Giving up face-to-face teaching, by Elizabeth Kay

I’ve been an adult education tutor for forty-five years, for both art and creative writing. It’s not the teaching that’s led to this decision, as I enjoy it, but the journey. It’s 17 minutes by car in the evening, when there’s no traffic, but it can be two hours in the morning, and also in the afternoon, due to school runs. And the later I am, the less chance there is of finding a parking space. There’s no direct route by public transport, either, and I have to carry a lot of equipment. So for a class that starts at 9.45 I leave at 8am to be sure of getting there on time. I live close to the M25, and all it takes is a hold-up there for the knock-on effect to mean gridlock in every direction. I’ve put off retiring because I’ve been begged to stay, but I’ve simply had enough. The trapeziectomy on my wrist in December meant that I couldn’t drive, so kind students picked me up and dropped me off. And now that I’ve fractured a rib I’m in the same position once again. So. Enough is enough. I shall continue tutoring for the Open College of the Arts on their creative writing courses, as it’s all online, but I am going to miss the to-and-fro of the classroom.
Watercolour - my favourite medium
            I’m often asked whether there is any point in teaching creative writing. Art is different – you can demonstrate watercolour techniques, and watch someone as they work and suggest where they’re going wrong. There’s a lot of psychology in it, as well. If you can make people laugh you’re halfway towards getting them to accept criticism. My favourite line for a disastrous painting is: “It has a charm all its own.” You can’t do that online, as the expression on your face and your tone of voice are vital. With creative writing the benefits are rather different – you have a whole class of people who will pick up different things in a piece of work when it’s read out.
            I ran my class the same way for many years, and this is the handout I gave so that people knew what they were signing up for:

This is a general class, which hopes to cover a number of different genres and approaches. The structure of the class is as follows: I talk about a topic, such as a particular poetry form, or action sequences, or viewpoint, and I set a homework based on this. (I don’t think in all the decades I’ve been teaching I’ve set exactly the same piece twice. There’s always a new take on an old theme.) The homework is optional, as I know that frequently life intervenes, and there’s no time to do it. Also, you may have a much better idea than the one I’ve set, so go for it. Some students in the past have been writing books, and they submitted chapters of work-in-progress rather than the homework.
The following week, the work is placed on my desk, with both the author’s name and the wordcount, if the work is prose. For prose, I like a word limit of 1,000, although there may be exceptions for specific reasons such as a competition story. I then hand it out to someone else to read, so that the writer isn’t sitting there thinking, everyone knows it’s mine; I have just lost the will to live.  This method does have considerable advantages. If you’re reading your own work, you’re not really listening to it. If someone else reads it, they may interpret your stresses differently. You may discover that people laugh at bits you didn’t mean them to laugh at, or they don’t smile when you hoped they would. And if you hear someone snoring, you may wish to re-write part of it in the privacy of your own home… You do not have to read someone else’s work if you don’t want to. It’s perfectly acceptable to submit regularly, but choose never to read. If the homework is poetry, I like people to print out enough copies for at least one poem between two. This is because poetry is so dense that we can’t take it in on one or even two readings. If the homework is in play form, please print out enough copies for the number of people in the script. The class situation works particularly well in this instance, as you can hear your work read by several voices, as in a radio play.
We all try to keep our eyes open for competitions, as the short story market is limited and it’s a good outlet. If you see some entry forms, grab a handful and bring them in for everyone else. We also mention good books we’ve read, lectures and poetry readings we may hear of, and personal publication successes.
Recently, an increasing number of students have been self-publishing, both electronically and in paperback – I’ve done it myself, as there is no longer any stigma attached to it. There is consequently plenty of advice available for anyone who wishes to have a go at this. Quite a few professional writers have chosen to go along this path as the royalties are better. This class should be fun, and not a trial – criticism should be positive and encouraging, but always honest.

I usually point students in the direction of Electric Authors for advice on self-publishing. I have been teaching some students for many years, and they have become good friends. We get the occasional success, when someone has a short story published, or wins a competition. However, the best result was for a student I had through the Open College of the Arts. Paul Beaumont's book, A BriefEternity, was eventually published by a conventional route, and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. I’m going to miss class teaching. But I’m not going to miss driving in the rush hour!

PS. I held a party in my garden a week after the final class, inviting staff and students past and present. Great fun!


Umberto Tosi said…
Teachers are my heroes! You've certainly done your share, and inspired as well as instructed many a student who will treasure your classes going forward. Best of luck as you move forward. Sounds like you'll be invited back for guest teaching spots many a time, if you choose to accept.
Griselda Heppel said…
Well, I'd have come to one of your creative writing classes. I like the sound of your method very much, especially arranging for people to read out each other's work so no one knows it's yours and you can cringe quietly to yourself - or be pleasantly surprised at the things that go down well. But a 2 hour commute! Enough already. You've done amazingly to bear it for so long.

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