Reading, Writing, and 'Doing English': Creative-Critical Approaches to Literature: Ben Knights Reflects on the Tradition within English, at School and University, of Creative Responses to Literature, and Explores Some of the Strategies That Have Been Deployed in University Courses

Article excerpt

As I hope I have made plain, by giving production a larger
role in the discipline of English, I do not mean just allowing
credit for traditional courses in composition or creative
writing.... I am asking for rethinking of what writing and
other modes of linguistic production have to offer students
and a reconstruction of the courses themselves. Those who
teach students how to write poetry, fiction, and drama have
never expected all their students ... to become professional
writers.... They have always believed, however ... that their
students would become better readers of literature because
of their attempts to write it. And they are right, I have no
doubt. What is necessary, now, is for the discipline as a
whole to accept this position and to rethink the role of
writing in English studies with few preconceptions beyond
the goal of producing the most literate students possible.
(Robert Scholes 1998: 162)

During recent years a growing number of university teachers of English literature have found themselves inviting their students to engage with texts through varieties of re-creative writing. To their repertoire of assessment and class activity they have added practices of imitation, re-centring, parody, shift of tense, focus or point of view, the translation from one genre to another. Of course, anyone from HE who proposes to commend such techniques to an audience drawn from schools and colleges should do so with humility. We must acknowledge that such approaches have a history in secondary education going at least back to the late 1970s, even if in recent years the tradition has (like water in limestone country) flowed to a large extent underground to emerge many miles from its source.

Beyond the critical essay

I'll be taking as my main example a second level option module devised within the Teesside BA English Studies degree ten years ago. In adding this module to the programme, the course team was taking advantage of the relative freedom enjoyed in universities for curriculum experiment. Curricula are designed and assessed within individual institutions, and individuals and staff teams still have considerable latitude within national benchmarks and institutional learning and teaching strategies. (A relative freedom for which they are not always sufficiently grateful.) An early note I circulated to colleagues said of the proposed module:

The idea would be to complement / supplement 'academic'
writing in other modules. I also have a sense of how little
pleasure many of our students take in language, how
compliant and literal their relation to the written word.
Dissatisfaction with the dominance of the analytical essay.
(Writing as instrumental vehicle of 'fact' rather than as
organ of discovery, let alone source of pleasure.) This
module would offer a bounded space and encouragement
for 'serious play'.

As is evident, part of the ambience was the continuing rise of Creative Writing, its pedagogy and curriculum being a source of intellectual synergies, as well as promising a re-alignment of the continuum between critical and creative activity. A major influence in my own case was the 'Literary Practice' strand in the Development of University English Teaching Project (DUET) with which I had been involved for many years. (1)

There were several elements to the growing dissatisfaction among colleagues over the monopoly of the essay. (2) For one thing, we were all engaged in a continuing search for ways of overcoming the unintended effects of the modularisation of the curriculum. Then, we were more or less influenced by the secular trend towards 'the student learning experience', and of renewed attention to how learning happens and to the varied learning styles of students. And we were acutely aware of the institutional and intellectual histories that have riven apart secondary and tertiary English since the inception of the National Curriculum and its associated instruments. …