In their enthusiasm for the ethics, values and successes of community education, the panel neatly nailed everything wrong with bare-minimum standards of Creative Writing teaching in the academy.
The exclusion of popular fiction from the majority of MA and MFA programmes was the subject of David Bishop’s panel, and that resonated again here. For the Loft and the Lighthouse, an absolute openness to all genres is a core principle.
The next theme to emerge was respect: for the hard-won time community students devote to learning, and for the quality of learning they deserve in return. Comments such as “We have teachers who are actually skilled and experienced teachers, not just someone who’s published a book” sound breezily innocuous, but the statement that “writing a novel and teaching a class have nothing to do with each other” and “our students see right through someone who can’t teach” might send a chill through at least some university departments. There are still those who imagine that the aura of a talented writer will somehow rub off on workshop attendees without the intervention of any pedagogy whatsoever. As a panelist pointed out: “it’s just bullshit, it pisses people off”.
The third topic was community, and the importance of physical space in building communities of practice. The creation of non-competitive, low-tech environments which connect local residents in new ways was described with infectious enthusiasm. An interesting fact emerged here about the preferences for non-technological environments amongst teenage learners, which directly challenges higher education’s current obsession with low-cost, high-volume distance methods. It may be that this isn’t what the next generation of learners wants or needs at all, and it was absolutely lovely to hear such a cogent defence of physically shared learning.
The last theme was flexibility. Both the Loft and the Lighthouse described the crucial value of putting people in charge of their own learning. The combination of low-investment options, intensive programmes, long-term mentoring and a whole range of other choices enables truly self-directed development. This is educational theory we’re all familiar with in universities: the more a person owns their learning; the more they envisage that learning in the context of their own unique purpose, the deeper, more transformative and more generous that learning will be.
There was so much more: on outreach work; on the energy of shared commitment; on the kind of culture community education creates and its authentic challenge to the assumed prestige of the university. And – a final ass-kicking – on the impressive publication record of graduates from community programmes.
Throughout – for me, at least, the message was clear. Alternatives like these are creating social value, first and foremost. And if the university isn’t, what the hell is it doing?