Saturday, 31 March 2012

Why creative writing at university?

Why not just go and hide in the hills in a cosy cottage and pour your soul into your work? Why not painstakingly learn the craft in the evenings, at weekends and even on holiday whilst you hold down the day job. Those serious about it succeed in the end if they persist. It’s a big if, of course. The serious writer had to learn to cope with rejection, to keep going when the ideas run thin and to keep faith when the writing seems bad. It’s not easy. Those who persist get there in the end. The writers who have taken this route are by no means inferior to – nor indeed superior to those who choose to learn within the academy.   
Our undergraduates come to us largely unskilled. They mainly have good A-levels, including something in English, sometimes  English Language but more often English Literature, some mature students and a very few young ones will have a portfolio of writing and perhaps have completed an access course and most students will not have done any creative writing since infant school. Masters students tend to have either a BA in Creative Writing or portfolio of work, including some that is published.
I have to admit to seeing a remarkable growth in our students in their time with us. Even though they spend as much time as any student in coffee and other bars they are probably still quite immersed in the writer’s world. They have to read and write before each class. We give them plenty of food for thought in the seminars. We offer them many suggestions about which books they might read on the subject. Generally these books are much more than “How To” manuals. They are much deeper.
We teach our students to reflect critically about their work. That is probably the crucial point. The same rigour that must be used in literary criticism has to be applied to how they look at their own work. Yes, they must have some regard for craft. But they must also begin to become aware of their own creative process and their own strengths and weaknesses. We encourage a cycle of action research – experiment, evaluate, adjust, experiment again. We teach our students to be robust, unafraid of criticism and gracious about praise. They also learn how to identify what makes their text work or not. Is it perhaps the rigour involved in all of this that puts them on such a steep learning curve?
Whatever it that we’re doing right – and we’re still not sure - the transformation that happens between level 4 Semester 1 and level 6 Semester 2 is immensely satisfying. Perhaps they already have that commitment that makes them capable of coping with the big if.                              

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Gym Analogy and Student Fees in HE

Students are already paying huge fees and collecting debt. It’s going to get worse next year as fees rise to a level that may actually enable them to cover costs. Yet no one should expect to get a good degree unless they put in the work. This is where the gym analogy is useful. You can’t expect to get fit just by paying your membership fee. You have to put the hours in and stretch yourself as well.
However, this does mean that the students have a right to expect certain things:
A comfortable and inspiring environment
Good facilities to aid their study – library, internet, computers etc.
Expertise from their lecturers
Regular feedback on their work
Stimulating debate with their peers
I gave a lecture last week to our first year students on one of their core modules. It was better attended than many but still not as well attended as I would have liked. I was giving a Power Point presentation. This slide show was almost like notes to myself. But it also saved the students having to take in page numbers, names and dates by ear. The projector did start up fine then suddenly stopped working. They had to take the lecture in via their ears after all. I will emphasize at this point that this is unusual. This has never happened to me before.
Is this the time to remember that “lecture” actually means reading? Dusty old professors used to mumble out their lecture notes when I was an undergraduate. But they were so learned and clever we didn’t mind.
You may wonder why I didn’t print out a copy of the slide presentation for my students. It’s probably because over the last few years, I’ve printed them out every time and had to throw away a not inconsiderable amount of paper at the end of the semester. All those copies for all those students who did not attend.  The Power Point presentation is on Blackboard, our VLE anyway. As are lecture notes.
So, if the PowerPoint presentation and the lecture notes are on Blackboard, what is the point of coming to the lecture? We know that Life happens to our students and with the best will in the world they can’t attend every week. That is why we have not yet gone the route of demanding full attendance. Some students need the extra support of seeing the material in writing.
Well, maybe I’ll tell a joke.
It’s perhaps a little more obvious why students would benefit from seminar attendance. A discussion is part of it and in my discipline they more often than not become creative writing workshops.
However, we’re moving towards being firmer on attendance. The other side of this is that we have to make it worth students’ while to attend. I personally do not mumble from notes like the dusty old professors. I like to speak to my audience, maintain eye-contact and react to how they’re understanding, going into more detail on some points and speeding through others that the students seem to understand readily. Plus students can ask questions as they think of them or at the end of the lecture. It’s harder to do that when reading from Blackboard. But I believe I’m just as much an expert as the old profs were.
Plus there is something about making notes. I still do it when I go to talks. You take in the information with your eyes and ears. You process it in your brain and you write down with your hand what you have understood.  It’s old-fashioned but it is an act of confirmation. I noticed one student writing avidly the other day, hanging on my every word. Good on him – even though it’s all there on Blackboard.    
Going back to the gym analogy: the gym has been set up with the best of equipment to date that the fees can buy. The most valuable resource is the expertise of the staff who work there. I quite honestly think that my colleagues and I couldn’t work harder though we might be able to work smarter and we’re open to that and willing to learn. Now, if the clients want to get fit they must put in the hours.