Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Are you enjoying you holidays?

University lectures have to bite their tongues a lot at this time of year. Yes, undergraduate students finish around the first week of June, perhaps even a little earlier if they only have course work and no exams. But the lecturers have a lot of work to do now to finish off this year and get the next one started.
We frequently get emails from students which start off by saying “I hope you are enjoying your holiday.” Friends who know a little about the shape of a university year but a little less about university life will say “I expect you’re getting some peace and quiet now that the students have finished.”
Holiday? Peace and quiet? Let me explain….



First of all there is the marking. It normally takes about one hour per student per assignment. We have to turn them round in three weeks. So in my case this year that meant finding sixty more hours over two and a half weeks – when other work doesn’t necessarily go away. We’re often still doing one-to-one appointments on other modules as the work comes in. Also, some  students need last minute help and others have life happen at the last minute and need advice about the best way forward. Plus we need to chase up any work missing.

Moderation / Second marking

This normally takes about half a day per module. Often you will moderate as many modules as you mark. I actually moderated one module but second marked two Masters’ modules. Second marking is almost as much work as marking  - you just don’t need to give such detailed feed-back. You only supplement what the first marker has already said. But you still have to read it and work out a mark.

External examining

Most of us do this for another institution and this can be a couple of day’s work plus a visit to the other site which can take up the best part of another day.   

Module / Exam boards

These last a couple of hours a time and I have had to attend four. There were another two I could have attended. As I’m a programme leader, there is often quite a bit of follow-up work. However, this is all allowed for in my workload.  I have two days a week to spend on programme leader matters.

End of year admin

We need to make summaries of students’ evaluations of our courses and also make action plans in response to them. It’s also good to note any changes that ought to happen we’ve noticed ourselves.  If we don’t make a note now we’ll have forgotten the next time round.  

Getting ready for next year

We need to build our reading lists and populate our Virtual Learning Environment sites. We have a lot of staff leaving this year so some of us are taking on new modules. This will mean some extra study.


We shall have our second appraisal meeting at some point. There is a little preparation for this, a one hour meeting and a little admin to do afterwards.  But it also sets up aims and objectives for next year so needs careful consideration.


Lots of those.  Peppered all over the place.

Training sessions

The same as meetings.  

Moving to a new school

Okay, this is a one off. But the rest of the work doesn’t go away.


This is the best time of the year for doing this. It isn’t just a luxury. It is expected and we are held to it through the appraisal process. We have to take care that the above does not erode this time. It actually becomes impossible to do everything.

Conference season

Most of us get to a couple. Again it is expected.

Open Days    

This is where we really can influence getting people on to our courses. So we try to get to as many of those as we can.


Again a crucial time for getting students on to our courses.


These come in the last two weeks in August. We need to be available to the students before that.

Semester 3

This runs June to September. The post grads actually don’t disappear.


This takes place in the last week of the academic year as far as booking leave is concerned so this is actually a week we can’t take leave.  

So, when exactly can / do we take a holiday?  We do manage somehow. The work is always waiting patiently when we get back.  And anyway, most of us say we have fantastic jobs so we actually enjoy the work. But I’m just saying, it isn’t exactly a four month holiday.       



Tuesday, 18 June 2013

A Debate: absolute standards or differentiated by module requirements?

Quite a few of us are having a bit of a debate about this at the moment. Some students study creative writing because they are on a programme with the words “creative writing” in the title. Others take the odd module as an elective. Is it right to expect the same standard from both types of student? You can’t possibly expect a student to acquire the same skills in one semester that another has after three semesters on a programme, can you? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be wrong to leave someone with the impression that they really have it in them to be a writer because we give them a first on their assignment that is only actually testing a few selected skills?

Pathways in programmes

We face this problem even within our creative practice programmes. For instance, our English and Creative Writing students study autobiography and fiction in Semester 2 in the first year. At this time our Drama and Creative Writing students are working with the English and Drama students on their performance skills.  So, when the students come to studying on life-writing and fiction modules later on, the English and Creative Writing students have a distinct advantage over the Drama and Creative Writing ones.
We also run several hybrid modules where the final assignment can be a critical essay or a creative piece. Many of the literature and performance students on the module opt to produce a creative piece. I find this fine: as Liz Cashdan, NAWE’s Chair points out in Writing in Education 59, a creative response to a task can often give a student the opportunity to show real understanding of the topic, rather than producing a critical response that is formed mainly of other people’s ideas.
The question then is, however, do we expect the same skill in achieving pace, forming story structure, showing not telling and creating convincing characters as we would in more experienced writers?

Awarding marks

We have our grade descriptors and we award marks for a eight criteria. All of them to some extent refer to general creative writing / writing skills, though under “Technique” we might be looking for those module specific skills. It seems logical to get away from this pattern yet I find myself curiously reluctant to do so. I want an absolute standard but then need to mitigate where this might penalise a student.  

Mitigation within our marking system  

As look at eight different a student can be weaker in one area and stronger in another. So, for example, a non-native speaker of English may score less well under “language” skills but can still get a high mark on “presentation”. Even so, though, is it fair that the more experienced writers would be able to score on “Expression” and “Style”? Especially as as they go up the levels more is demanded within each mark category and generally elective modules are only available to second and third year students?

Extra support materials

We create and put on our programme and module sites a set of “masterclasses”. These are self-study units, Open University style, that coach the student in some general writing skills. On any module the students who perform the best are the ones who put in the extra study time. This seems fair. This is what we ask them to do here. They need to go and learn a set of skills that we don’t have time to teach in our classes.  

The writing workshop as mitigation

There is a writing workshop in all creative writing modules. Again, those students who participate well in this tend get the better marks. Even the less experienced writer who joins in this well can gain skills very quickly.

Choice alone is mitigation  

The chances are anyway that those students who choose a creative writing elective module or the creative task within a hybrid module are those who have some experience and enjoyment of writing. They’re probably also avid readers and keen readers often make good writers. They’re actually not all that far behind those students who study “creative writing”.         

Going for gold

My conclusion is, then that I want to go for an absolute standard. It seems right to maintain the standards of the university. However, if we do this we must be careful to provide the students with all the tools possible that will help them to improve their skills.