Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Dumbing down in creative writing

Well, you learn something new every day.

Yesterday's (better class) newspapers and television screens were full of a new set of proposals for transforming the examination procedures for young people who are about to leave British schools. In many instances, soon to be 50%, such young people will go on to university -- or what passes for a university in this day and age.

Some newspapers also carry reports that the bosses of British industry are less than thrilled with the new proposals, and would much rather that reform efforts were concentrated on a few simple objectives. Such as making sure that all school-leavers can read, write, spell, punctuate, and handle simple arithmetic. At present, one third of UK companies are forced to run their own remedial courses in numeracy and literacy for the young people who join them straight from school.

It really does beggar belief that, in the year 2004, we still have not managed to achieve something that seemed within our grasp a hundred years ago. What is worse, it is not merely the below-100-IQ group which suffers from these shortcomings. It is now quite common to receive a letter from a 'professional' person, such as an estate agent or even a solicitor, which is, in effect, no more than a jumble of words. I have sometimes received letters from such persons which, with the best will in the world, I could only classify as the outpourings of an illiterate moron.

Is it any wonder that people of my age conclude that the world in general, and the UK in particular, is going down the toilet tube at a rapid rate of knots? What is more, we are dead right in that conclusion.

It is in that depressing context that I turn to my main topic, which is the award of PhD degrees for so-called 'creative writing'. A few minutes ago I did a search for creative-writing courses at UK universities, and came up with 422 of them. Most of these are undergraduate courses, but I have also learnt, from the press, that it is now far from unknown for PhD degrees to be awarded in this subject.

I am not going to give links to the precise press stories which brought this revelation to me. If I did so, I might be thought to be criticising one particular individual, and that is not my intention. If an opportunity exists, and an enterprising lad takes advantage of it, good luck to him. But I do wish to comment on the general state of affairs.

According to one source, who is an academic at the University of London, and presumably knows what he is talking about, the standard practice for PhDs in creative writing 'is that the student submits an example of his/her creative writing [such as a novel], together with a critical commentary upon his/her writing practice.' The regulations at one university stipulate an upper limit of 15,000 words on this critical commentary.

The only other requirement is that the applicant must submit to an oral examination on his/her work.

Let me declare an interest. I myself have a PhD, in education. It was awarded by a university with rather high academic standards. If you want to read a version of my thesis, intended for the general reader, hunt down a copy of The Goals of Universities (ISBN 0 335 09504 6), published by the Open University Press in 1988.

The traditional route to taking a PhD at a UK university of any standing is to undertake three years of full-time study, under the supervision of a recognised authority in your chosen field. During those years you are expected to complete an original piece of research, and to write up your findings in the form of a thesis. Often, three years is not enough time to complete the work, and many students finish off their theses in years four and five, while earning their living somewhere else. In other words, a PhD is a formidable piece of work, not to be tackled lightly. Many a student has abandoned halfway through, or taken to the drink, or found that his wife has left him.

If you compare the traditional route to a PhD, as described above, with the procedure for obtaining a PhD in creative writing, also described above, even the layman can see that there is no comparison whatever. And it so happens that I am in a position to make a very detailed comparison indeed, because I am both the holder of a 'traditional' PhD and the author of a good many published novels.

Most of my novels were written while I was in full-time employment, and I kept records of the amount of time I spent on them. On average, a novel took me somewhere between 200 and 300 hours, an amount of time which can easily be found in the evenings and at weekends, if one happens to be interested in writing a novel. So, to get a PhD at a former polytechnic, now labelled a university, you need to put in about 250 hours on a novel, let's say another 50 hours on the critical commentary, and there you are.

The idea that such an enterprise compares with a traditional PhD, involving original research, is patently ridiculous. The amount of labour involved in the two different routes to the 'same' degree is not commensurate; and neither -- I can testify from experience of both -- is the intellectual grasp required.

What we have in a typical UK PhD in creative writing is therefore a dumbing down of intellectual and academic standards. I for one find that highly objectionable.

Not only is it objectionable but it is also patently ridiculous. What are you going to do with a PhD in creative writing anyway, once you've got it? Do you seriously imagine it's going to impress a publisher? The only thing that it's good for (so far as I can see) is helping you to get a job teaching creative writing. And then you can help lots of other people to get useless degrees in creative writing as well. And so the cycle of madness continues.


Anonymous said...

I understand your concern. But surely you can't lump all creative writing PhDs together? You may spend only 200-300 hours on a novel - that's 10 weeks full-time at the most, or double that if you do it in your spare time. Most people take a lot longer - and i suspect most serious literature would as well.

Unknown said...

Getting a PhD in Creative Writing doesn't guarantee publication afterwards...but surely it can, if anything, help you improve in your writing! It depends how much you love to write, and how much time, space you have available to do so. Sadly, depending on one's circumstances, writing might not be an option for sustained and thoughtful creative work during weekends and evenings! As a woman from Cyprus, who's always loved to write I can tell you this much: in Cyprus, you are not encouraged to wtite, you're not given time to write, and quite frankly with the set of cultural sexist obligations and the ridiculous cost of living in relation to the wages earned, you don't even have the space to write! So in my case, and I speak for many others also, a PhD in Creative Writing would be anything but useless. It would give me the time and space needed to work on my passion.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a very negative view of doctoral degrees in Creative Writing - tarring them all with the same brush. You say that a 'real' PhD involves original research, does a creative idea/work not also require a great deal of effort and originality, and hard work? Not every one can write a novel at the weekend. Besides some of these courses, even what some call the jumped up polytechnics provide funding to do them, and I don't know about you but to be offered three years to concentrate on writing to me would be a luxury, one I'd jump at.
I have done a Masters in Creative Writing at a so-called top ranking RAE university, and found the teaching standard there appalling, [yes they were all published and prized, but what did they know about teaching?] I have now come to believe, and this has certainly been my experience lately, it is often the small departments who may have less known tutors who [are qualified teachers] are far superior in terms of supervision, support and care.
You also ask why people do them, or what good they are? The fact is, in America, for example, to gain a position at university it is not enough any more to have written a book, you are also expected to have a PhD. It may go the same way in the UK eventually.

Anonymous said...

I bet a thousand dollars your novels, as you call them, were either self-published, or published by presses that would accept anything with a normal temperature.

John Wheway said...

First reaction is, your narrow minded prejudice hardly deserves comment. I'm pretty old and grumpy myself - but I'm finding doing a MA in Creative Writing is helping me to consider new possibilities, and is a good counterweight to the dumbing-down effect of the ageist identitites one is invited on all sides to assume - such as 'grumpy old...' Instead of rehearsing your prejudices, why not question them/ Liven up a little?

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