once they go into semester 2. We also run Summer Schools in June and these change every year. This year the summer school was delivered by Paul Fagan our Disability Studies lecturer and compared the Social versus the Medical model of disability. It was really well received by the students so the bar has been set high for next year but we think the students will not be disappointed.

What advice would you give someone who’s thinking of applying?

I guess if someone is considering the BA in Community Studies then they are at the stage when they are ready to try something new. I’m always struck by students who in their first or second semester tell me that they wanted to do this for years but kept putting it off for whatever reason. One woman like this came up with a great phrase that I still love to quote which was that ‘I get up every morning now with fizz in my blood’. That’s how transformative this experience can be for people. The first step of contacting us is often the biggest thing to overcome. For many adults this is the most difficult part of the process, making contact and getting over the nerves involved. Kay, Fearga and myself would be very happy to have that initial conversation with you.

What is the career progression options for people graduating a course like this?

We would have a lot of people who are already working, so the career advancement would take place in their own profession. However, the transformative experience of this degree can set people off into careers that they never imagined when they started out. We get people going into Adult Guidance and Counselling, Public Administration, Education, starting up their own business, etc. Every year we would get graduates going on to do post-graduate programmes like the HDip. in Further Education, or the Masters in Adult Education or PhD Adult and Community Education so you never know where this degree might take you.

So how do people apply for the BA Community Studies – is it too late for this year?

No, not at all. The CAO will open again on Tuesday 21 August for Available Places and if anyone wants to make an application they just use the code MH803. This is the same code for both the BA Local Studies and BA Community Studies. It’s very straightforward and we don’t need much more than a person’s contact details and a short personal statement. Like I said pick up the phone and call Kay on 01 708 6062 or e-mail and we’ll take it from there.

Do you want more information on this Communities Studies programme, or to see what other courses Maynooth University has on offer?  Make sure to pop along to our next free Education Expo event where you can chat with staff from Maynooth University in person.

Gemma Creagh

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