Graduation! Graduation! Graduation!

University of Wolverhampton graduating studentsThe other thing that happened this week was graduation ceremonies.  For reasons better left unexplored I managed to end up attending completely the wrong ceremony (i.e. not the one containing English graduates), so I found myself in with all the lawyers.  Having no individual connection to any of the students at all left me free just to sit back and enjoy the proceedings in general, and in particular the honorary doctorate for Constance Briscoe, one of the UK’s very few black judges.  The brief mention of Briscoe’s difficult childhood makes her ascent to the higher echelons of a notoriously elitist profession certainly notable.  Briscoe has also courted controversy, writing two memoirs — Ugly and Beyond Ugly.  They have been regarded by some as very much feeding the frenzy for ‘misery memoirs’, but had I been one of the legal students graduating last Wednesday, I would have found her presence at my graduation ceremony inspiring.

Wolverhampton-born Kevin Rowland, front-man of Dexy’s Midnight Runners, was due to be the honorary award at the ceremony I managed to miss.  Unfortunately he was apparently ill and therefore wasn’t there.  I had high hopes of a headline such as “Spontaneous 80s Dungaree Disco Breaks Out at Local Graduation” in the Express and Star…  This may now have to wait until next year.  Previous honorary degrees I recall include actress and author Meera Syal, and there is also very funny two-part clip of Frank Skinner receiving his award on Youtube.

To be honest I can’t remember any of my lecturers being at my various degree ceremonies.  Some of them possibly were there for my BA English at Birmingham, but I certainly don’t recall anyone being at my MA or PhD ceremonies.  It is, to perpetuate a cliché, a day for the students and their supporters, but in my experience at Wolverhampton it is also true that academic staff do take pride and pleasure in seeing students they have worked with and seen develop over three years getting their degrees. So I’m sorry I missed the ceremony I was meant to be at, but I still enjoyed the general ambience of happiness and celebration that was around all week.  It is — and always will be — an achievement to gain a degree.

Mr Smallweed thinks the Law is a brimstone beast!

This is a Subject Line from one student’s contribution to the last Victorian Vision Online session, ‘The Dickens Debate’.  It’s always one of my favourites, and I’ve come to think of this kind of online exercise as something of my ‘signature’ in terms of expanding the possibilities of what can be done in a discussion forum for English Studies (or Creative Writing) students.  Indeed,  I’ve published a case study article about the kind of creative-critical activity this is (Text. Play. Space: Creative Online Activities in English Studies’, English Subject Centre Case Studies, October 2007).

After two weeks on Bleak House the class enter the discussion forum to debate the motion “This House Believes the Law is an Ass”. The significant ‘twist’ is that they enter as a character from the novel and everything they say/post they say in character.  In effect this means they role play.  Dickens, of course, is fantastic for this, and the number of characters in Bleak House means that it is more than possible for everyone to take a different character.  As an added incentive to get going quickly students are not allowed to repeat characters, so if they particularly want to ‘be’ a specific character, then they need to post as them before anyone else does.  This also hopefully means they are checking out what has already been going on in the forum before they make their first post.

This year there are some great Subject Lines as the students introduce their character’s post.  As well as the Smallweed one above there is also ‘Richard is indecisive’; ‘Rosa: Emotion over the law’; ‘Esther Summerson: Though I am not clever…’; ‘Miss Barbary would like to concentrate on submission, self-denial and diligent work’; ’Harold Skimpole: What is all this about the law?’; and many many more.

As I have become more of a creative writer myself I have become a great fan/advocate of this kind of more creative activity for English Studies students.  There’s no doubting that the class always seems to enjoy this exercise — it is often mentioned in my end-of-module feedback questionnaire about the online work as being one of the best — but the issue is not just about whether they ‘enjoy’ it.  To do well the students need to have ‘got under the skin’ of their character, which means they need to have applied some critical thinking as to how Dickens has constructed that character.  From feedback comments I have received previously I also know that students welcome the kind of creative freedom that the exercise gives them.   Of all students English students should be able to know and experience something of the creativity inherent in the writing process that is part and parcel of all the poems, novels, plays, etc., that they spend their degree reading.  But the key difference is in that last word — reading:  English Studies students read texts that are considered creative, but they are not expected to write them.  The critical essay/response thus becomes part of a different field, but not one that is ‘creative’.

Several years ago I introduced a four-week creative writing option into an Introduction to Poetry course I was teaching for first-year undergraduates.  When it came to tutorials I was struck by the sense of investment that the students seemed to have in their creative work — almost all of them wanted a tutorial and feedback on the poems they were writing.  Had they been doing an essay the response would have been more lukewarm from some.  Their creative writing mattered to them in a way that  was different from their essay writing.  I’m not at all suggesting that they didn’t care about their essay work, but there was a distinctively different kind of investment going on.  Maybe they perceived the writing of a poem as allowing them to explore more of the personal, or allowing them to explore a topic through language in a way that is more playful and inventive than the seeming rules and rigours of the academic essay.  Whatever their reasons, those tutorials have stayed with me…

On being a student…again

In addition to my academic job at Wolverhampton I have also ‘gone back to big school’ myself this term as I’ve started a part-time MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester Metropolitan University.  There are numerous reasons why I’ve started it:  I’ve known about the course for some years, and the calibre of poets who contribute to it (Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Michael Symmons Roberts, Jean Sprackland) speaks for itself; I have found previously that the structure of attending a course is productive for me in terms of my own poetry writing; I grew up on the south Manchester/Cheshire borders, so there is a conscious revisiting of my home city and my connections with the wider area; and — not least — I was quite ill last academic year and was off work for an extended period.  What that gave me was some time to step back from my job and to consider whether there was a way of my doing this course that I had been circling around for some time. So when I returned to work in April of this year I negotiated a temporary cut in my contract and was fortunate enough to get a place on the course.

There is also an Online version of the Creative Writing MA programme at Manchester Met, but — perhaps ironically — I knew I didn’t want to follow the MA that way.  I wanted to be there in the classroom with my fellow students.  I am, however, hoping to ‘gatecrash’ the online poetry group at some point this year and will no doubt post on this blog about that experience.

So I trundle up to Manchester once a week for 24 hours and enjoy the extraordinary student drag that is the ‘universities’ part of Oxford Road.  It’s a very buzzy, very ‘street’ kind of area and I like the energy of it.  Thus far the course has been a crash course for me in modernist and twentieth century poetry and poetics — we read two poets a week.  As someone who focussed on the Victorians for my original postgraduate studies I seem to have managed to bypass modernism pretty much entirely in terms of my studies so far, so I’m learning a lot, and also getting a good sense of how twentieth century poetry has developed.

The downside is that I have to write an essay.  Over Christmas.  I want to do this like a hole in the head.  I always knew that the more obviously academic side of the assessment was going to be  a challenge in the sense that it’s the ‘developing my writing’ aspect of the course that has ultimately led me to choose to do it.  I know, of course, that reading and writing are intimately related, and as yet I don’t really know how the reading I’ve been doing this term will rub off on my own writing in the long term (although we’ve been pastiching the poets we read each week, which I’ve really enjoyed).  But assessment is assessment, and I’ve got an essay to write.  And — worse — we have to come up with our own title.  Too much choice!  Oh the tyranny of  infinite possibilities!  I woke up in the middle of the night the other day thinking “Is there a genuine way I can link Thomas Hardy and Adrienne Rich — or am I pushing that too far?”  My sympathy with my own students — who probably have several essays to write over the Christmas vacation — is going up by the hour…