Thursday, 26 December 2013

Back to the Beginning

I’m currently on leave. But I’m never quite completely on holiday. After all, it is Christmas time and Christmas is a time full of stories and I deal in stories.  I write them and teach other people how to write them. In fact, I’m writing now, of course. Away from home, I’m reading a lot too. So work never goes completely away.
It’s a slightly different holiday this time. For the first time, we’re spending Christmas in a favourite summer holiday spot of ours in the south of Spain. It’s different at this time of year  – the sun is still hot but the days are a lot shorter and the evenings and early mornings decidedly chilly. 
And it makes me think. If it wasn’t for this place I probably wouldn’t be a writer or a writing teacher at all.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Super Students

I’m privileged to teach some super students. Here are some examples.
One student apologises because her work, she feels is not all that strong. She wrote it on her iPhone as she was hospitalised for a few days. But she did the work and although it’s very much first draft it’s showing considerable potential. Especially as it was written on an iPhone.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Research in Creative Writing

My first formal supervision. My PhD supervisor invited me in for an early meeting. I slid the half mile from where I lived along the early-frost sprinkled pavements of the little town in north Wales. The heating had only just come on in his office and the end of my nose, the tips of my fingers and my feet remained cold. We could see our breath as we talked.
It was all going quite well. I’d completed about two thirds of the first draft of my young adult novel. I knew my research question was to do with what a young adult novel actually is. The experiment for me here was writing something of that length, writing for young adults and writing science fiction.
Of course, I’ve since established that the young adult novel has six characteristics that are sometimes present and one that is always present, that science fiction – or fantasy, real life, history or whatever else - is actually the setting and not a theme, and science fiction and fantasy perform the same function for adolescents that glove puppets and anthropomorphism do for young children.
“You should read X, Y and Z,” he suggested.
The hour ended. I dutifully trotted off to the university library. There were no young adult books. The explosion only happened at the turn of the century – though of course there have always been a few classic ones around. There was very little science fiction, examples were mainly classical and there were only a few critical works.
Later I wondered into town and happened upon the Oxfam second hand bookshop. There I found most of the titles he’d mentioned and an encyclopaedia of science fiction- all at very reasonable prices.
Most of my research was “out there” rather than in university libraries, though a couple of visits to Roehapmton were in order and it’s always useful to read scholarly texts in order to be reminded of academic tone and to prevent us from reinventing the wheel: what have other writers done before us? We find out by studying English Literature, a discipline that used to raise eyebrows as much as Creative Writing does today.   
Creative Writing is at once one of the oldest and one of the youngest disciplines. Much of our work is out in the world. At the institution where I now work the emphasis is on innovation and experiment; that feels good and in keeping with what a university is supposed to be about.   
I’m kept on my toes. The young adult novel is changing from what it was like when I completed my PhD. I have to be aware of that, adjust my practice and teach my students what I know.
But it’s a great life. As one of my undergraduates said to me the other day: “Gosh, you read a lot of books don’t you?” Well, yes. I’m duty bound to. Feel sorry for me!      

Friday, 25 October 2013

Research and teaching balance – what universities are all about

Financial considerations
Recently the government announced that there should be more teaching in universities and less research. Yet because of cuts in funding, universities have had to make redundancies and in order to deliver any sort of meaningful programme, staff have had to take on extra teaching, leaving little time for any research.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Some thoughts on the workshop

Final portfolio
This is a 40 credit two semester long module that is compulsory for our creative writing students. They work on their own writing and share it three times a semester with their own group. I have twelve in my group so four people submit each week. So far – we’re Week 4 – we’ve had at least three submissions a week with only one student failing to submit and only one student failing to turn up to get feedback.
Students email their work to me and each other 48 hours in advance of the class. So, we study four texts each week and get thirteen opinions on each. Even if someone is unavoidably absent form class they will email their comments, though of course then these remain unmoderated by myself.
A skill gap
The first couple of weeks went well. This last week, however, I felt I was doing all the work and the students were making little contribution. It may have been tiredness. I don’t think it was laziness. It was clear they had all read the texts. In fact one couple had got together during the week and looked at their texts together. I think it was more they didn’t know what to say. This course teaches them to edit and critique. At this point, however, they may need a little more guidance. Time to give them some more strategies. 

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

How research feeds into teaching

Students at university don’t follow a curriculum in the same way as they do in other forms of education.  They are learning about what their particular lecturers have found out in their research. Yes, of course, there is some crossover from institution to institution – some of the givens in any one area will be the same. But what each lecturer emphasizes and finds important will vary. And year on year, although modules will usually retain their titles, the content will be enriched and expanded. Research must feed into teaching.  What students learn must be informed by research.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

A Day in the Life – Friday 4 October 2013

The academic life

I’ve written a couple of blog posts about the life of writing academics recently – one for my writer’s blog, and one for a writing friend’s new web-site. In both of these I’ve talked about the flexibility of my post and how fortunate I feel to be being paid to do what I’d do even if I wasn’t paid. So, I thought it might be an idea to look closely at just one day.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

On the move

I’ve been in my current post six years and fifteen days. That’s the longest I’ve ever been in one job. So it’s probably quite appropriate that the department I’m in has now changed school, which has involved moving office, crossing the busy A6 and going from having my own office to having a shared one.  
We moved on Friday and I’m currently next door to the one that I’m eventually going to be in. The previous occupant has only half moved out. Four more colleagues will occupy the two rooms next to mine. My roommate is not there yet – she’ll come over with the second batch of people to be moved.
They tell us that these are the quietest rooms in the block. Certainly we’re in the most elegant part of a rather worn building. There is parquet flooring outside our offices and we are near an impressive staircase. The corridor opposite ours contains music practice rooms and as you walk along it, even though it’s not term-time yet, you hear different, well-performed music coming from each room.  
Then you turn the corner, and come to the complex where six other members of the subject group are housed. They seem to have a very creative space.
A lot goes on in this building, apart from the music. And that, they tell me, even includes a rock band.  A new colleague, but one I’d already met before, got into conversation with me. “Yes, it’s quiet down there,” he said. “Only it won’t be next week. I’m using the board room for rehearsals.”
A colleague from our group who used to work there commented. “Yes, you’ll find as the semester starts you’ll bump into students rehearsing in the corridors.”   
We had staff development sessions this week and even then we noticed a few people walking about in theatrical costumes.
Later, as I explored the building and found the staff room, School Office, mail room and photocopying room I bumped into the new colleague again. This time he was in costume and in a role. We communicated okay. But it was his character that was doing the talking.
I think this is all going to be fun.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Are creative writing academics also gatekeepers?

A relationship between the academy and the industry

I had an extraordinary experience yesterday. I had possibly the fastest rejection I’ve ever had. Sure, I’m used to rejections but now that I have quite a lot published and also have been an academic for several years, also holding a PhD in Creative Writing, I’ve kind of also got used to being taken seriously even if I am still sometimes rejected. In this case, by return an email came from the agent saying they were no longer accepting submissions. Fine. I totally get that. Yet their web-site was saying they were.
As we all know it takes a while to put a submission together and every one is different as every agent or publisher has varying requirements. I was more irritated about the wasted time than the rejection itself. I complained politely. Again, almost by return – a human being answered this time not a machine – came a polite and sincere apology.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Extraordinarily exciting start to the new academic year

Last time I wrote about what we normally face at this time of the year. I mentioned that it will be a little different this time. I’m now going to go into more detail.
I’ve been in my office for much of the day. I’ve packed three boxes, filled six sacks of ordinary rubbish and three sacks of confidential rubbish. We’re actually moving next Friday and today was my only chance.
We’ve been in the new school a week now. So far so good. Everyone seems very welcoming. But of course, we’re facing a slightly different culture, even though we’re still within one institution. I’m very optimistic. The new school is called Arts and Media and I see Creative Writing sitting comfortably there.
Yesterday I spent half a day with a colleague who is programme leader for the other two English programmes. We looked at optimal fit for our first years so that they’re coming in for a good bunch of classes on three days but not so many that they’ll feel overwhelmed.
We then looked at some second and third year issues.
We also put together the submission deadlines. We rolled last year’s but made adjustments to avoid Mondays (a university regulation), to take into consideration the Easter break and also adjusted some weekdays to fit in with teaching.
This year we’re also offering more contact hours to our second years. I have to write some more lectures, especially as I’m teaching a course I haven’t taught for a few years and I’ve got some more research to add in. I’m also taking over a course from a colleague who has left. So some work to do there as well.
Exciting times indeed.        

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Looking towards a new academic year

It’s that time of year again. We’ve recruited well but there are still a few gaps. So, I’m on standby all day today for clearing. That means I’ll receive queries from students looking for places and hopefully I’ll be able to make a few offers. I have two students to chase up which I’ll do once the morning is mature enough.  
As I’m a programme leader, I’m also having students contact me with queries about the beginning of the year. I actually enjoy answering those sorts of questions. It’s one of the most satisfying parts of this particular job.
I’m not expecting a great rush at this time. However, the cases that do present themselves are likely to be a little unusual and it most likely won’t just be a matter of seeing whether they meet the criteria or not. Some may have complex qualifications and whilst we must accept them if they do pass muster, we’ll try to give as much information about the courses as we can so that the candidates can be sure they’ve made exactly the right decision.
These unusual qualifications, anyway, are often more of an advantage than a disadvantage. For instance, we’ll often find that mature students, perhaps coming in via an access course, have a substantial portfolio of creative writing.   
It’s as always a time of many unknowns. We don’t actually know how many students we’ve got until two or three weeks into the new semester. Applications are open until then. Even if they are what we call a “confirmed accept” they’re not actually here until they have registered. Even some that register don’t actually turn up. This is particularly true of first years. However, even some second or third years, even those who have passed the year first time, don’t come back. Life happens.
In my particular department we have good retention and good progression but there are still a few gaps.
Yes, it’s exciting looking towards a new year, particularly so this time: we’re moving into a new school and we have several new colleagues joining us. It’s a little bit scary too. Roll on 16 September – when Induction Week starts.                

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The impact of email on the staff / student relationship

I used to be a high school teacher but I left doing that full time before the use of email became widespread. A lifelong friend who was still in mainline teaching by the time we’d all started using email told me it had become a bit of a nightmare. Yet I emphasize to my students that they should check their university email and Virtual Learning Environment regularly so I’m adding to the culture of us using it a lot.  

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Does one ever stop?

I’m currently away on holiday. I’ve just checked my work email. Fortunately there wasn’t anything urgent. The computer informed me I had automatic responses on – did I want to turn them off. Well, no I didn’t actually. Maybe I do draw a line after all.
I am specifically a writing teacher and that means I have to write. I tend to manage a couple of hours a day even at weekends and whilst on holiday. Holidays also tend to be times when I get more ideas. Getting a more sleep and relaxation and being to a large extent out of my normal framework helps me to open my mind a little.
I’ve also checked my personal email.  That’s meant picking up news about my properties – why do all the tricky things happen while I’m on holiday? – and responding generally to news of writerly matters there – other writers’ launches, requests for opinions and advice and news of opportunities. I’m a little less proactive with this whilst away but I’m certainly still doing it all.
I’m not really complaining, though. This is just what I do. I wouldn’t be without it. I’m constantly looking for new ideas, both as a teacher and as a writer. Even when I’m on holiday.