Thursday, 24 March 2016

A worthwhile sabbatical

I was very fortunate in 2011 – 2012 being awarded a sabbatical of one semester i.e. five months to research for and start writing The House on Schellberg Street. This is the story of a Holocaust survivor and the world she left behind. I am a senior lecturer at the University of Salford and like all academics struggle to find time for research, though we aim to base our teaching on it.
My access to a primary resource, letters from school girls who carried on writing to each other until they were young women, stood in my favour. As I’m a creative practitioner also, the actually writing of a piece of fiction is sanctioned as part of the sabbatical. I did get a first draft completed in that time. 
My first task was to transcribe the letters. I simply typed them out in German and then translated them. Fortunately I speak German fluently. The handwriting was often difficult to read though the clearest was that of the class teacher, Hanna Braun. This was a really useful exercise as it really got me into their heads and helped me understand what it was like being an eighteen-year-old German girl then. I began to understand the personality of each girl. Some of these texts were quite boring though there were some interesting snippets. Two themes emerged: camaraderie and duty. I can understand how these would appeal to young women. 
I did completely fictionalize the women for both ethical and artistic reasons. However, there is the essence of the truth in the story.
It was most certainly a worthwhile sabbatical. Four further stories have presented themselves:
·         Clara’s biography (partly true) – completed
·         The story of a couple of  girls (completely fictional – apart from some mention of the school on Schellberg Street) –completed
·         The women who almost shot Hitler (I’m about to start this and I’m anticipating some disbelief – but it really happened)
·         The Round Robin – more stories about the young German women.
In addition, I’ve carried out several school visits and also looked with the eyes of an academic at the balance between fact and fiction involved in historical fiction and the writers’ process involved. 
So, on the whole, a worthwhile sabbatical. The output continues. 

Monday, 21 March 2016

Milking your teachers

One of the biggest differences between school or Sixth Form College and university is the mode of study.


Modes of study

At school, teachers give their students a lot of guidance. They coach them to succeed. Though A-level students are expected to work alone they still have far more contact hours with their teachers than do university students. We expect our students to spend 200 hours on study per module. We offer them 36 hours of classroom time plus a few exchanges via email and some one-to-one meetings. There is no compulsion to attend.  This is neither school nor work. The taught class is really just another resource.

Teachers as a resource 

Lecturers are in fact very valuable resources. Here too there is a vast difference between what happens in the school system and what happens in Higher Education. In schools, teachers follow a curriculum. In institutions of higher education we teach according to our research. We find out new information and out students are very privileged to be amongst the first to encounter that.

My situation – cause to be proud  

At the institution where I teach, the Creative Practice team comprises two senior lecturers, two readers and three ordinary lecturers. The two senior lecturers are also published commercially so both also work as creative practitioners. One also runs her own publishing company. The two readers are also published commercially and both have some innovative research in poetry, with one also specialising in visual text. One of the ordinary lecturers is an experienced playwright and is writer in residence for the National Theatre. Another is an experienced actor, producer, director and translator and also runs her own publishing company. The third is developing a practice as a dramaturge and working internationally.
A talented bunch, then. 


Learning not teaching 

Our students are privileged also to be taught by four experienced members of staff as well as by seven creatively active ones. This is a little unusual. Some institutions use more Associate Lecturers – ones that are good in their field but who know the university less well. We also use a talented fiction writer and another is an experienced theatre practitioner.
You have to be good at teaching to become a senior lecturer. If you’ve got that far, you may even be a little too institutionalized. The two senior lecturers and readers are in fact also very experienced. Yet one of the ordinary lecturers is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, another has extensive experience of school teaching and a third is a performer who has much experience in schools and universities.
There is still a range of expertise and unfortunately it seems that students expect the performance by all to match that of the very best. They must accept that they will encounter a range of teaching abilities. 
The onus is on them, isn’t it? There’s a lot of privilege here in the Creative Practice expertise they’re offered. Shouldn’t they be milking that?  They must take their part in learning as well as being taught.