NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

What’s the point?

By Dr Julia Prendergast — Jared Diamond asked the acclaimed evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) why Aristotle didn’t come up with the theory of evolution. Mayr’s answer was “Frage stellen” which Diamond translates as “a way of asking questions [sic]” (Byrne 2013).

I love Mayr’s answer. In my approach to curriculum design and delivery I seek to encourage understanding of notions of authenticity, representation, collaboration and authorship. I aim to encourage undergraduate students to think about the way a particular way-of-asking, might generate a particular way-of-knowing and, indeed, a particular branch-of-knowledge.

Literary Industry Practice is a final year capstone unit in which undergraduate students work on a Creative Artefact or an Industry Project, of their choosing, together with reflective analysis. In this unit I facilitate opportunities to learn through “doing” and, that is, through the types of activities Jerome Bruner refers to as involving “participatory, proactive, communal, [and] collaborative” activities (1996: 84). Bruner’s broader concern is “the cultural ‘situatedness’ of all mental activity”, premised upon the claim that society “provides us with the toolkit by which we construct not only our worlds but our very conceptions of our selves and our powers” (1996: x).

Because students undertake projects of their choosing, the result is an interdisciplinary array of Professional and Creative Writing outcomes and activities – collectively emblematic of a rapidly changing society and a fast-paced industry. Students present and workshop both Creative Artefacts and Industry Projects in two scaffolded assessment tasks, presenting their thinking to academic staff and peers, as a way of working towards full reflective analysis upon completion of their project. The delivery is underpinned by established practice-led models, produced by pioneers in the discipline of Professional and Creative Writing: recognising that research “carried out by a practitioner in the course of performing their practice will involve […] research for practice […] research into practice […] research through practice” (Webb 2008: 1, emphasis in original).

Literary Industry Practice includes examples of challenges, successes and failures from my own Professional and Creative Practice and embeds established personal networks into curriculum as industry partners, for example: local, national and international festivals such as Speculate Literary Festival, Australian Short Story Festival, and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. These partner organisations provide students with professional networking and publication pathways through the following activities and roles: social media plans for literary festivals, editorial support assistants and publication production assistants, website technical support and content management, website design, communications support (eNewsletters etc) and content writing (with associated research and international media engagement responsibilities).

The assessment model requires students to undertake reflective analysis, as they progress. Students workshop their projects-in-progress in the classroom, providing feedback for their peers and applying their developing thinking to transferable contexts. Poets respond to editorial support interns – copyeditors respond to video essayists – fiction writers respond to book reviewers – website and social media content writers respond to transmedia storytellers – international media consultants respond to writers working in hybrid modes. As part of the presentations, students address challenges from practice – asking questions about their evolving artefact or project. During workshopping, students respond – applying their own problem-solving to the work of their peers – wrestling with questions of for, into and through, in collaboration with other practitioners and their projects. This replicates industry practice, which necessarily involves transdisciplinary engagement. I choose the prefix trans (disciplinary) specifically for the connotations: “across, beyond, crossing, on the other side” (Collins Dictionary) – such apt descriptors for creative problem-solving in the Arts, and beyond. As students think (through making) and respond to other thinkers (engaged in diverse acts of making) – they are inevitably entering into an understanding of how ways-of-asking inform ways-of-doing and, in turn, contribute to a body of knowledge and a community of practice. In Literary Industry Practice I ask students to produce peer-to-peer resources so that the unit learning outcomes are carried forward, over multiple iterations. This means students co-contribute to a community of practice. Extract from peer-to-peer learning resource:

I really, really think that my experience with 100-story building, being able to list that on my resume and say: I’m familiar with writing workshops for kids […] I think that was really influential in landing this job [at Melbourne Writers’ studio] which I’m now really enjoying.

In this way, the curriculum design is in keeping with Stein, Isaacs and Andrews’ definition of authentic learning as “authentic for the learner [individually] while simultaneously being authentic to a community of practice” and, that is, inclusive of objectives that combine “personal meaning and purposefulness within an appropriate social and disciplinary framework” (2004: 241).

I have been asked why I would “risk” professional relationships, which have taken many years to establish, to provide opportunities for undergraduates. I don’t subscribe to this line of inquiry, or should I say, following Mayr, this is not my way of asking questions. I write short and long form fiction. My practice-led research takes an interest in meta-cognition in creative practice: in particular, neuropsychoanalytic approaches. I share my creative and scholarly writing and my professional and industry connections with students because, well, why wouldn’t I? That is to say, what’s the point of being tasked with designing and delivering curriculum if it is not informed by my practice: by the diverse intersections that inform my social situatedness?

In sharing challenges, successes and failures from my own professional and creative practice with students, I aim to facilitate a community of practice in the classroom. Students come to understand that this represents a much broader community. In providing examples of recent activities and initiatives from our own practice – and inviting students to springboard from them and make them their own – we are inviting students to participate in a community of practice. Two recent examples include a creative writing / neuroscience project: a current collaboration between the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP) and the Science Art Network (ScAN). Participants are invited to produce creative writing responses to images of the living brain. Another example is The Incompleteness Book project (2020, 2021): in which participants write in response to the prompt ‘the incompleteness of human experience’, within the context of the current health crisis and its impacts. In thinking about why I provide students with these opportunities I address the question of “risk” from a different angle – I consider the risks of professional and creative writing curriculum that is not practice-led and industry-engaged.

A new tutor to Literary Industry Practice modelled the philosophy of the unit superbly. I ask tutors to provide an exemplar presentation for students, at two stages of delivery. I suggested the tutor might “reverse engineer” a recently commissioned poetry outcome or an industry role she has undertaken. She did better: she discussed a current project that she is working on and explained to the students that she is ‘doing the unit with them’ (August 2021, personal email correspondence). As we engage with students as emerging practitioners, within the context of a community of practice, we adhere to Audrey Rule’s overview of the themes of significance for authentic learning. Rule (2006: 2, 3, 4, 6) draws attention to: problems rooted in the real-world, learning through inquiry and thinking skills, discourse among a community of learners, and authentic (self-directed) learning. Risky? I’m not sure …

 

Works cited

Byrne, J 2014 ‘Jennifer Byrne Presents: Helen Garner’, The Book Club, ABC 1: https://www.abc.net.au/tv/firsttuesday/s4092311.htm

Collins dictionary: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/trans

Prendergast J 2020 (co-ed with S Strange and J Webb), The Incompleteness Book, Canberra: Recent Work Press.

Prendergast J 2020 (co-ed with E Herbert Goodall and J Webb, forthcoming), The Incompleteness Book, Canberra: Recent Work Press.

Rule A 2006, ‘Editorial: The components of authentic learning’, Journal of Authentic Learning, 3(1), 1–10.

Stein S, Isaacs G & Andrews T 2004, ‘Incorporating authentic learning experiences within a university course’, Studies in Higher Education 29: 2, Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis Ltd.

Webb J 2008, ‘Creative work as/and practice: The new paradigm’, Australia: Australasian Association of Writing Programs.

 


Julia Prendergast’s novel, The Earth Does Not Get Fat was published in 2018 (UWAP). Julia’s short stories feature in the current edition of Australian Short Stories. Other stories have been recognised and published: Lightship Anthology 2 (UK), Glimmer Train (US), TEXT (AU), Séan Ó Faoláin Competition (IE). Julia is a Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature, and Academic Director Pathways and Partnerships, Swinburne University, Melbourne. She is Chair of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs (AAWP), the peak academic body representing the discipline of Creative Writing in Australasia. Julia is a member of the Australian Short Story Festival board of management.

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