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.      

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