Keeping Your Balance:Creative Writing and part-time teaching


Keith Hughes
Maggie Butt is head of the
Media department at
Middlesex University,
London, where she has been
teaching Creative Writing
since 1990 at undergraduate
and postgraduate level.
She is also Chair of NAWE.
Her first poetry collection
Lipstick and her edited
collection of essays Story –
The Heart of the Matter
were both published in 2007.

I had three different titles for this talk. First, I was very tempted to appropriate my friend Helena’s title for a paper she recently gave  on this subject. Her title, Can You Do Mondays?, amply, and succinctly, captures one of the major dilemmas of the part-time  tutor – that you have to fit your writing and your need to earn a living around so many other people’s timetables.(1) You are expected to be an expert in your field, to be a practising artist and to be able to drop everything to fit in on days which you often have no choice about. I’ll return to that.

Then I decided I shouldn’t plagiarise – even as homage. So I changed the title to Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, because  this is where I suspect all Creative Writing academics – but especially part-time tutors – live.

The Devil, on the one hand, is not having enough money to live on. The Deep Blue Sea is not having enough time for your writing. I’m sorry to say that this problem never goes away: an old school friend of mine said to me recently, ‘It’s funny how you wanted to be a writer but you ended up being a manager.’  I could have explained to him that poetry is writing, but I actually just felt rather sick and pointed out that we have two daughters to support.

The Devil can be kept at bay with a salary, but the cost is the weight of bureaucracy and the expectations of an evermore demanding employer. So maybe I’ve sold my soul? There are times when the part-time life seems attractive, then I remember the difficulties, because I worked part-time for many years while my kids were small.

Let’s reiterate the problems:

•  the uncertainty – will you have a contract next term or next semester?
•  the holidays, that vast swathe of time without any income
•  the time it takes to plan, prepare classes and mark work  
•  student access – students can see full-time staff outside class time, and they  expect that they can see you too and you may feel bad about turning them down. With e-mail, students think they can have access to you at all hours of the day, all days of the week. It’s no good telling them you are only paid for four hours a week, on a Monday.
•  no office space, or hot-desking, having to meet students in the canteen
•  the difficulty of claiming pay
•  the danger of working over the odds to prove how great you are, so your employers ask you back again, or so you can cite your achievements in future job applications, or so you can prove your worth in a Visiting Lecturer to Associate Lecturer conversion
•  the difficulty of teaching a module designed by someone else
•  giving adequate support to students who begin to write emotionally difficult content
•  pay is low when you’ve factored in preparation and marking time, and money earned can easily be eaten up in travel costs and the need to buy books, so you might agree to squeeze more classes into a day than is really sensible
•  a feeling of invisibility, that part-timers don’t get to take part in the normal processes of departmental decision making, even though they are essential staff
•  gender issues – there may be more women than men trying to juggle part-time teaching with caring responsibilities
•  the ‘can you do Mondays’ problem, of trying to  negotiate the timetables of, often, two or more employers
•  not just time, but the energy and headspace which teaching takes from your creative self

Here’s the inherent conundrum – you are being hired because you are a writer, but, because you’ve been hired, you don’t have enough time to write.

And here’s the inherent conundrum – you are being hired because you are a writer, but, because you’ve been hired, you don’t have enough time to write. We often hear about ‘work/life balance’, and, for most people, this is a dual-aspect problem, but for us as writers/teachers, it’s a triple problem – we have to balance work, life and writing. This is balancing on a three-legged stool.

When I told my husband this, he said, ‘Ah, but a tripod is the most stable structure.’ I’m not an engineer, but that idea of stability is also a psychological one, and those of us who are afflicted with the writing bug need to have all three things operating to feel psychologically stable. Some research was done a few years ago which established that ‘being a writer’ was as central to our image of ourselves as our gender. It is what we are, who we are, and we have to be able to sustain that part of ourselves.

So back to the title of this talk, Keeping Your Balance. That’s what we have to work out how to do. Unless we write bestsellers (and definitely not poetry) we have to have a job – Larkin chose libraries, Trollope chose the Post Office. They didn’t have the option of teaching Creative Writing. But we do, and I think it’s an excellent choice. For many years, artists and musicians have supported themselves by passing on their craft, and I think it’s probably the best solution we can devise. I’ll tell you why, but, first of all, some number crunching.

Here’s the good news: in 1990 there were a few MAs in Creative Writing in the UK. The first BA started in 1990. Now we have dozens of MAs, and undergraduate courses in 79 universities. Numbers are quite hard to come by, but we may have as many as 400 current PhD students across the country. We are a growth industry.  According to HESA figures, there are 6,465 Creative Writing students in the UK. I suspect that’s an underestimate. The government continues to press for an increase in the number of undergraduates across all disciplines. The ratio of full-time staff to students has fallen across the country. At the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE), we are working hard on the development of a Creative Writing A Level. That will mean more need for writers in schools, but could also further boost the numbers of BA students and tutors for the teachers in the schools. And the Internet has opened up the possibilities still further. I am the External Examiner for the Open University’s outstanding online Creative Writing courses. In the year it was first offered, they had over 2,000 students enrol. This year, they have 259 tutors across the country. And the programme is rolling out year by year, up to MA level. So the need for tutors will grow, there and at the Open College of the Arts. These online tutoring jobs have one great advantage of course – they overcome the ‘can you do Mondays’ problem. You log on when you want to. If you prefer to get up in the morning and write, you can choose to be a part-time tutor in the afternoons. It’s sometimes assumed that part-time lecturers are full-time lecturers in waiting, undertaking a teaching apprenticeship, but for many people it’s a life choice, so they can continue their writing. You may well not want to take up formal administrative roles and get into my managerial predicament.

Creative Writing  will continue to depend heavily on part-time staff, but there is ongoing debate about who should be teaching Creative Writing in higher education and what qualifications should be required. In many ways, it’s still a fledgling subject in this country, and, as  we only produced the benchmarking statements this year (see references), we are still working out what the qualifications ought to be. Some universities have discovered that having a big name writer on the books will increase student numbers, which boosts the income, and, in a happy circle, creates more work for part-timers. Many big-name writers are very good and understand the needs of academia, but some are less fully engaged with, for example, the careful work which has gone on into developing rigorous assessment criteria. At the other end of the scale, I know a number of people who are brilliant teachers and editors, who aren’t writers themselves at all, but who know how to bring out the best in their students. And in the middle are the growing number of writers who are working part-time. Many of them have BAs in English literature, although a growing number have studied Creative Writing at undergraduate level. Quite a lot have MAs in Creative Writing. Many are  aware that the entry level to higher education teaching for older subjects, like English and history, is the PhD, so lots are combining their own writing with getting a qualification, by taking a practice-based doctorate, where their own writing is the object of study. So what is, or should be, the entry qualification to work as a Creative Writing tutor – do you have to be a published writer (and what constitutes ‘published’ – is it a few poems or is it three novels?) or could you be an unpublished writer (you are still a writer – it’s still who you are) who has a PhD in Creative Writing and really understands the academic subject? My sense is that we are moving towards a greater professionalisation of this as an academic career, and, in the future, we will be hoping to find tutors who are published, who have teaching experience and who have an MA in the subject, so understand from both angles the questions of academic progression. With grade inflation, that MA may soon become a PhD. Increasingly, universities are expecting their staff to have a teaching qualification – a Post Graduate Certificate in Higher Education (PGCHE). Should people who are working hard to gain those qualifications be pipped at the post by best-selling authors without any understanding of the subject discipline?

I’ve talked about the problems and the debates. Let’s take a minute to think about the advantages.

Find out how you can avail yourself of university training and staff development. Ask about the criteria for visiting lecturer to associate lecturer conversion.

The first is that the teaching feeds your own writing. We can learn from the mistakes of students and be inspired by the work of our students. It makes us search out examples, keeps us extending our own reading (and we know how reading feeds our writing – if only we could persuade all our students of this).

It enables us to think and talk about writing in a way we might not have time for if we were earning a living in a less complicated way, like working in McDonald’s, and certainly provides more intellectual stimulation. We know that writing, is essentially, solitary, but this job keeps us in touch with a community of writers who understand this strange compulsion, with all its attendant joys and disappointments. Lecturing in higher education is still an occupation with a high degree of autonomy, which suits creative people. The difficulty of managing our time makes us more disciplined and focussed as writers, making better use of our writing time. And one of the greatest things for me is the pleasure of sharing what we know, and seeing emergent writers bloom under our care, in many cases giving them what we wish we’d had ourselves when we were starting out. So I think part-time teaching can be a wonderful way of getting this three-legged stool to balance, and Creative Writing departments gain enormously from the energy and enthusiasm of visiting lecturers who aren’t burdened with administrative tasks and RAE or Enterprise expectations.

There are a number of things which part-timers can do to help this to work even better.

First of all, make an appointment to talk to your head of department: ask for a peer teaching observation so you can find out how to improve your teaching; ask if you can observe permanent staff teaching (I love doing peer observations – I always learn something); ask  if you could have an appraisal; tell them what other things you could teach; if the timing is right, ask them to include  your details in module and programme handbooks so students see you as a real member of the department. Find out how you can avail yourself of university training and staff development. Ask about the criteria for visiting lecturer to associate lecturer conversion. Find out if your institution offers part-timers a right to funding for research and staff development. Think about working with other part-timers and volunteering on a rota basis to  attend meetings. If you are new, make sure you understand the assessment expectations of your programme, and ask to see marked work from the last assessment point. Ask if you can be added to distribution lists so you know what’s going on in the department. Ask for a mentor. Make friends with the administrative staff and caretakers. Offer to debrief at the end of the module so the programme leader knows what was good. Find out if you can get reduced rates on the PGCHE course or other training sessions, so you can increase your employability.

Second, make sure you understand your rights as a part-time employee. Find out about your right to holiday and maternity pay, join UCU, the College and University lecturers‘ trade union. They campaign actively for part-time staff.

Third, read and download the English Subject Centre’s excellent resources for part-timers, Part-time Teaching: A Good Practice Guide, and Creative Writing: A Good Practice Guide. Also have a look at Robert Sheppard’s report on the role of critical discourses in teaching and learning Creative Writing on this website.

Fourth, join NAWE, or, better still, persuade your employers to take out institutional membership, so you get copies of our journal, Writing in Education, and a reduced rate for our annual conference. Fifth, find out about the organisation literaturetraining, which offers the most comprehensive service to enable you to take charge of your own career development.

Finally, and most importantly, somehow carve out the time and space to keep writing. It’s who you are, and it’s what will keep you stable and ensure that you keep your balance.

One Part-timer’s View

Emma Hardy, University of Salford

I began teaching in 2007, and, in a relatively short space of time, I have developed a portfolio of rewarding part-time teaching jobs and I’ve established the work/life-/writing balance, that Maggie Butt describes as our ‘three-legged stool’. Since fellow part-timers are often surprised that I have a positive relationship with the higher education institutions I work for, I decided to try to capture what works well for me at the University of Salford.

The key issue for many Creative Writing part-timers is the difference between how we view our role and how our institutions do. Part-timers in Creative Writing are writers who teach, so teaching part-time is, increasingly, a positive choice for us, rather than settling for second best. Since most writers do not earn enough from their writing to survive, there’s no way of skirting round the fact that part-timers teach for the cold hard cash. Yet we are passionate about teaching Creative Writing and can instil in our students the enthusiasm and focus of the jobbing writer. Like other part-timers, I work at several institutions, including Salford and the Open University. I also teach in community and adult education, in schools and on residential courses. I work to my own timetable and have an ever-changing portfolio; teaching within HE is just one part of my job as a freelance Creative Writing tutor.

Good practice

Colleagues at the English Subject Centre event in January raised a number of issues that I haven’t had to deal with at Salford.  What does this institution do to makes things so much easier?  Colleagues have been keen to give me their time and support. In return, I have given my time and dedication to the role. It is a two-way process; the part-timer needs the institution and the institution needs the part-timer.
Contractual issues are the prime worry for part-timers. I have my contract for the year established at the start of semester one. Additional work may be offered at the start of semester two – without any pressure for me to take the offer up. My colleagues treat my time with respect; I can request that my teaching work is allocated on certain days of the week and I know that my request will be accommodated if possible. There’s more to teaching than the time spent in the classroom, and this is acknowledged by Salford by allocating office hours per module in my contract, alongside teaching and marking hours.

Being in the loop is vital. I attend departmental team meetings on an unpaid basis, but then colleagues do try to schedule them to take place on days when I am on campus and would otherwise be on a break. I’ve also been paid to attend non-teaching events, found out about other work and been offered funded places at conferences on the back of my enthusiasm for my role and my willingness to be involved with the department.  I believe my ‘going beyond the essential’ approach to teaching and working as a part-timer has helped me to progress quickly.

At Salford, each member of the Creative Writing team is viewed primarily a writer. We have readings of all tutors’ writing each semester. Information about the creative work of all team members is promoted to students and via the university intranet. The department has its own Creative Writing workshop group which gives us the opportunity to appreciate one another’s approach to writing. We attend productions and readings of each other’s work whenever possible.

In addition to the advice provided by Maggie Butt, there are a few other key points I have for departments and individuals in a part-time relationship: 

Key points for departments

•  Allocate your part-timer a tray in the post room and give hem a proper e-mail address. A student isn’t going to be filled with confidence if they have to e-mail next week’s assignment to ‘temp876@youruni.ac.uk’.
•  Make bookable rooms/offices available for part-timers to use, if required.
•  On initial appointment, provide your part-timer with your assessment procedures, including samples of marked work.
•  Provide practical information with your part-timer’s contract. Give your part-timer an administrative guide to the department. How else will thet know where to get their timesheets processed, who the school administrator is and where the photocopiers are hidden?
•  Put photographs of your staff up on a wall near the faculty office. Putting a face to a name helps all members of the department.

Key points for part-timers

•  Let your colleagues know you want to attend team meetings; they will appreciate your input. You can’t raise issues that you have come across as a part-timer if you aren’t there to do so.
•  Attend campus events and meetings and use them to demonstrate how you are an involved, dedicated member of staff.
•  Ask if there is a discretionary fund to attend external courses, such as English Subject Centre or NAWE events.  When you can, go along, even if you won’t be paid for doing so.
•  Have other work you can fall back on should teaching work dry up for a semester: exam invigilating, support tutoring and personal tutoring are popular choices.
•  Know your university and make use of the services and facilities available to you such as IT facilities, libraries, sports centre and health services.

Notes

NAWE – The National Association of Writers in Education
www.nawe.co.uk

Creative Writing Teaching and Research Benchmark Statements
www.tinyurl.com/d4foqv

literaturetraining
www.literaturetraining.com

References

1  ‘Part-time’, ‘hourly paid’ and ‘visiting lecturer’ are all  names for the same thing.  Research shows that the lecturers themselves prefer to be called Visiting Lecturers.

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