Friday, 19 December 2014

The writing and teaching in the title “writing teacher”

Who exactly teaches?

They say that those who can’t teach. However, that is not quite how it works in Higher Education. The emphasis is on the expertise. This is acquired through our research. If you happen to be a creative practitioner that research is generally through practice with some reflective commentary. So you very much have to be able to “do” your particular form of creative practice.

So, I’ve gone back to my earlier routine of putting my two hours of writing a day first. That may mean as was the case last night that I’m looking at work emails until after 8.00 p.m. So be it.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Work as if you don’t need the pay

Dream job

In many ways the academic job is the dream one. Part of our work is to do what many people have to do in their free time. In my case, for instance, that might mean getting on with my novel. In any other job I would probably get into trouble for writing in my employer’s time on my employer’s computer. Not so in this case.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

A Day in the Life

Okay, so it was a little extraordinary but even so you may be amazed.
I had five meetings in a row.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Getting the new year underway

We’re now in the second week of the academic year and the campus is buzzing. Our new students are beginning to settle in though there is still some bewilderment. They are gradually beginning to use their student email accounts and our Virtual Learning Environment VLE, Blackboard.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Start of a new year

This as ever is tremendously exciting. We’ve had a good turn out to our induction activities. On several occasions we’ve run out of chairs. “This is the sign of successful programmes,” we tell our students.    
We look on a little nervously as seminar groups fill up; our rooms typically hold 26. Several groups already have 25. Not all students have registered yet. We expect they will, though.

Day 1 Drop-in session

Students can register online but they do attend a check-in. We want to make a first contact with them that day. So, we arrange a drop-in session. The idea is that they would come in small groups to chat to us – their programme leaders, personal tutors and the head of subject. However, when we turn up at exactly the time stated, the room is full to bursting.
So, we give them a short presentation and then talk to them in smaller groups. Some then come and go a little as we answer questions and find out about them.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Open Day

We held one of our Open days today. Initially the prediction had been for a quiet day. In fact, however, it was as busy as normal if not a little more so. Colleagues presented aspects of our programmes. The leader of the other suite of programmes and I, with some other colleagues manned the drop-in centre.
This really allowed students and their parents the opportunity to pose very specific questions about aspects of the courses on offer.

Friday, 29 August 2014

The creative / critical balance in a creative writing PhD

This topic has been debated hundreds of times, of course, and I’ve touched on it before on this blog. Yet I was reminded again recently as a colleague and I interviewed a possible PhD student. I’ve probably moderated my ideas gradually over the years. Many people still have difficulty grasping this concept and even those of us closely involved in them continue the debate.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Where we get ideas from

That dreaded question: “Where do you get your ideas from?” We don’t know, do we? They tend just to arrive. Or is it a little different in classroom within a university? Perhaps anyway that whole question is the subject of someone’s PhD thesis.  

Writing with constraints

My students have to work with many constraints. They meet at a fixed time each week. They have a strict deadline for their final project. Knowledge and skills have been squeezed into a closely defined collection of learning outcomes and particular ones are tested in particular modules. At the same time, they must demonstrate a good grasp of what has been learned formerly and they are given credit for their general writing competence.  They must endeavour to demonstrate that if they wish to receive high marks. There is little space for a shortage of ideas.

The classroom creative writing exercise

We ask them to invent a character, create a setting or write a few lines of dialogue, each time giving them the loosest of themes. Most get on well. A few find this impossible. I personally enjoy being in this position and several concrete ideas have come out of creative writing exercises in workshops. Many students refer in their reflective statements to an exercise in class that kick-started a whole thread of narrative.

Everyone has a story

What people know is always interesting. All lives are fascinating. Those who have low literacy skills often also have low esteem and believe they don’t have a story to tell. The Ministry of Stories works with this. Show people they have a valid story and they find the literacy skills to be able to tell it. They’re motivated to learn.  

Bombardment of ideas

Ideas come at many writers from all over the place. It’s not often when they’re sitting at their desk though a professional that writers stumble upon ideas.  
We’re aware all of the time that there are stories to be had and our “What if?” and “What’s happening here?” questions help us. Are those two people who dress in red and white all the time Father Christmas and his wife on holiday? What if somebody who had a gun in their handbag were shown into the wrong anteroom and came face to face with Hitler? Why is that women hanging around and the edge of the restaurant and why are the staff being so dismissive of her?
And when do we think these things?
Usually when we’re driving, ironing, cooking, walking the dog or dining with friends. Rarely when we’re at our desk.    

A shortage of ideas?

I’m fine for novels. I have three more historical ones planned, one contemporary slightly paranormal one after that and my science fiction trilogy is begging expansion. However, I’m in a massive editing cycle and like to punctuate that with writing flash and short fiction.  I have a few ideas but not as many as I need. What do I do?  I open Twitter and write a story about the first picture I come across. I rarely struggle. So it seems, it can be forced.

Friday, 1 August 2014

New School, Old Building

“Sometimes, if you go through that door,” said my colleague, “you find the library. And sometimes you don’t.” We were sitting in the canteen that in true Creative Café Project fashion is not just a place that serves food and drink; it’s a place for the meeting of minds.  
He is quite right. The Adelphi Building at the University ofSalford is a little like that. Frequently I’ve taken the wrong turn out of the staff room and ended up in a corridor I didn’t recognise. Or I’ve accidentally gone down to the basement and thought I’ve entered another universe.
It is mysterious. You’re on the first floor and suddenly you have to go down a flight of stairs to the other bit of the first floor.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Providing Positive Feedback in Writing Groups

I think there are huge parallels between working with critique groups, editing and leading creative writing workshops in a Higher Education setting. However, they are not all exactly the same.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Board, boards and yet more boards

Last week I attended two boards. This week it’s four. Two down. Two to go.

Module boards

We have module boards where we look at how individual modules have performed. What is the pass rate? Is there a full range of marks? What is the standard deviation? Have students performed better on one module than on another?   
Sometimes there may not be a full range of marks and often this means more of the higher marks. This is fine if the work matches the criteria but may beg the question of whether the criteria are rigorous enough. All of this is informed by the reports from the internal and the external moderators.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

A Tense and Joyous Time

Astoundingly it’s here again already. The second semester’s second batch of marks is coming in. It’s particularly fraught for final year students who are waiting for those final marks that may determine the class of their degree if they’re currently borderline.  
The majority are relieved and delighted. A few are disappointed and may even be angry.
I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to send out a message to two groups - one whose work I marked and another whose marking I monitored and moderated – that they had all passed and those who got lower marks only did so because they had missed something out. The work was essentially good or at least had promise.
We give detailed feedback with many annotations. We award a verbal grade for each of eight criteria and then calculate a numerical grade from that. We write general comments and say what is working well, what is working less well and what might be done to improve. It takes between half an hour and an hour to mark a script, depending on the size of assignment and quality. It takes more time if there is more to say.
We encourage students to read and consider their feedback carefully and then come and talk to us about anything that is not clear. A face to face meeting or even a phone call with both student and tutor looking at the script helps enormously.
The first 48 hours can be the worse.
It will be graduation soon. Caps and gown and happy students and parents – not to forget the lecturers.        

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Reflecting on Writing and Marking

Many of my colleagues think I’m mad – I enjoy marking. I’m in the thick of it right now.  Yes, it can become tiring and one can feel under pressure but I do feel a certain amount of excitement as I open each assignment.  Have they learnt what I wanted them to learn? Will I find out something new about writing processes? Will I come across a piece of prose that I’d want to publish?
I was very fortunate last Saturday: the very last piece I marked was astounding. I recommended to the student straight away that she should send it out for publication.  

Monday, 21 April 2014

A Strange End to the Semester – is it time to fix the Easter break?

Easter is so very late this year that it’s had an interesting effect. Normally the first assignment comes in just before Easter and we tend to be bogged down by marking over the Easter break. This time, we’ve had to process marking whilst still teaching. In most cases, this has meant that work has been returned to students before they’ve had to start their second assignments. That is an advantage. So, it seems there are advantages and disadvantages all round.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Processing the choices

I have about a third of the module option forms in now. I’m looking at each one to see that students have made the right type of choices and that also these choices are sensible. So far, I’ve only seen one that is wrong and one that is unclear. No one has made unwise combinations, though one or two have gone for the darker themes: The Test of Evil, Utopias and Dystopias and Salvation to Damnation.  
We’re advising against too much similarity in the creative options, particularly in creative writing. So far, though, no one has opted for all three prose fiction choices.  Good thing too!    
So, not bad.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Option Modules and the Module Fair

It is that time of year again. We are getting students ready to select modules for next year. Per semester students must study on three modules and over two semesters students must study in  three modules for each of their disciplines. Thus, our Drama and Creative Writing study three drama and three creative writing, our English and Creating Writing, three English and three Creative Writing and our English and Drama three English and three Drama. Some of the courses are compulsory and some are options.
Some modules are multi-purpose and can be interpreted as either English or Creative Writing or Drama or may even involve all three. This can allow quite a bit of choice and can allow a little steer towards Creative Writing, Drama or English.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Hybrid modules

We offer a number of modules that are Creative Writing and English Literature at the same time. How would there be parity, they asked, as it went through the approval process, between the two different skills. That was actually quite easy to answer. We have sets of mark descriptors for Creative Writing and for English Literature. They complement each other quite well.
English Literature
Creative Writing
Analytical skills
Technical skills: [structure; beginning/middle/end; show don’t tell; etc]
Secondary reading and research
Writerly reading and research: [relates mainly to critical / reflective essays, bibliography]
Conceptual abilities

Writing Skills
Writing Skills
Reflection: [relates mainly to critical/reflective essays, bibliography]
On these modules, there is usually a short analytical first essay and then a choice for the larger task between a critical essay and a creative piece. Notice that in our Mark Descriptors Analytical Skills in English Literature match Technical Skills in Creative Writing. These query the substance of the module, whilst Knowledge expects the student to know a genre and Expression demands that they write appropriately and creatively in that genre.

How this all works out in Intro to Children’s Literature

We look at the history of children’s literature, so that students have a context for the literature they are studying. Then we look at the various key stages and how literature needs to be designed for those children. We also, week by week, look at some general writing skills and how writers are using them.

The first task is a close reading of a text of their choice. It could be an historical text or one for a particular key stage. If they pick a particular key stage for this task they must pick another one for the main task. In this task and if they do the critical essay later they must show an element of some compare and contrast with other sub-genres for this key stage and this genre across other keys stages.

The main task is a 3000 word critical essay with a bibliography or a 2500 creative piece with drafts, a self-assessment and an annotated bibliography. Literature students may attempt the creative piece and Creative Writing students may attempt the critical essay, and anyway, some take it as their literature option. Naturally, I could not expect literature students to have all of the creative writing skills that the creative writers have. I focus only on those that we specifically discuss in the course. These are covered by Technical Skills. In any case, both tasks require the students to demonstrate that they understand the key stage in which they are working. This manifests in Knowledge and Expression. Style is also a creative writing consideration. It is often learnt through an osmosis-type strategy; students learn good style by reading a lot. English Literature students read a lot.

Why hybrid modules are useful

They allow us to provide modules that are viable and that recruit large numbers.  
They can provide a dual opportunity for our students.
They provide a solid option for those students who are ambivalent about the contrast between creative and critical writing.  


Thursday, 20 February 2014

That all important feedback

Whenever we survey students they will say something either good or bad about feedback. They’re rarely neutral. As in any educational setting, there are two sorts of feedback: formative and summative.
It’s the formative feedback I’m more concerned with here. This is the ongoing, week on week, feedback that helps to develop our writers. It’s particularly important as part of the creative writing workshop.However:

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Workshopping with final year students

I met my new Final Portfolio group on Wednesday. There are only two students from last semester but I’ve met most of the rest on other courses. We had a great session. It probably helps that they have now been using this particular version of the workshop for a semester already.

How it works

I’ve created a group on our VLE, Blackboard, and included myself in the group. Our class meets on a Wednesday, so by Monday 2.00 p.m. the four people whose turn it is to submit that week email work to the whole group. This gives everyone the chance to have a good look at the work before the class.
The workshop operates through weeks 2-9. Week 1 is an orientation week and Week 11 students have one to one tutorials. Week 12 is submission week. So, the group is divided into three and between four and six students submit each week.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

How academics work

Recently there has been a spate of strikes in the universities. Lecturers and support staff are demanding that their salaries keep pace with inflation. I’m not going to discuss the strikes here and if you know who I am you will probably know already my attitude to the current dispute. That conversation is for elsewhere and probably in private.
But I would like to discuss the nature of academics’ work which is not widely understood by those not in the academy.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Exam time!

Yes, weeks 13 and 14 are as ever exam weeks. And that means that we’re all involved in invigilation at some point.
I’ve had to be present in three -  in one large one where I acted as the “senior”, i.e. the person in charge, one slightly smaller one where I was just another invigilator and I also had to supervise one student who was allowed to sit his exams apart from others and who was allowed a little extra time.
That was about eight hours in total.
We’re not supposed to read or mark whilst we invigilate. So it’s actually taking quite a bit of our time. However, we can do some work when we’re just supervising an individual student. I actually managed to read a third of Primo Levi’s If This is a Man / The Truce. It’s a set text on a module in which I’m lecturing next semester. I’m not talking about that book but as it’s so fundamental to that course it seems important to read it.
The other exams, though, seem to rob us of time.
And yet. It’s actually quite a useful thinking space. You have to be there. No one can expect anything else of you at precisely that time. Everything stops. You can clear your head. It’s incredibly peaceful.
If you do have to take a student to the bathroom, the contrast as your walk out into the “real world” is startling. One moment old-fashioned library silence. The next the normal hustle and bustle of the campus.  
It’s all quite formal – put your bags at the front / back / turn off your mobile phones / no notes allowed in coats or pockets, no one to leave in the first hour or the last fifteen minutes. By being here you are saying you are fit to take the exam. Papers are stamped with a random number to prevent later substitution. Names are hidden. Each student has an allocated seat. Toilet breaks are recorded on the student’s paper and we have to search the toilets before the beginning of the exam.
Yet today the paper-setter who is also the senior invigilator puts them at ease with a joke before they start.  
There’s quite a bit to do, in fact. Give out the papers, read out the instructions, check IDs, take students to the bathroom, sign out those who finish early, answer questions, find spare pens and collect in the papers. And in between those activities you patrol, and sit, and think. You’re in a bubble, out of your normal world. The time passes surprisingly quickly.  
Then, when it’s all over comes the marking. I don’t have any exam marking but I’m in the middle of a heap of coursework. We have to get on: the external examiner and the exam board need them.
The bubble was nice while it lasted.