It’s for you!

Don’t you love to receive a letter? A hand-written and just for you letter?

Jon McGregor, author of If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, So Many Ways to Begin, and a short story collection, This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you is professor of creative writing at the University of Nottingham. He edits a journal called The Letters Page, which brims with humour, seriousness, great writing, illustrations and ‘paratext’ – those scribbles, alterations and random marks that make a page more than the words written/printed on it. The journal, though digital, prefers to receive hand-written letters (probably for the paratext). I was fortunate to have a letter published in the ‘in house’ pilot journal – compete with computer generated coffee stain on my subversively word-processed submission. I’m delighted to have now been published in Issue 6 of the www available edition, wonderfully illustrated by Gwen Burns.

handwritten-letter0002

The red bits, writing and margin lines, folds above = paratext. Read it and be thankful not to be selling windows (unless you do, of course, in which case you might be glad of the work, and who could blame anyone for that?)

The top left scribble, emblem, emblem print (bottom), folds and discolouration below = paratext

Hand_written_Letter_of_Recognition_for_World_War_1_POW_from_King_George_V_1918_sent_to_Lance_Corporal_James_Cordingley

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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!

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.

University Radio Nottingham

Urn_logoThe University of Nottingham has an award winning radio station. So award winning that it has won Best Student Radio Station at the Student Radio Awards 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2013!

Its output, on campus and online, is very varied. Music, news – local and national, sport, drama, culture, review and debate. The Big Picture hosts discussions  on a range of topics, for example, the Politics of the NiqabGrammar School Elitism, EU Budget, Lily Allen vs. Sexism. Podcasts available.

One of my hopes for the project is to record (or more accurately, have recorded due to a complete absence of technical knowledge on my part) some or all of the radio drama. Me and URN, we’re having encouraging discussions about it. Thanks, Anna.

Fear of typing

When Jon McGregor* gave his first Short Talk About Lunch,
he insisted usb-typewriter-1all the students typed their names on his attendance list using the typewriter he’d brought on a trolley. (Along with doughnuts and Satsumas – there’s nothing like free food to motivate students.) Some of the students, being of a more conventional student age than myself, had never touched a typewriter in their lives.

There were questions such as: So how do you insert a space? How do you go down to the next line?’ What do you do to make letters into capitals?  I confess, I was amused by their lack of awareness that the invention of the computer keyboard was not original in concept, merely a development.

Though I’ve thought a lot about my radio drama script, written the synopsis of it, character studies, research information etc, etc, I hadn’t written much of it at all and was beginning to panic. Then it occurred to me, ‘Helena, you don’t need to have read every book about writing for radio that you can get your hands on BEFORE you write.’ Ah ha! That was it.

This week I’ve pretty much completed the first draft, it’s flowed and flowed from the heart. I gave myself permission to proceed in this order:

  • Write
  • Make minor changes to ensure continuity and consistency
  • Check factual accuracy
  • Read about radio and radio writing to inform the penultimate edit of the script
  • Penultimate edit
  • Gather feedback from mentor, Writing Group, any other willing reader, and the actors at a read through
  • Final edit
  • Done

A liberating process that’s revived my enthusiasm and flagging confidence. I’m hopeful that this approach has led to a script in which the emotions of the characters, and their voices, are raw and natural. Now I just have to guard against editing the life out them. That’s a post for another day.

* Jon McGregor is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, author of three novels and a collection of short stories, all of which I highly recommend. (Not that I’m a creep, you understand.) He is also editor in chief of The Letters Page, a literary journal in, as you might have guessed, letters. You might like to subscribe, and it is open for submissions.