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March 22, 2011

Real Teaching vs. Teaching by Bullet Point - Emily Kingham says, "Thank God for Rowena"

Posted by Emily Kingham

Emily Kingham continues her explorations of a suburban university.

"In at the Deep End" was the title of the one-day course in teaching offered to postgraduate students. I didn't attend because I know too well I am temperamentally unsuited to sitting through Powerpoint presentations without regressing to my unruly, sulky teens. I might start chewing gum and playing with my mobile. I might start writing notes to the person next to me, and drawing rude cartoons of our teacher. Instead, I asked that the hand-out that accompanied the lecture be sent to me. It seems incredible but yes, it's true. Put yourself in my position: I cross London to the distant suburbs to attend a lecture that is printed in a booklet that is placed on every desk in the lecture hall. The lecturer reads from the booklet and points at a screen behind him or her. Departures from the text occur as and when students ask questions. I am usually too stupefied to have any.

Fond as I am of an easy life, I though it more practicable to read the hand-out in the comfort of my living room with a pot of tea on the go, and Radio Four droning in the background. (This, surely, is the writer’s life!) The hand-out was sent via email and I printed out all 153 pages. I read around eighty before giving up and getting on with some writing.

But to sum up: learning to teach using the strategies provided by learning providers entails learning how to place bullet points on Powerpoint presentations. These bullet points are supposed to focus the students' attention on what is being taught: the outcomes and aims. I have always had difficulties differentiating the two. If anyone is out there who has an answer, please elucidate me!

But back to the bullet points. If I were to "bullet point" the main points of this article, using "bullet point" as a verb, of course, I believe it would go something like this:
· Variations in teaching methodology

· Intuition versus procedure

· Conclusions therein (or should that be "thereof" – or, in fact, something else altogether?!)

I hope this has facilitated your reading / learning experience. You are now sitting comfortably, with the main points "bullet pointed" and thus you are assured that there will be no nasty surprises in the article. You know what you are getting. It's like Listening with Mother without the suspense!

So I was placed at the deep end as a teacher. Luckily, I was not on my own. "Team-teaching" seems to be the in thing here. I have now team-conducted five weeks' worth of workshops with my co-tutor. We are a team. My co-tutor is a young Masters student who has been born and bred in creative-writing departments throughout suburbia. He was a poet, but is now concentrating on prose, he told me. He is very knowledgeable – he knows his alliteration from his assonance; he waxes lyrical on "what's at stake"; he continually asks, "where's the jeopardy?", and always comes back to "what does the character want?". He applauds students who do as they are asked without seeming to care about the quality of the material, the nuance of emotion that has been expressed, or the psychological truth that has been uncovered.

I, on the other hand, care nothing for rules and conventions. In my experience, we pick them up as we go along and we use them as tools almost unconsciously. They are the rhythms and cadences of speech and thought, dreams and vision. I ask the students to reveal something new to me. I am an avid reader of their writings. I want to learn something.

I shadowed my supervisor. "Rowena Fey" is a class act. She is a highly respected, amply published novelist and memoirist. Her books have resulted in controversy, applause, popularity, infamy and acclaim. Not only is she talented, quite possibly brilliant, certainly clever, she is blessed with good looks, confidence and charisma. It comes as no surprise that she is held in reverence and awe within the department. I have attended her workshops and received her feedback on my writing and, from her, I see there is room for manoeuvre within the great mammoth of Education. She does and says as she likes. She is politically incorrect and does not let the consequences of this concern her. She is also thoughtful, acute and erudite in her comments on students' work.

From her, I have learnt - only one rule matters, in any piece of writing, is its author truly in the world he or she is presenting? In short, is it credible? Within this world, there are points that need to be addressed, forms that emerge and wants that are satisfied or otherwise. But all that really matters is that the writer creates a world that the reader believes in. Close textual analysis can follow in which the various conventions of narrative form are discussed, dismissed or simply played around with.

What I saw in my co-tutor's approach was what I call the "ticking-box" method of living and writing. I remember once filling in an application for Arts Council funds. The emphasis seemed to be not on the innovative nature of my "project" but on whether it fulfilled criteria to do with diversity. Gender, culture and ethnicity – culture meaning religious practices, I suppose. Similarly, students were being asked to write samples of dialogue in which they displayed certain rules, but no thought was given to their verisimilitude. The danger of creative-writing courses is that they create an Arts Council culture. Books will be processed, poems parsed, and certificates of education gained, and nothing new or interesting will have been said. Thank God for the Real Thing, or Rowena, cutting a swathe through the department.

Emily Kingham (a pseudonym) teaches creative writing to undergraduates and Masters students at a suburban university in the Greater London area. She formerly was writer-in-residence at a Category B prison in South East England. Her Notes from a Prison can be read here.

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