Former course leader speaks out

Do hop over to Nicola Monaghan’s site to read Let me tell you a story, the way creative writers do. Nicola also writes and works as Niki Valentine. She is now a lecturer at De Montfort University, Leicester.

Niki is a woman of integrity, ability, encouragement and compassion, and for whom I have great respect and affection. As she writes in her article, she built on the sure foundations of the early years of Nottingham’s BA (Hons) Creative and Professional Writing course and offered us opportunities many writers crave, not just through teaching but by bringing in writers, agents and publishers. This enabled us to develop a realistic understanding of the writing life and the writing industries; we had the rare chance to network with such people, pitch to them, receive critiques of our writing and their invaluable advice.

Lucky De Montfort!

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How to kick a student when she/he is down

In the last post (how ironic) about the course, I said I’d write were an understandable reason given for the closure of the University of Nottingham’s BA (Hons) Creative and Professional Writing course, but the real news is that it hasn’t been and the students have been treated abysmally. Do read this eloquent piece by current student Kim Jamison about the meeting they attended. Jubilee Campus - Nottingham UniversitySo soon after the horrors of France, the students were ticked off for discussing the closure on Facebook. This was used as a reason for not saying more to them at the meeting. (Expletives deleted!) An aptly named commenter, Michael, in the student magazine Impact, described the course as Mickey Mouse. He appears not to know that external examiners ensure the academic standard desired by the University across the board is reached. At one time the examiner thought marks being awarded to CPW students were too high. On further investigation the examiner decided this was not the case, rather that the work was of an exceptionally high calibre. One alumna of CPW, who graduated from Nottingham some years ago with a BSc in Psychology, told me she found parity in the academic levels of both courses. I am angry about the injustice of it all, and profoundly sad; sad for the current students and staff, sad for the former course leader*, who seems to be being scapegoated, sad because this was a great course that enriched the lives of so many people and contributed hugely to the literary life of Nottingham, sad that the university I felt proud to be part of has let these students down so badly. *If you haven’t read Nicola Monaghan’s award winning novel The Killing Jar, do. She also writes as Niki Valentine, such is her skill and flexibility!

Rankings = money = the value of education?

At The University of Nottingham we are committed to providing a truly international education, inspiring our students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around our campuses in the UK, China and Malaysia. Our purpose is to improve life for individuals and societies worldwide. By bold innovation and excellence in all that we do, we make both knowledge and discoveries matter.

p.4 Strategic Plan 2010-15, University of Nottingham

Of course, and hooray, and it does! There is so much to commend the University of Nottingham, and I’d happily advise anyone to consider studying there. I feel sure they would, in the main, have a brilliant time and a rich experience. It is a particularly good university for folks like me with disabilities of any kind. But…

The students and alumni of the University of Nottingham’s BA (Hons) Creative and Professional Writing course continue to try and establish the reason or reasons for its closure in 2017. Perhaps current students will receive clearer information at a meeting next Friday.

The University’s statement about the closure says:

“With shifting patterns of recruitment and recent changes in staffing, it was an appropriate time to reconsider the strategic fit of the course with the School of Education’s longer term plans. Following a thorough business review, the School leadership decided the programme should close; the final graduates will complete in 2017.”

The first sentence was addressed by Thursday’s post. What of the second (apart from the inaccuracy: for graduates read undergraduates)? Any institution needs funding, no quibbles there. The course was not making a loss, but perhaps that was not enough. One source of income for a university is research. In product and financial terms it forms part of the life and business of a university. The Research Excellence Framework (REF) ranking of a university matters both because it demands excellence in research, which has to be beneficial to the teaching of students as well as the big, wide world, and because it influences funding, income and earnings. Such is the belt-tightening age we live in that monetary value matters increasingly, though hopefully in partnership with educational, personal and societal value. Is a lack of research the cause of the closure? Well, it might be but perhaps need not have been.

I am told that research happens in faculties at Nottingham. The course’s misplacement in the Faculty of Social Sciences, which requires all research to have a social science focus, made it impossible for the course leader to generate research that was valid for creative and professional writing AND a fit for Social Sciences. If, however, the course were moved to the School of English, or its research location made more flexible, a different picture would emerge. Look at the English staff research lists and you’ll find listed the writing of poetry collections, a radio drama and plays. To the best of my knowledge, the CPW course leader wrote and had published two novels during her employment in Nottingham. But, unlike in the School of English, where staff can provide teaching cover for sabbaticals etc, she was the only permanent member of CPW staff, her colleagues being employed sessionally.

So the question remains: Why will the course be closed rather than moved? I emailed the very pleasant Sir David Greenaway, Vice Chancellor, to ask him simply that. He replied quickly and kindly but did not answer the question.

If we receive an answer that explains the closure, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, thank you for reading and for your response. A bit, though nicely, overwhelmed by it up here in my study to be honest. But I have writing to do to send to my crit group and a new publication to celebrate.

(In case you were wondering, look also at de Montfort Leicester or the University of East Anglia to see that is is eminently possible to undertake varied and valuable research in the field of creative writing beyond the production of new writing, but it takes time, and staff, and yes, money.)

 

 

Oh the irony of it all

university_of_nottinghamThe University of Nottingham has taken the extraordinary decision to wind down and close the profitable and over-subscribed BA (Hons) Creative and Professional Writing course (CPW).

This closure follows that of two other honours BA courses in Humanities and Fine Arts. None of the reasons given so far by the University explain the decision. Though we (current and former students) understand and agree that the course is wrongly housed in the School of Education, we are puzzled as to why it has not been moved elsewhere given there are options such as the School of English or the Department of Culture, Film and Media. One reason the University gives for closure is staff changes. The course leader has moved to another university, but she gave six months notice and no attempt was made to recruit a replacement. Here’s a thing, though. The other staff remain in place and, if employed for more hours, could run it competently and creatively, as they were doing before the now departed leader was appointed.

In the absence of an “Ah yes, that makes sense” explanation, there is outrage and indignation about the closure flying around social and other media. The current students are unnerved and have been treated badly. They were sent a patronising ‘pastoral’ missive about disappointment, thankfully of such length most would not read it. UCAS applicants for 2015 have been told they need to look for something else, somewhere else.

A verb comes to mind – devalue. Axing under such circumstances and devoid of rationality devalues the degree itself, as though the university were saying the course has not come up to a perceived standard of something or another, away with it. In turn, that devalues the achievement of current and former students and their perception of the value others might place on their academic achievement, perhaps even employability.

For the last three years a student from CPW has won the University Prize for highest marks in an undergraduate degree course within the faculty. 

And what about the course tutors? The university employs most of them on an hourly basis rather than creating proper part or full-time posts. They are not paid for all the extra hours they give generously to conversations with students before or after class and in email correspondence. They are not employed far enough in advance of a module’s commencement to provide material for reformatting within the University for disabled students such as myself. Unfailingly they did this in their own, unpaid time, for which I am extremely grateful. In effect the tutors are workers on zero hours contracts, trying to work out whether they will or won’t be asked to teach enough to earn a living, should or shouldn’t take up work elsewhere in case the call doesn’t come.

The University is fully supportive of Nottingham’s current bid to become a UNESCO City of Literature. The idea for which came from a graduate of the course, Pippa Hennessy, and extends Stephen Lowe’s idea of Nottingham becoming a City of LettersPippa is now the Development Director of the thriving Nottingham Writers’ Studio in a city and locale steeped in Bryon, Lawrence, Sillitoe and contemporary writers such as Jon McGregor, Nicola Monaghan/Valentine, Alison Moore, Amanda Whittington, Michael Eaton and many others.

The arts are not a luxury. They are a crucial resource that we cannot afford to lose.

It seems the arts are being devalued by the day, along with life-long learning and education for education’s sake. Substitute Creative and Professional writing for Fine Arts in David Ainley’s excellent article, DIScontinutation about the closure of the Fine Arts course and be worried.

Kate Fox, Alfie Crow and Norbert the Dog

2e5e36c67c71ac4cdb8bb1813282bca7Nottingham Writers’ Studio offers fantastic courses, Saturday’s was no exception: Writing Comedy, with Kate, Alfie and a lick from their dog, Norbert (who nearly overdosed on paracetamol having pinched a strip of them from someone’s handbag).

Most participants, including me, said we didn’t write comedy, let alone think of ourselves as comedy writers. Some of us wanted to pick up ideas for using humour when writing about serious or painful subjects. We were game though, with pencils sharpened and minds inspired by Charlie Hebdo and the horrors of last week in Paris.

Here are some of Kate and Alfie’s top tips:

  • The only way to know which lines (of humour) work, is to try them out on people.
  • People have differing senses of humour; no-one will find everything funny. Learn to accept that asap.
  • There is comedy in truth and truth in comedy.
  • Comedy can point to truths otherwise hard to express.
  • Set-up matters just as much as punch line.

Writing jokes is like writing poetry – the rhythm and sound quality of every word matters; writing jokes is like all forms of quality writing – there is exactly the right word to be found, the ideal image to be conjured; writing jokes requires detailed editing and analysis. These points don’t apply only to jokes, but to all humour in narrative or dialogue.

Look at these examples from our brainstorming:

I wouldn’t say Mary was a bad cook, but…

1. I wouldn’t say Mary was a bad cook, but her children asked to be put into care.

2. I wouldn’t say Mary was a bad cook, but her tortoise risotto ran off the plate.

There first is ok, but could be improved. How about this:

1a. I wouldn’t say Mary was a bad cook, but her kids put themselves into care.

What’s changed for the better? The pace has increased, the rhythm (by shortening children to kids) is tighter, the two clauses are more balanced, the impact is increased both by using the active ‘put’ rather than a more passive request ‘asked to’ and also the unexpectedness of the kids doing it themselves. The Rule of Three (2 serious phrases/ideas + 1 comedic) is also there. Set-up: I wouldn’t say that Mary was a bad cook; Anticipation: but her kids put; Punchline, themselves into care. Our brains like threes.

We left the second exactly as Tony had written it. The ludicrousness (which wouldn’t be deemed credible were it not in the context of humour) works because of its use of and play on tortoise, risotto and ran. The assonance in tortoise risotto and alliteration in risotto and ran give that smooth flow and rhythm we like, and tortoises are normally slow moving, so there’s impact through a play on ideas. We’re culturally (perhaps biologically) attuned to such sounds, patterns and playfulness.

As we know all too acutely, humour can be deemed offensive. Two ways to lessen that risk are to either have another character who challenges the view expressed in the humour through a reasoned argument expressing a more acceptable point of view, or to write in the first person. People will then hear it more as the view of the writer, or the personal view of an individual (character) rather than that of a group or dogma. (Last week’s events will challenge our writing, perhaps, mais…)

“The comic demands […] momentary anaesthesia of the heart.”

suggested Henri Bergson in his essay, Laughter: an Essay on the Meaning of Comic.

So much humour is about bodily functions, and involves swearing – they both touch taboos, perhaps make us laugh with embarrassment, or point to our fears so we laugh for relief. Apparently we’re also, Kate’s research has discovered, more likely to laugh at words beginning with ‘c’, including Cleckheaton. We wondered whether swearing in humour has less impact than it did given its frequent and common usage. Discuss.

Kate and Alfie gave a great performance of their poetry and fiction in the evening, during which they generously invited the workshop participants to perform a piece written during the day. Six of us did.

Fun from beginning to end and much learned and discovered.

Their principle book recommendation for writing humour was The Serious Guide to Joke Writing, by Sally Holloway (it’s about more than jokes, but hey, it’s a clever title).

55+ Creative Writing Courses at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal

Throughout last year, I shadowed Cathy Grindrod as she tutored the creative writing courses within the Theatre Royal, Nottingham’s 55+ education programme. For the second half of last term, the Friday Writers (FWs) wrote and edited a short story. This was a first for some of the group. Working with them, as they grasped the basics of character, structure, dialogue and style, made me realise just how much I learnt during my creative writing degree course.

Hanif Kureshi might wish to argue that creative writing can’t be taught (even though he teaches the subject!), but I disagree. It’s easy/neat/sort-of-clever to say it can be learned rather than taught, but that notion still does creative writing tutors and students an injustice. I learned because I attended to what I was being taught through examples of what works in writing and why, and how fluency, clarity, impact, drama and emotional intensity can be improved. I learned because I read and because I practised applying the knowledge I had acquired. The hours have to be put in, just as with any pursuit of excellence. With very few exceptions, achieving a work of aesthetic and literary merit is not simply a matter of natural talent.

Analytically, technique can, to a degree, be separated from the creative process itself. I’d agree that creativity is hard to teach and it can perhaps only be stimulated, encouraged and nurtured. Undoubtedly some people have a more vivid imagination than others, or a natural gift for story-telling (perhaps attributable to upbringing, personality and culture), or an extraordinarily deep well of ideas and or life experiences to draw from. Writing is a combination of creativity and technique, art and craft.

The 55+ FWs still have much to learn, as do I. Learning, insight, self-criticism and development never end but become more nuanced and subtle. Experience tells me Einstein’s theory that the more we learn the more we become aware of what we don’t know applies to artists as well as mathematicians and scientists. More important than teaching and learning in the FWs’ case and context was that they had fun and rightly felt proud of their achievements. The FWs’ stories are being published on their website, one for each of The Twelve Days Stories of Christmas.

55+ courses and workshops, Theatre Royal, Nottingham

Tithonus – Alice Oswald

Can I recommend Alice Oswald’s Tithonus – 46 minutes in the life of dawn, to you? The dawn fell in love with Tithonus and asked Zeus to grant him immortality, but she forgot to ask that he should not grow old. Now 5000, Tithonus observes yet another dawn.  A shortened reading, given by Alice during an episode of The Echo Chamber, Radio 4, can be heard on the BBC iplayer for a few more days. I was fortunate enough to be present at the first performance of the work, which began appropriately in darkness.

Alice had been writing the poem before, during and after the creative writing course she and her husband, Peter, were leading at Sharpham House, and which I attended. Alice walked then to a particular field on the banks of the River Dart to write for the duration of civil dawn in the landscape the poem inhabits. A bit of a killer in terms of disrupted sleep and its sequelae!

If you enjoy exploring (among many other things) how the sound of juxtaposed words imbues them with life, art and meaning beyond their common function and definition, read the beautifully made pamphlet of Tithonus and be amazed.