I’ve been stretched out of shape this week.
Since June I have been immersed in an Introduction to Philosophy course. It’s a MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course), a learning format that is starting to make inroads into the way we learn, and is offered by MITx via edX, the non-profit and open-source platform founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012. It offers a wide range of courses and programs from many of the world’s leading universities and institutions. I did a couple of shorter courses earlier in the year but the content weight and length of the Introduction to Philosophy course was a much bigger challenge for me.
After twelve weeks, eighteen lectures and three written submissions, on Thursday I received my final mark (88%) and my certificate.
It’s been a long time since I’ve undertaken a lengthy period of formal study. Even though I’m not working at the moment, setting aside 6-7 hours each week – sometimes more when a written assessment was due – has been challenging. Much of my impetus to keep at it was the fear of falling behind and potentially having to find double the time the following week.
It’s also been a subject that’s really tested me. Contrary to what you might think, the course was not about what I believed about God, knowledge, consciousness or identity but rather reading a range of arguments about these subjects and assessing them rigorously using a particular structure.
I’ve always loved learning and when faced with difficult concepts, I usually get through by applying myself to pulling the topic apart and putting it back together again. But there were a couple of weeks – thankfully not in a row – when I floundered. I couldn’t see the point of the arguments and engaging in the discussion forums/asking questions made me even more confused. In the end, surviving all of my harsh self-talk required an exercise in generosity. I surrendered to the feeling of ‘wandering in the wilderness’ and tried to trust that I would eventually work it out. As the weeks moved on, the fog did clear a bit and I was able to pick up the pieces and put them together again.
I am proud of receiving my certificate. However more than that, I’m proud of sticking with it, not letting the feeling of being completely clueless deter me and of finding a little generosity of spirit in myself to get me through the difficult bits. And I feel different – more open, more aware, stretched in a new direction.
Speaking of difficult bits, on Saturday I stretched myself in another direction, this time to take on my battle with bread.
About seven years ago, I started my relationship with bread by making hot cross buns. I’m allergic to oranges and all of the hot cross buns here in the UK contain mixed peel (even bakery-bought ones). So I thought it would be an excellent thing to be able to make my own. So with recipe in hand and wielding my spatula, off I went.
The first batch of buns I made were amazing – mouth-wateringly fragrant, absolutely delicious with a cross on each glossy crown.
Since then I’ve attempted several more batches as well as a variety of other loaves. I love the physicality of making bread – my fingers pulling and stretching as they knead, seeing the magical doubling of the dough as it proves and the oh-so-glorious smell as the fresh bread emerges from the oven. But none of these have reached the dizzying, delicious heights of that first batch. So I decided that I needed to go back to basics and booked myself into the Beginner’s Bread Bakery at the Waitrose Cookery School.
I loved it!
Over five wonderful hours, Laini took us through the rules according to bread: The science of the ingredients, the importance of exact measurements and temperatures and the stretchy, springy consistency of great dough. To my delight, my doughs proved and proved again and I managed to produce a range of delicious breads…
Garlic and Rosemary Focaccia
Here it is: Proved, flavoured and about to go into the oven (left) and beautifully baked and cooling (right).
Pesto and Cheese Straws
We used some of the focaccia dough after the first prove to flatten, fill and shape these deliciously salty straws to accompany the mushroom soup served for our lunch. I had two at lunch and then the other two that evening.
White Bloomer Loaf (and dinner roll)
What’s a baking course without a white loaf and here it is (left). We also learnt how to make a perfectly shaped dinner roll (right). It’s not as easy as it looks!
I also learnt where I had been going awry in my bread-making, namely the water being too warm (thereby killing the yeast before it even got going) and using flour instead of oil to knead the dough (according to Laini, adding flour during the knead makes for a very dense loaf). Needless to say I’m very keen to put these all of these new techniques into practice but I need to finish all of the bread I brought home first…
So in the space of a week I feel like I’ve achieved a little mastery over two challenging subjects – bread and philosophy – and now have some sound points of reference to build on. I feel incredibly energised, eager to apply it all and excited to learn more.
Just goes to show what a little stretching can do.
For my other visit to the Waitrose Cooking School – Sliced and Diced – click here