For the last 30 years or so the rise of creative writing programmes in universities has been met with seemingly unending howls of derision from all quarters. Hanif Kureishi, novelist, screenwriter – and professor of creative writing at Kingston University – described them as a “waste of time”. But universities around the world beg to differ, as the increasing number of courses and students testify.
The recent Sunday Times league tables for universities ranked the quality of teaching in creative writing at The University of Bolton as the best in the country. The programme there also boasts the highest ranking in terms of student experience.
Given that I am the only full-time lecturer in creative writing at Bolton – and also led the programme for two of the three years the recent figures cover – I should be able easily to explain our success, and why our students rate our teaching so highly. I say “should”, because I’m not sure of the answer.
There are easy ways to get students to rate teaching highly. We can tailor the classes to their personal needs and wants, and give them all high marks. Or we can teach them at a lower level than we should so that they feel a greater sense of achievement. But at Bolton we do none of these. So what’s the secret?
The measure of a mark
How you actually go about judging the quality of teaching – particularly with a subject like creative writing – is tricky. There are the normal ways that universities use: peer-assessment, student feedback, the evaluation of staff by professionals who specialise in methods of teaching and learning and staff development programmes. And as Bolton is a teaching intensive, research informed university we do a lot of these things, and I think we do them very well.
But I wonder whether what is being measured or evaluated in these assessments is more the style of the teacher, rather than the content. Most assessors are experts in teaching methods and practices – and it’s unreasonable to expect them to have detailed knowledge of every subject.
As non-specialists they are able to measure the levels of student engagement, of academic challenge, of whether the “learning outcomes” which plague university teaching in creative writing are being met. And if you measure it this way, then it’s quite possible that detractors such as Kureishi are right.
A place for play
Except that the teaching of creative writing, when done well, is about more than the skills and craft and technique, important as these things are. And as the writer and lecturer Liam Murray Bell describes, writers must find and use a consistency of tone, style and voice.
It’s also about encouraging students to play, to move beyond their normal styles and subjects of writing, beyond their use of traditional structural, narrative and poetic forms – and to ask them to see what happens. In this sense university is a place for play. Teacher and game designer Eric Zimmerman has defined play as:
The free space of movement within a more rigid structure. Play exists both because of and also despite the more rigid structures of a system.
If students are not actively encouraged to play then we are simply encouraging them to remain as static as they were when they entered higher education – even if they are more adept at using “writerly” skills and techniques.
The secret of success
To me it seems there is no “secret” to good teaching. You do the basics, and you do them as well as you possibly can. You limit class numbers. You give student-writers the individual attention they crave. You make sure that your teachers are good writers and that your writers are good teachers, so that expertise can be shared effectively.
And you make students read widely. They should read the classics, I suppose, but they should also read the “non-classics” – what many academics see as trash fiction. And they should read their peers and contemporaries too.
Importantly, they should read things such as advertising billboards and street signs, the shapes of buildings, the colour of the pavement, the weather, the look in people’s faces. Writers need to breathe in so that they can breathe out their own individual reactions and responses. At Bolton we spend time reading and breathing, and that helps students find voices and interactions which can blend with the craft of writing to produce work which means something to them.
Very few students will earn a living as a writer. But writing is about more than that, and the ability to communicate effectively is a rare and precious thing. Good teaching should not be measured in the texts which students produce, then, but in the knowledge gained through the actions of writing – knowledge which lasts forever.
In the end, if students enjoy their studies, and believe that they’re gaining skills which are transferable in the workplace and will last them well beyond university, then perhaps that is what they see as ‘good teaching’. And perhaps too they’re the best ones to judge.