Wednesday, April 22, 2015

AWP 2015: despatches from the conference #3

Sam Kelly in Minneapolis
Teaching Artists Teaching Artists

This panel was a series of presentations on the outcomes of a particularly elegant and mischievously innovative research project by students and recent graduates from US  Creative Writing programmes. [The panel was almost too exciting for Sam Kelly, but she managed to write what follows...]

First, some background. The American model of Creative Writing teaching (which the UK inherited almost wholesale) is limited to two defining practices: composition theory, and the peer-review workshop. This panel at AWP was based on asking the same questions David and I faced when we started designing our MA at Edinburgh Napier University: Why? What exactly is taught, and learned, and assessed by this method? Might there not be better ways of doing it?

Each researcher who presented had done something similar to the long conversations David and I had over the blank slate that became our MA, during which we looked for all our answers outside the defining ideological assumptions of academic creative writing. But the cumulative effect of the project described was extraordinary.

Each student chose a different creative discipline: visual arts, music composition, dance, and architecture. They shadowed teachers, asking detailed questions about pedagogical theories and methods. They observed classes intensively, and drew informed conclusions. Then they applied them to the nature, purpose and potential of Creative Writing in the academy.

In the process, it seems we all hit on all the same inspirational junctures: the ethics of Paulo Friere, the concept of co-creation rather than teaching, and the challenge of enabling purposeful self-knowledge and self-sustainability in committed creators. These are the foundations of our MA at Edinburgh Napier, as well as the outcomes of the session at AWP.

So, what emerged?

From visual arts, a particularly incisive interrogation of the product/process dichotomy, otherwise experienced as prescriptive vs. facilitative teaching. Chelsie Buckley pointed out that neither in itself will work: the obsessively product-oriented polishing of Creative Writing teaching can’t be replaced wholesale by the discovery of the inner artist. But there are solutions which, according to Chelsie, involve Creative Writing academics becoming a lot less squeamish about actually teaching.

At this point, I’m leaping out of my seat. David and I resolved at the outset to teach, and also to learn how to teach, for precisely this reason. Chelsie raised the question of whether nine hours teaching per week was the optimum, and whether one-to-one work was particularly beneficial. This volume of designed contact hours is the norm in visual arts, but highly unusual as a model for Creative Writing. Nonetheless, nine hours teaching per week is exactly what we do here at Edinburgh Napier, with an extra hour a month per student for one-to-one editorial mentoring. And yes, it works!

In challenging the dominance of the workshop, Chelsie wondered: what if Creative Writing could be done as a studio-style class? As an enthusiast of collaborative in-class working and constant formative feedback, all I can say is: come and see! We have a Creative Writing studio system already.

Next, Claire Helakoski asked: how can we be more like music education? Her thesis was that Creative Writing is dominated by the notion of success (i.e. polish) rather than the learning of cause-and-effect decision making. She asked a lot of radically obvious questions: what should students learn? What skills should they have? What do we want them to be able to do?

She described the value of task-based technical constraint in challenging and benchmarking student learning, and the experience of observing classes where students have a shared technical vocabulary and focus of teaching is on cause-and-effect technical choices. And once again: welcome to us! It’s taken me and David a while to perfect, but through our teaching in pre-writing, technical specifics and critical self-reflection, this is now the core of the programme.

After which, Monica Prince on the teaching of choreography. Here, the outcome took the form of observations about the co-creation of knowledge rather than teacher/student hierarchies; the value of open collaboration, and the benefits of teachers who can reinvent according to the needs of students. This led Monica to an interrogation of the nature and purpose of feedback, and more reinforcement of the value of shared technical knowledge. I’m leaping up to give us a tick again! I won’t bang on about it, but we asked the same questions, found the same answer, and designed masterclass sessions on our MA programme accordingly.

Raj Mankad’s subject was architecture: he began by saying “Here, if you’re going to a workshop, there are saws and drills”. The 3 x 3 hours of classes per week was raised as an ideal (tick, already!). But Raj added an extra dimension: the importance of cohort identity, through the provision of shared space. He described the architecture studio as a sub-culture, owned wholly by students and occupied at all hours of day and night. At Edinburgh Napier we have two Writers’ Rooms exclusively available to our students, with wi-fi, screen, DVDs, over 2,000 handpicked books, whiteboards, sofas, desks and armchairs. And chocolate, usually. We know this works!

Raj also underlined the importance of practices such as professional pitching and presenting as the means for learning and development. These are core disciplines on the Edinburgh Napier MA, also, with students regularly pitching to industry experts.

In the end, it all came down to some very simple questions which, nonetheless, conclusively undermine the dominant capitalist model of creative writing provision. Should teaching be done from the front, or in dialogue with specific challenges designed for students? Should feedback be received in silence, or in discussion? Should every writer’s defined purpose be paramount? And how to balance the values of community and individuality in writing practice?

The answers are already in evidence on our MA, and there will be more on this. Meanwhile, I’d just like to applaud the sheer wit, energy and revolutionary zeal of this particular collective of presenters. It was a complete treat!

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