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New Creative Writing Leader Says Hello

barbara-henderson1

Anyone who follows the OCA’s blog may already know a little about me – including the fact that I rather like blogging and all other forms of social media!
But I will take the chance to introduce myself here to anyone who’s escaped my posts so far.
Like many OCA students, I did all my studying part-time, while running a life alongside it. I did my degree and Masters degrees while working full-time and bringing up young children. It made me appreciate how to manage time and how to fit things that you want to do alongside all the things you have to do.
The last and most important qualification I got was a PhD in Creative Writing, which tends to raise a few eyebrows. I usually say that I’m the sort of doctor who can’t help if you have a heart attack, but I would do a great job of describing your feelings.
I’m now a published writer for children and for adults. I hope this means I am useful as a practitioner and that I also can help on the reflective, study-related side of things too. The notion that creative writing can be taught is something I believe very strongly, because I know what a big difference such a course made to my own work, transforming it from something rather amateur into writing of publishable quality.
I’ve been tutoring for the OCA since November 2013 and I also have a lot of experience in teaching at traditional universities too. Teaching is work I first did just to earn a living, but now it’s something I love.
In taking on the Programme Leader role, I am hoping to improve the experience and outcomes for the students. I have some initial ideas about this and they overlap in many ways with my hopes for improving the tutors’ experience too.
Improvements to the curriculum and student completion rates are needed and so these are the first things I will look at.
But so too are ways of bringing the tutor team to work together even more, to further share skills and good practice.
I think the OCA has a very highly skilled and talented creative writing department and I’m keen to raise its profile as a dynamic, prestigious place to study and to work – one that writers, tutors and students aspire to join.
As a former journalist, I am uneasy with jargon, so I promise that I have practical ideas in mind, not a collection of buzzwords and abstract concepts.
I want to be approachable too, so I hope that students and fellow tutors will bring me their thoughts, ideas or concerns. Come and share them, so that we can continue the excellent work that’s already being done in the OCA’s creative writing department and together form something truly outstanding.
 
Barbara Henderson. OCA Programme Leader, Tutor and Assessor.


Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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44 thoughts on “New Creative Writing Leader Says Hello

  • I look forward to your influence, but am a little perturbed by the idea that curriculum changes are needed, as I wonder if the improvements be extended to students already embarked upon a course of study?
    Interesting that another of your targets is improving completion rates. I started out thinking that I would sail through, but the vagaries of life and my own lack of self-belief are getting in the way, especially with The Art of Poetry, where I think the handbook is lamentable in it’s imprecision and lack of inspiring examples. To state that reading is important to underpin writing is stating the obvious and I would find more pointers very helpful. The field is wide and the range of reading is vast, it’s all too easy to feel dwarfed by it.
    On another point, I have attended small local creative writing workshops by way of introduction to the practice. This spring-boarded me to taking on a bigger challenge. One of the things I was disappointed by was the difficulty other members had in constructive criticism of one another’s work. I believe it is important to be able to look critically not only at the work of others, but also at our own work. In the OCA modules there is a strong emphasis on self-reflection but surely reflecting on the work of others is a parallel skill which should be fostered? The blog responses I have read through OCA, are disappointing in this respect, with people simply responding with postive exclamations and little of substance. I want to see more.
    To some extent, at least in the Visual Arts streams, the tutors, I believe could do more when they “showcase” the work of exceptional students. They gush about the excellence but rarely give any more constructively critical comments. I think it would be very helpful to see and hear a critique of some “average” work, since, by definition, most students will be in the middle range of ability, trying to better their work.
    It’s early days for you, in your new role, but do you have views on these questions?

    • Hi Alison, thank you for this very detailed and thoughtful response, which I do appreciate.
      First of all, may I say that we are aware of the concerns about The Art of Poetry and will be looking at ways to improve this experience for the future. In the interim, the reading lists have just been reviewed and updated, which is something you specifically mention, and they are narrowed down to a much smaller set of essential reading books.
      As a priority, we will be introducing a new Foundations course in creative writing to give a greater choice of starting points and enable some students to work up to study at undergraduate level. In addition to this, we are already looking at how we give greater choice at level 1.
      I do agree that the ability to critique the work of others is an essential writer’s skill and I am very glad that you have raised it. Do you think that either (1) a guidance document on what to look for and ways to comment constructively, or (2) an online discussion session on the subject – or both! – would be one way to tackle this?
      On a related issue, I have recently also updated and added to the guidelines on how to write a creative reading commentary, which of course does require critical reading skills and is a requirement on all writing courses at levels 2 and 3. We are in discussion about creating a model ‘dummy’ commentary which students can use as an exemplar, complete with notes to explain why this works. All students will have access to the updated versions.
      When you say you are ‘a little perturbed by the idea that curriculum changes are needed, as I wonder if the improvements be extended to students already embarked upon a course of study?’ I am assuming that you are not suggesting we should never improve the curriculum – because I think we should. It’s an ongoing process.
      Can you explain what you mean, though, about the students who are already on their course of studies and what it is that concerns about about them in relation to our planned improvements?
      Again – thank you for your input here.
      Best wishes
      Barbara

      • Dear Barbara,
        Thank you for explaining in more detail your intentions regarding the improvements to Creative Writing.
        In answer to your question about helping us with critique of writing, I think both your suggestions are a good idea, but that the online discussion would be more useful as it would facilitate the formulation of ideas and refinement of ideas, through interaction.
        As regards my purturbation, I agree that updating curricula needs to be ongoing, but I feel that it would be helpful to existing students if important ideas ( such as the narrowing down of the reading list to essential texts) were made available to all students. Perhaps this is not achievable logistically, as it might compromise the progress of students studying the older curricula and result in a huge volume of enquiries from students. As I’m not experienced in education as a provider, I probably haven’t appreciated the complexities.
        I enjoyed writing the reflective commentaries in Creative writing 1. I was confused at the last stage, however, and it was entirely my own fault. I wrote a critique of my last assignment instead of the reflection on the whole course, thinking that the whole course reflection was an additional requirement, to be sent to the assessors with the final pieces. I think there is some inconsistency in the current design. One does not have to reflect fully on the last piece of creative writing, yet this is likely to be the most important piece for the assessment, giving the student the opportunity to demonstrate the full range of their learning.
        The emphasis in the Art of Poetry commentaries is confusingly different. My tutor has directed me to be much more focused on my own process of writing and re-drafting, and less discursive of the work of published poets and their influence upon my writing. I am finding this quite difficult. The exemplar audio recommended is about prose, and I’m not sure that it relates closely enough to what is apparently required for the poetry commentaries.
        That’s probably enough from me for now!
        Best wishes,
        Alison

        • These are excellent points, Alison and I am making notes! What was the recommended audio, please? What I do think is that tutors will be made aware of any changes and they can pass them on to their existing students?

          • Hi Barbara,
            The link to the clip is:
            http://weareoca.com/creative_writing/food-of-the-gods-or-tinned-rice/
            Just in case you are interested in the detail, this is the very full and helpful advice I received from my tutor about this. Perhaps this info or something like it could be incorporated in the guidance to students embarking on Art of Poetry?
            You have made many interesting comments here, but I would like you to shift
            the balance of material slightly in your next commentaries. Rather than writing
            generally about your approach to poetry, I’d like you to hone in on the work
            you have submitted for your assignment. Perhaps consider some of the
            following questions (some will be more relevant than others):
             How did you re-draft your poems once you’d written the first version?
            What did you delete or change, and why? How did this improve the
            poem?
             Which pieces are the most successful and why? Feel free to quote
            small sections of your work to support your comments. Did you achieve
            everything you wanted to with them or are there still parts you’d like to
            work on?
             What poetic techniques were you conscious of using? These could be
            formal such as rhythm and sonic effects, or content-based such as
            using metaphors.
            Please also mention what poetry (rather than secondary material) you have
            been reading, and what insights your reading has given you. For example,
            you mention that you’ve noticed other poets often have an underlying theme
            and that this might help your own focus. This is great, but give examples –
            who have you been reading? It may be that a poet had an effect in a much
            more specific way, and that you imitated their approach to a subject, or the
            way they use line breaks, for example.
            There’s a short recording of tutor and assessor Liz Cashdan talking about
            what makes a good Reflective Commentary here:
            http://weareoca.com/creative_writing/food-of-the-gods-or-tinned-rice/

  • It’s all happening at the college yet again. Serendipity greets the crowds in the Hall, staff, Tutors, students; and us distant learners from the wide web, all part of OCA. She is not a Persian myth, but a real appointment.
    Congratulations, Barbara, all the way from the wide web, in the woodlands of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
    I followed… the way of the cat, in good hope that I may draw something! Not a chance! But recalled a book I read last summer by Blake Snyder “Save The Cat!” I am
    keen on Screenwriting! God willing, if all is well with my current studies. I am happy with my present course, would like to pursue this at a higher level if possible, taking a step at a time.
    Wishing you well on your new appointment,
    Nicholas Poulcherios OCA 309678.

  • Gosh! What a blistering fault leaving…”I am…” at a loose end next to the cat, when it should have been, next line down, new paragraph…I am keen…
    Before I could blink, my well intended message is now cemented out there, in the web. Alas! for all to gaze, nik at, and laugh.

    • I thought it was interesting, and pondered on it’s meaning. Open-ended and made me work. Didn’t laugh. “Save the Cat”. I am… could be the start of something…

  • Congratulations Barbara!
    One of the things that springs to my mind in terms of improvement to courses is in respect of Writing Two, Writing for Children.
    I find it too prescriptive. I appreciate there may be students who like to be told a) what to write about and b) from what perspective but I find it ties me up in knots. If I’m to be ‘creative’, I need the freedom to be just that.
    Perhaps an idea might be to give four or five suggestions for assignments but also give students the freedom to come up with their own ideas, as long as the stick to the basic criteria.

    • Thanks Corinne. Can you give me an example of a section that you find too prescriptive? It hadn’t struck me that way as the suggested subject matter feels so open-ended!
      Best wishes
      Barbara

  • Hi Barbara!
    For example Assignment 2 requires you to write a story in the first person about ‘hiding’. I would prefer to at least have the choice of perspective.
    Similarly, Assignment 4, ‘A Tricky Situation’ has to be written from the first person.
    I think giving suggestions is good, but so is a little freedom.

    • So it’s the perspective not the prompt? Okay.
      The thing is, though, that Part Two of the course is all about looking at things from a child’s perspective so, for me, it makes sense that the related assignment is written in a child’s first person voice, as that will get you more closely into a child’s viewpoint.
      Also, with Assignment 4, you have to write from two different perspectives of a dominant and non-dominant child and I think that this is also better achieved from a first person point of view – not impossible from two third person POVs, but trickier.
      If you were to do either assignment from a third person POV, it would increase the psychic distance between your reader and your child subject, to the detriment of the pieces, I feel. Given that so much contemporary children’s literature is written in the first person, for obvious reasons, and also given that you have a choice of perspective in Assignments Three and Five, I am not sure it feels unreasonable to direct these two perspectives. Does anyone else feel this is too directive?

  • Sorry, I meant to say that I found being told what to write about AND from what perspective difficult. I understand what you say about how writing in the first person brings you closer to the character and I don’t disagree but perhaps even a couple of choices of subject matter might have made me feel less constricted.

    • I definitely agree with Corinne about being told what to write about. Maybe we could have more than one prompt to choose from instead of just the one. I tend to do freewrites from prompts and just one seems to give me a mental block for some reason and it generally goes nowhere whereas if I had a few, I would end up doing all of them and choosing the one I thought would suit best.

      • Right. That’s disappointing as I thought the prompts were so very wide that almost any writer could make something of them – after all, you don’t have to take them too literally – and the more I think about the direction of the perspective on these two parts of the course the more I think it is essential. I’ll have a further think about it. My suggestion for now, though, would be to discuss with your tutor if you really, truly, can’t come up with a first person piece on a loose theme of hiding/night journey as the subject matter is, I think, less important.

        • Hmmm okay. It doesn’t actually say that we should not take them too literally, it gives a specific heading, i.e. A Journey by Night – perhaps it should be made clearer for those of us that don’t fall into the category of ‘almost any writer’? It doesn’t actually say it’s a ‘loose theme’. I’ve always been taught that you follow assignment guidelines to the letter to be sure of a successful outcome, from your reply it appears that this particular course doesn’t fall into this category. I successfully completed Storylines prior to this and the assignments were not worded in the same way and I found it a much more creative way of writing. However, I shall persevere and will hopefully get to the end of this course eventually.

  • Ironically, I did ask my tutor if I could adapt the Night Journey theme slightly and make it metaphorical, i.e. a mental experience, taking place at night but she steered me away from that idea as she thought it ought to be a physical journey.

    • That surprises me. I would always recommend negotiating with your tutor on this. I am concerned though that this discussion is getting rather narrow. Bearing in mind that some writers do prefer prompts, and it is always a question of balancing the needs of a broad range of students, rather than micro-analysing aspects of a course that don’t suit one or two people, I think perhaps we need to post some wider guidance on what do do if you are struggling with your studies. This is a concern and the OCA already has guidance on it but I am going to look at it and perhaps do a post on this subject, which seems to be the issue here.

  • Oh I apologise, I totally misread your post in the forum. I thought you were asking for suggestions concerning our studies and the courses that we are studying. I followed the link and found that Corinne had the same concerns as me. I shall retreat – in my defence and you will probably be glad to hear this but I do usually keep my opinions to myself 🙂

    • I did ask for suggestions but I suppose I didn’t think they would be quite so ‘micro’. picking holes with specific exercises that just don’t suit an individual! I teach on the Writing for Children course and have had so many fantastic responses to those assignments. so I know it’s not a widespread problem.
      General suggestions that feel like common concerns would definitely be welcome.
      Apologies, as I sense from your tone that I have offended, which was not the intention.

  • Oh no, I’m not offended in any way. I realise it was probably nit-picking but as someone else had mentioned it I ploughed in. I am enjoying the course as a whole and have a lovely tutor. If life didn’t keep getting in the way I would finish it far quicker which was what I meant when I said I would eventually get to the end 🙂

    • That’s good to hear. I guess I did invite specifics to an extent because I wanted to see if the charge of the course being too prescriptive held up. Good luck with the rest of the course!

  • Congratulations on your appointment Barbara.
    Forgive me if I am being too specific for this forum (perhaps there is an email address for specific issues?), but I’d like to bring up the mismatch between the instructions for submission for assessment and the tutor reports we receive. I know this is boring, but it gives me grief when I am trying to put together a well-presented submission. Please bear with me while I trot through the problem I see:
    The Creative Writing Student Guide tells us that for each assignment we choose for submission, we must present:
    1. The tutor-annotated original assignment
    2. The tutor report
    3. Our re-worked assignment
    I think this is very sensible – it tells a story: we wrote something, we received feedback and we acted upon it. Note also that we are told NOT to include the reflective commentaries from individual assignments.
    Okay, so the tutor report then… We get a single document containing:
    A. Overall comments
    B. Assessment potential
    C. Feedback on assignment (this is the annotated assignment referred to in 1 above)
    D. Feedback on reflective commentary (this is a full copy of the RC with annotations)
    E. Suggested reading
    F. Pointers for the next assignment
    G. A little box with the tutor’s name, date and deadline for the next assignment
    I have taken this from the very latest tutor report I have received (today actually), but it seems pretty typical.
    I would suggest that item 1 is supplied by C from the tutor report document; 2 is supplied by A, B, E, F and G; 3 is obviously newly written by us and nothing to do with the report; and D is not required.
    In my view, the tutor report does not enable us to supply what is required for assessment in the order in which it is required. Yes, all the elements are there, but they are mixed up and have the unwanted element of the annotated RC. We are not supposed to doctor our reports in any way, so have no choice but to print the whole thing out, put it in our submission folder followed by our re-worked assignment. We can’t even just take the physical pages and put the right ones in the right sections because there are no page breaks between sections and the actual ‘report’ bit is split up.
    So, please can you either change the tutor report to match the assessment requirements or change the assessment requirements to match the tutor report?
    Phew! Finished, sorry about the length of the posting.

  • I just wanted to support Corinne and Brendalucy in what they said about prescriptive assignments in Writing for Children. I too found the hiding and the night journey oddly stifling. When I see two or three options, my thoughts generally go along the lines of “oh no, not that one, hmm, maybe that one, ah yes, I can do something with that one…” We all get there in the end, but I’ve just found it harder than I think it needs to be.

    • I think I have answered this in my latest OCA blog post on Creative Blocks which tries to explain why sometimes doing a degree course isn’t as easy as you might like it to be and sometimes requires you to do things that test your abilities. Have you read it?

        • I understand. I am just not how useful it is to keep this debate going and hoped that my blog post may make things a little clearer in terms of why the exercises are the way they are.

          • I am not trying to keep a debate going. I agree with a couple of my fellow students. I’m really sorry I said anything.

  • Hi Barbara
    I too congratulate you on your new post and know that we are in safe hands!
    I can see what Tania is saying. The current submission guidelines are in conflict with the way tutors are presenting students reports.
    There are two choices.
    1. Submission guidelines could be changed to fit what is actually happening which is that tutor reports are rolled untidily into a single document with their comments fragmented and included the unrequired small reflective commentaries.
    2 The better choice would be to ask tutors to put their reports into one single documents i.e. their report to be kept separate from our annotated work and separate from the small reflective commentaries, thus immediately suitable for formal submission and fits the submission guidelines perfectly.
    I would support the second option because it allows the student the possibility of presenting their work in a highly professional manner that is easily read by the assessor.
    Can you help with this?
    Jo

    • Oh it’s about the separation of the annotation and the man report- that is much clearer! I tend to keep them separate now anyway but I see not everyone does. Let me look into this for you Jo and thank you for the kind message. Hope all is well with you. Barbara

  • Hello,
    For all the great advantages of electronic communication, it can sometimes lead to unintended conflict. From my perspective, as a student, I am often unsure where to direct my comments or thoughts, and it has sometimes led me to keep quiet. I think you are offering us a welcome opportunity to give some input, which I value. I hope others will continue to provide you with ideas, and provide you with food for thought!
    Alison

  • Dear Barbara,
    It’s coming up to 5-6 months since you took over the leadership role.
    I’d be really interested to hear how things have gone, and where you feel you have progressed?
    That awful question, what is your vision?
    As a consumer, I like to have some understanding of how the changing scene might look. Nothing ever remains static, and roles like yours are designed to progress change, after all.
    Thanks,
    Alison

  • Hello Alison,
    That’s a huge question! But thanks for asking.
    As you will know if you have taken on any leadership role, 5 – 6 months is a very short time, especially if one is only part-time. I think what has surprised me is how much of my time is taken up with administrative tasks.
    But my vision remains to have the OCA’s creative writing courses as exciting and in-demand as any others, to increase student satisfaction and retention, to develop the tutors’ skills to assist with this, to enable wider and creative methods of access for students via online and physical sessions, to refresh the courses to ensure they are up to date and dynamic.
    At the moment a creative writing foundation course is being written and a priority is to refresh the Level 3 courses.
    I hope this helps. If it sounds as if I haven’t been busy, then I assure you that;s not the case!
    Best wishes
    Barbara

    • Hi Barbara,
      It sounds as if there’s mountains to do, and I’ve no doubt that it’s kept you busy. I hope the administration doesn’t prevent you from being able to get to grips with the other ambitious elements of the job.
      I’m interested that part of your role is to develop the tutor’s skills. Not an easy thing to do without direct contact, perhaps.
      Anyway, I wish you well and every sucess. Change is difficult from all sides, and institutional change especially so. Quite how it is done in a “virtual institution” is a mystery to me.
      Alison

  • Actually, we do meet reasonably often in person! And I’m in contact with the tutors all the time. I think we have a really talented team and it’s about promoting that, so that students are aware of the skills and experience they have access to – and about helping the tutors keep developing too (for example, we’re encouraging all tutors to become Higher Education Academy fellows which is only awarded to highly reflective teachers who’re engaged in best practice).
    Enhancing the student experience is a major goal, of course, although it would be great to get more direct and solid feedback about what’s really wanted – it seems hard to get more than one or two students to agree on anything!!
    Thanks for your engagement, Alison – I do appreciate it.

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