Even in Northern Canada, Oxford never feels far away

1 May 2015

Cathy Jewison next to the ice castle on Yellowknife Bay, Canada.

Cathy Jewison (MSt Literature and Arts) writes about her experience of studying for a Masters whilst living in Yellowknife, Canada.

It’s January, minus 35°C, and I’m suiting up for my morning walk to the office: heavy parka, wind pants, boots, insulated mitts. A scarf covers the bottom half of my face, a headband is pulled low on my forehead – only my eyes show. At this temperature, flesh freezes in less than sixty seconds.

Just before I step outside, I pop in my earbuds and set my mp3 player to a podcast from Oxford University. Today I’ll be listening to a lecture entitled ‘Women as Patrons of the Arts in Early Modern Europe’.  Soon I’m traipsing through the snow and darkness of the Old Town area of Yellowknife, the small city in Northern Canada where I live. As I go, I can see the outline of float planes resting on the ice of Great Slave Lake until it’s light enough to fly, a small log-built restaurant from Yellowknife’s early days, a frozen ship awaiting the open waters of summer, a Quonset hut that houses a bush supply store. All the while, I’m getting some helpful background in art history.

This past fall I began the Master of Studies in Literature and Arts (MLA), a part-time programme through the Department for Continuing Education. Since the MLA is interdisciplinary, most students have a specialty in one or two areas of the programme, which encompasses literature, art and architectural history, history, philosophy and theology. My previous academic work has focused on literature and history, so art is a new field for me. The learning curve is substantial, and one that I need to address despite my other commitments – which include a full-time public service career – and despite my distance from the university. Fortunately, Oxford never feels far away.

Distance education hasn’t always been that way for me. I’ve previously completed two degrees by correspondence, and although I enjoyed both programs immensely, toiling in isolation left me feeling that I was missing much of the richness of academic life. So when researching new programmes, I focused on those that would allow me to participate in a community of scholars. The University of Oxford, the Department of Continuing Education, and Kellogg College have all helped make my wish a reality.

Thanks to the MLA’s low-residence format, I’m able to continue living and working in Yellowknife, and to follow my passion for the humanities by studying at one of the world’s great universities. Four residences spaced over the first year of the programme allow me to attend MLA lectures, participate in classroom discussions, and connect with my wonderfully engaging tutors and classmates. Whether we’re learning how the introduction of coffee and tea changed eighteenth century material culture, unravelling the coded language of Renaissance visual arts, or discussing the nuances of the academic life, the residences provide a depth of experience that simply does not occur while studying alone. My trips to Oxford also give me the opportunity to attend additional university lectures and to explore the exhibits at the university’s museums. Back at home, online modules and discussion forums keep me connected to the MLA programme, while the Bodleian Library’s extensive online offerings enable me to carry out my research for my assignments.

Collegiate life is one of the great appeals of Oxford study, and Kellogg College is ideally suited for students in my situation. An extensive tour of the College by a member of staff, months before I’d even submitted my application, made me feel welcome and convinced me that Kellogg understood the pressures and constraints on those of us who must balance full-time work and study. The College’s beautiful and comfortable short-term accommodation provides a much-needed base for part-time students. Plunking oneself down beside a random person in the dining hall is never a problem, as everyone at Kellogg seems to be aware that many of us come and go throughout the year, and are happy to chat. And, of course, Kellogg makes great use of communications technology to keep us up to date on news and events. This includes podcasts on the Kellogg website, which provide insight into the breadth of College research activities.

A half hour after beginning my morning walk to work, I reach my downtown office. As I settle behind my desk, I take a quick run through my mp3 player for a podcast for the walk home. One from Kellogg catches my eye. It’s called ‘Learning and Work in Medieval England’, a lecture originally delivered as part of National Adult Learners’ Week a couple of years ago. Sounds fitting – I’d like to know how others have managed work and study over the centuries. Despite the cold and dark of a Canadian winter, I’m already looking to the walk home. I cue up the podcast before turning off my player and starting my work day.