Exploring responses to a discussion seminar for Creative Writing MA students

 

Screen Shot 2019-05-09 at 13.21.21Giovanna Iozzi is working towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. She is a recipient of Goldsmiths’ Pat Kavanagh Prize and she has published short stories in various places including Ambit, The New Writer, Rattle Tales, The Gold Room & Exeter Writers and is working on her first novel. In this post Giovanna describes a research project she conducted in a creative writing seminar. 

 

Introduction

For my research project, I wanted to explore responses to a seminar for creative writing students to identify ways I was helping (or hindering) them as learners during key moments in the discussion. My main research objective is what Cohen et al (2011) call ‘…a desire to improve practice in a particular area’ [1].

My research focused on a seminar with a group of MA students on the module Contemporary Contexts of Creative and Life Writing that runs within Goldsmith’s ECL Department. The class features an hour’s ‘guided seminar discussion,’ followed by a visiting writer’s presentation and supports students working towards their only critical essay for the MA.

“… for creative writers, reading is essential to writing well; furthermore discussion of what we read is crucial to developing critical skills towards not only published texts but our own work…

The anxiety with which some students bring to this MA seminar highlights a peculiar tension between creative and academic learning; many students feel that their work as writers is at odds with their ability to think and write critically. As one of my students wrote anticipating their 5000-word essay, ‘I realise how badly read I am and (wonder) whether I’m doing the right MA…!’ But for creative writers, reading is essential to writing well; furthermore discussion of what we read is crucial to developing critical skills towards not only published texts but our own work – how we talk about what we think is important, what James Britton calls ‘talking to learn’ [2].

A comment by another of my students put it well, Thinking and talking about the texts help us understand our writing…’ Not only understand, but imperative to it; the ways in which writing students think critically directly informs their development as writers. It is the teacher’s job therefore, to make sure discussions are effectively facilitated in this space.

Some debates around teaching creative writing

With the exponential growth in creative writing programmes in recent years debate has often focused on whether students can be ‘taught’ to write. Rachel Cusk and Hanif Kureshi [3] have both raised questions around this issue. Cusk argues that it’s ‘high time writing was formalised’, raising the point that although there’s no ‘autocratic way of assessing literature,’ group discussion in a workshop is an essential part of how writers arrive at different kinds of ‘agreement’ about texts [4].

Another focus of pedagogical debate has centred on the need to align or root creative writing more firmly within academia. US practitioner Wendy Bishop questions the strict boundaries separating creative and essay (or ‘compositional’) writing skills, calling for the line between the two to be ‘eliminated.’ In Crossing the Lines she argues that: ‘students are well prepared for future academic writing when they explore creativity, authorship, textuality…in fact they are more prepared to think about and perform the complicated act of writing when they study in this way’ [5].

Bizarro [6]  and Mayer [7] (1998: 2009) call for more formal integration of Creative Writing into the wider English Studies field. Bizarro believes there’s still resistance from writing teachers to ‘reflect’ on their practice. The perception that somehow formalizing the subject’s teaching practice could affect the creative ‘process’, that learning should almost happen by osmosis, is something Kelly Ritter has raised, puzzling, ‘the lack of attention on the part of (her) university to the pedagogy of (the) field’ [8].

Despite continuing debate about how best to teach creative writing I agree with Nigel McLoughlin who says, ‘From the very beginning the pedagogy of creative writing has had a constructionist epistemology…writers construct meaning from their engagement with the world they seek to interpret’ [9]. When discussions are going well, new meanings and interpretations are created in the room as students engage with different textual worlds.

Method

I used Stephen Brookfield’s Critical incident questionnaire [10], which asks students to respond to a single class and key moments they identified in terms of engagement.

I gave it to the group of ten students at the end of the seminar course adding more questions and adapting them to make them more relevant and focused on what actions I was taking to help their learning. In Brookfield’s questions, students are asked to identify moments they felt ‘most engaged’ or ‘most distanced’ from what was happening in the room but I also wanted to ask why. I added extra questions on which kind of discussions they preferred, small group or whole group, how the sessions could be improved and a final question about the Learning Outcomes for the course.

When I handed out the questionnaire I made it clear to the students that their responses were voluntary and confidential and its purpose was to purely to inform my own teaching. All the students responded, although some more expansively than others, and a few questions were left blank.

This was a small-scale study which didn’t ask for quantifiable responses so it was challenging to draw generalized conclusions. However, I found the varied comments extremely useful and will use the feedback to inform my future teaching practice.

Results

When asked when students felt most engaged,’ 60% said during the ‘whole group’ discussion. Comments ranged from: …there’s an overt effort to involve everyone in the discussion…’ to ‘we all get a chance to raise ideas…’

As to whether students preferred ‘small or whole group discussions the majority, 70% – said both.

When asked when they felt ‘most distanced’, one student questioned being split into small groups, ‘the task set can feel like a repetition ….’ Another called for more ‘targeted questions.’ Two students raised issues when feeding back discussion points: ‘it’s difficult to condense the previous conversation,’ another saying, ‘(It’s) always difficult to say something (out)loud if you fear that someone else has said it.’

Responses to helpfulteacher actions included, ‘the setting of tasks related to the theme/topic…’ and the class ‘…very peer-led…other students’ input has been a big part of my learning and you have held space for that.’ Teacher actions: ‘encouraging questions…creates a great atmosphere to bounce ideas off one another..’ and ‘…open-ended questions that spark discussions and debate are useful

Confusingaspects of teacher actions: ‘sometimes not listening so well to a point and misunderstanding where that person was going with it…so making it clear not only to the student…but clarifying it for the class too…’. The setting up of smaller discussion groups was: ‘a little unclear.’ Another student raised concerns: ‘the risk is sometimes that the questions pile up too fast and the discussion becomes a bit of a Hydra.’

Responding to actions that allowed time and space….to express views in discussion,’ students’ comments included, ‘…at the beginning you asked if anyone had prepared anything. I had nothing formal but I had thought about the subject and you gave me the space and confidence to say them out loud to the group …’; ‘…Teacher Talking Time kept to a minimum equals a vibe in class that everyone can speak, whenever…’

In response to how the seminars ‘could be improved’ comments included ‘(make it) relate back to our own work and make sure topics stay relevant’. 50% of students thought ‘more time’ was needed.

In terms of how the seminars ‘increased understanding of the critical, historical and cultural context of contemporary writing’ most students, 70%, were positive they had. Comments included: ‘definitely a critical understanding’ each week, but the historical and cultural understanding was only really touched on from time to time… and, “I’m not sure it’s a case of ‘increasing understanding’ as much as getting me more engaged, encouraging me to look at texts and think about my practice.’

Discussion

60% of students said they felt ‘most engaged’ during the group discussion at the start. (70% of students preferred a mix of both big and small groups so clearly both are desired at different points in the class.) 50% of students said they wished the seminar sessions were longer.

I planned for a feeling of collaborative learning together in the room from the start, concurring with McLoughlin’s earlier cited, ‘constructionist epistemology’.  Mostly positive students’ comments including, ‘it became a discussion of escalating ideas and a collective exploration’ gave me confidence that I am initiating the discussion usefully. However I need to maintain this level of focus and control throughout the class.

From these responses, the area I need to work on most is at the point I break students down into smaller groups. I need clearer aims, more targeted questions and more focused feedback. Negative comments ranged from, ‘unclear on discussion points’, ‘repetitive’, ‘difficult to condense’ conversation and feedback from smaller groups involving a ‘fear’ of repeating ideas and time dragging. I was a ‘spanner’ in the works to smaller discussion groups – there’s clearly no need for me to hellicopter around students as they engage in their own lively discussions.

These responses also highlight my need for continued alertness, listening well – remembering interesting but occasionally over-looked points – clarifying and revoicing ideas raised that are not easily understood by everyone at first.

Above all, to be in firm control of evolving discussions, to guide and facilitate, to curtail unhelpful meandering tangents as one student commented, ‘the risk is sometimes the questions pile up too fast and the discussion becomes a bit of a hydra’.

Conclusions

Having reflected on this student feedback, there are a number of elements I will be taking into my future teaching.

One student observed the problem in, ‘…trying to do too much in a short space of time, better to do less in more detail.’ I realise I’ve been planning too much content for one hour, explaining perhaps why students saying ‘more time’ was needed – identifying a feeling of dialogic overflow. I need to select text material more carefully, to go deeper into a few focuses, mirroring the exact kinds of decisions my students will have to make for their own essays. We can’t discuss everything and they can’t write about everything, logical, clear selectiveness is most useful.

Regarding the issue of breaking the group up for further discussion, I need to continually ask myself planning questions such as: why am I doing this at this point? Is it worthwhile? Is it useful? Do I have a set of different questions for them to discuss?

I will plan for a limited number of possible theoretical destinations and try to guide my students, with careful question strategies, to get there. That may mean typing out a number of questions for smaller break-off discussion groups. This may be a case of nominating the ‘top three’ most interesting points from each group to the rest of the class and quickly moving on to some conclusive plenaries.

Although the reading content is dictated by the visiting writer, I will allow some seminars to be driven more by the students’ own interests (‘relate back to our own work’) which is more likely to get them to use their analytical skills and will support them in formulating ideas for their essays.

Although most students agreed there was an inherent ‘critical’ aspect to our discussions, few students seemed explicitly aware of the Learning Outcomes. I need to make them more visible, which should serve to assuage anxieties about the ‘relevance’ of some topics of the module to their own critical essays. This should shore up the idea that critical reading skills are transferable, that it’s how we talk about a topic rather than what the topic is. Clearly there’s a need to situate texts usefully in historical contexts too.

This questionnaire has been an extremely useful exercise for my future teaching. It was challenging not to have much quantitative data but some core qualitative trends emerged which are invaluable for planning discussions more effectively. I would like to see the department encourage the sharing of good teaching practice, especially on the critical modules, which can be challenging for student writers as we have seen.

References

[1] Cohen, L. Manion, L. Morrison.K, Bell, R. (2011) ‘Research Methods in Education’ p106

[2] Britton, J. (1990). (Barnes, D, Britton, J, Torbe, M.) Language the Learner & the school, p89-130. London: Allen Lane. [4th ed., 1992, Portsmouth NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinemann.]

[3] Kureishi, Hanif (2014) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10674887/Creative-writing-courses-are-a-waste-of-time-says-Hanif-Kureishi.html pub. (The Telegraph, 4th March, ‘14)

[4] Cusk, Rachel (2013) https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jan/18/in-praise-creative-writing-course (The Guardian Friday 18 January’13)

[5] Wendy Bishop, (1993) Crossing the lines: On Creative Composition and Composing Creative Writing. (Writing on the Edge, Vol. 4, No. 2 Spring, 1993) p117-133. Published by Regents of the University of California. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/43158722

[6] Bizarro, Patrick (1998) ‘Should I Write This Essay Or Finish a Poem? Teaching Writing Creatively: College Composition and Communication’ Vol. 49, No 2 p 285-297 (May, ’98)

[7] Mayer, Tim (2009) ‘One Simple Word: From Creative Writing to Creative Writing Studies’ College English Vol. 71, No. 3, Special Topic: Creative Writing in the Twenty-First Century (Jan, ‘09), pp. 217-228

[8] Ritter, Kelly, (2001) ‘Professional writers/writing Professionals: Revamping Teacher Training in Creative Writing PhD. Programs’in College English, Vol.64 No.2, Urbana: NCTE.

[9] McLoughlin, Nigel (2006) ‘Decentring Everything: A Pedagogical Philosophy for Creative Writing’ in Previously Published Articles Section, Creative Writing: Teaching Theory & Practice, March 2010, p.1. http://www.cwteaching.com

[10] Brookfield, Stephen, (1995) ‘Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher’ (San Francisco: Jossey Bass.’95) p10.

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