Creative Writing inhabits an unusual place in the academy. A well-established and rigorous academic discipline, it also maintains a relationship with commercial publishing with many of today’s successful writers having an MA in the subject.
The aim of our scholarship project, The Next Chapter, was to understand the career aspirations of students on the Open University’s MA in Creative Writing, and to develop teaching and assessment to support them.
There’s an assumption that all students signing up for an MA in Creative Writing share the ambition of becoming published authors. We’d designed the Open University MA with that in mind, and embedded teaching on how to develop a career as a writer into the programme. This includes virtual ‘visits’ to online forums from industry professionals such as literary agents and editors, as well as assessment on core skills like synopsis writing. However, since the MA launched in 2016 we have noticed two factors that prompted us to undertake this project. The first was the relatively low levels of engagement with the industry professionals, and the second was objections from some students to the assessment of professional practice. We wanted to gather the views from as many students as possible to better understand why they were doing the MA, and whether they thought the professional practice elements would help them achieve their objectives.
To do this we developed an online survey, with questions on all these areas of interest. The MA is delivered in two modules, both starting in early October of each year. Part 1 runs for eight months, and Part 2 for twelve months, so we timed the survey to capture the views of three cohorts of students: those who had just started Part 1; those who had completed Part 1 and were beginning Part 2; and those who were nearly at the end of Part 2. Naturally, the questions had to be modified to make them appropriate for the stage of study, but all three surveys covered the same main aspects of the students’ experience:
- Their motivations for doing the MA
- Their writing aspirations
- Their views on the teaching of professional practice (including engagement with the industry professionals’ visits)
- Their views on the value of assessing professional practice
We had responses from 167 students, approximately 35% of the 474 students who were sent the survey.
Looking at the motivations for doing the MA across all three cohorts, 63% said they wanted to be published writers, while 16% were doing the MA mainly for enjoyment. 8% wanted to improve their writing skills, with another 8% studying to help their career. So, while a sizeable proportion of students were primarily motivated by their desire to be published, over a third had other reasons for taking the MA. The 16% studying mainly for enjoyment suggests that the ‘leisure learner’ is an important component of the student intake. One interesting finding was that 41% of students had already been published prior to starting the MA, usually in small press journals or through self-publishing.
The vast majority of students had ambitions to be traditionally published – between 54%-79% across the three cohorts – and this was ‘Extremely important’ or ‘Somewhat important’ to 75% of them.
We also asked students to reflect on what their ambitions and intentions were for after they had completed the MA. The combined responses show that 30% of students want to write part-time, with 22% aspiring to be full-time writers. Somewhat surprisingly to us, only 10% of students hoped to teach Creative Writing. An MA is often considered a necessary or advantageous qualification for Creative Writing teaching even in informal settings, but it would seem it was not a significant motivator for this cohort of students. Another surprising result was that nearly a quarter (23%) of students were interested in pursuing further Creative Writing studies, such as a PhD.
Engagement with the professional practice forums was low among Part 1 students, with 16% posting on these forums. Part 2 students seemed more engaged, with 49% of the surveyed students saying they had posted questions or comments. The reasons students gave for not participating were: they didn’t have time (16%); they didn’t feel confident enough (12%); they didn’t post a question because someone else had already asked it (48%). This final figure is backed up by the reported high degree of ‘passive’ use of the forums – i.e. students reading and learning from others’ posts.
When it comes to the assessment of professional practice, the majority of students (62.7%) had not expected to be assessed on elements pertaining to publishing. However, for students approaching the end of the degree, 66% felt it was appropriate that this element should be included in their assessed work, while the remaining 34% thought the task should either be zero weighted or not part of the assessment, at all.
We are already putting the data we’ve gathered to practical use. For example, we’ve acknowledged the appetite for doctoral study by running a workshop for MA students in Creative Writing and English on how to write a PhD proposal. In its first year, this was well-attended.
In response to our more nuanced understanding of the range of student ambitions, we are now working with the Society of Authors (essentially, the union for professional writers) to deliver some collaborative teaching which focuses on the various ways that students might build a working life which includes writing. This is a shift away from the original attention paid to more traditional mainstream publishing success. In a smaller sense, we’ve tweaked the professional practice assessment task in Part 2 of the MA to bring it into line with current publishing practice. We will seriously consider the weighting of this assessment, in light of student comments arising from the scholarship project.
In conclusion, this project has been invaluable in providing us with a detailed insight into the students’ aspirations, and their views on how well the MA supports them in achieving these. It has also given us solid data on which to base important decisions about continuing to develop and improve what we offer to our students in future.
Dr Ed Hogan, Lecturer in Creative Writing
Dr Heather Richardson, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing