General, Lecturers, pedagogy

The Covid-19 crisis: views of a Creative Writing lecturer

Dr Judith Heneghan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Winchester tells us how the Covid lockdown is affecting her work.

About the University of Winchester

The University of Winchester traces its origins to a teacher training institution founded in the mid-nineteenth century. This became known as King Alfred’s College, and in the late twentieth century it began to offer degrees in the humanities and performing arts, as well as education. It was awarded university status in 2005 and now consists of four main faculties: Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Business, Law and Sport and Education, Health and Social Care. There are approximately 8000 students, the majority from the UK (roughly 6% are from overseas). The Creative Writing programmes are located within the Department of English, Creative Writing and American Studies and offer a range of single and combined honours degrees at the levels of BA, MA and PhD.

 Please tell us a little bit about the disciplines you teach in and the courses you teach. How many students are in each course/lecture, the make-up of the student body. How did you typically teach before the Covid-19 crisis?

I teach Creative Writing at undergraduate and Masters levels, and also supervise a couple of PhD students. Creative Writing as a discipline is long-established at Winchester. Cohorts are a mix of home and international students, pursuing full-time or part-time study. Classes usually take the form of classroom-based seminars for groups of between 14 and 28 students. The writing workshop is a key component of our approach and features peer critiquing and small-group discussion.

Please describe the restrictions that have been applied at your city and your institution as a result of the coronavirus.  When were they first put in place?  Are your offices closed? If so, are you and your colleagues working from home?  How do you do this in practice?

From 23 March onwards, when the nationwide ‘lockdown’ began, the University closed to all but essential personnel. I had already begun to work from home and therefore continued to do so. I arranged to pick up a monitor from my office so that I could have two screens set up on my dining room table, which has now become my ‘home office’. Email traffic has not been much changed by lockdown, but I have been using my mobile phone to a much greater extent, mainly to communicate with colleagues.

Have you been teaching remotely, and if so, for how long? Is it a new experience for you and the students? Which software do you use and is it working well? What about exams? 

The timing of semesters at Winchester and the nature of Creative Writing as a subject means that I have not yet had to do very much remote teaching. I had only two weeks of teaching left before classes concluded and I was able to deliver these sessions via Powerpoint presentations, notes and by setting up discussion threads on the University’s intranet. Tutorials were conducted via email, Zoom, MS Teams or phone calls, depending on the student’s own preference.  All of these have worked well as temporary measures. Creative Writing students don’t sit exams, and they have been submitting assignments online for the past two years. My time at the moment is mainly taken up with marking, which I can do at home.  However, when the new academic year starts in September much greater adjustment will be needed. The extent of this will depend on the levels of social distancing restrictions in place by then.  We may have to accommodate blended or online delivery for a longer period of time.

Which challenges have affected you most?  How have you dealt with them?  What are you most proud of having achieved during the emergency?  What would you say are the greatest challenges that your students are facing? How do they communicate with you?  We’d be very grateful if you could add some short anecdotes here!

Possibly the greatest challenge is the level of uncertainty we all have to cope with, especially when I look forward to September. Concluding the current academic year has been relatively straightforward for me personally, and students and staff have been remarkably flexible under the circumstances. Face time and video conferencing have created some welcome camaraderie as pets and family members make unscheduled appearances! However, the past few weeks have unquestionably been stressful for many of the students. One can only imagine their anxiety about current and future jobs, assignments, and access to resources and technology, and we’ll be doing all we can to support them through these uncertain times. Communication between lecturers and students is less of an issue than peer-to-peer learning and contact, which is very important because of the way our courses are structured, but also for socialising and networking; and this will continue to be a significant challenge until social distancing measures are eased.

Have you had access to the library? Are there ways in which the library can provide more help at the present time?  Have they already helped – for example, by providing access to more online content, offering scanning services, etc.? 

My understanding is that the university is indeed providing access to more online content etc.

Please give any further information you would like to add.  What do you think will happen when people gradually go back to university?  Will some things have changed permanently?  Can some good have come out of the crisis and its impact on the ways in which people work – e.g., by using distance learning more innovatively, being more creative with the development of teaching and learning materials?  What are the mid- to long-term impacts on teaching likely to be?

I think it is inevitable that online learning will increase. Necessity will drive innovation across all subjects and perhaps this in turn will extend to innovation in the way we offer traditional face-to-face learning and teaching, as the ‘blended’ classroom becomes more familiar to us all.

Tell us a little about yourself

I came to academia quite late, after an early career in publishing, having brought up four children. In 2000 I studied for an MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester, and when my first children’s books were published in 2005 I was invited back to teach. I was Director of the Winchester Writers’ Festival for six years, and now divide my time between lecturing and writing. My novel for adults, Snegurochka, was published by Salt in 2019.

[Written by Linda Bennett, Gold Leaf]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s