Tuesday, 31 December 2013
Resolution and Goodbye to Teaching
The problem with the blog has been that I expect to write brief essays and there hasn't been the time recently. But I do resolve to write something on every possible day henceforth, however brief, however minor or fragmentary.
Meanwhile a short farewell note on teaching.
I have retired as a teacher. In fact today is my last official day of employment. My teaching career is over, in a salaried institutional capacity at any rate.
Teaching has been forty years of my life from 1973 on, for the first year as a part-time Art teacher in Cheshunt, the next as a part-time English teacher at a Hitchin school. After that six years first as full-time teacher of Art then as Head of Art in Hitchin Girls' School, followed by twelve years as Director of Art and Art History at St Christopher's in Letchworth, a progressive, independent, vegetarian school where Clarissa also taught and where our children did their own schooling. In 1991 I was asked to draft a poetry course for a new BA in Cultural Studies at what was then Norwich School of Art. I started teaching it on a contracted hours basis in 1992, then, two years later was offered salaried half-time work (I had already opted for a fractional post at the school) and we moved address to where we live now. In the meantime Tom read Computer Science at Bristol and Helen read English at Magdalen College, Oxford. After 1992 I taught poetry and ran the creative writing part of the Cultural Studies degree (which changed its name two or three times in the period) until 2006 when I was asked to apply as a Reader in Creative Writing at UEA, regarded at the time as the leading university for creative writing in the UK, possibly in the world. That is where I have just finished.
In the rest of my life I was writing. I have been publishing books of poetry since 1978 and have been translating from the Hungarian since 1984. But that was independent of teaching and, mostly, nothing to do with it apart from the fact that between 1975 and 1991 I wrote a play or libretto a year, usually as a production for school. Those things may continue to blow about as dust in the desert but I enjoyed writing and producing them and some of them, by no means all, had something to recommend them.
Teaching was mostly exciting: the roll call of those I taught (along with colleagues of course, chiefly Peter Scupham and Andrea Holland and, latterly, Denise Riley and Lavinia Greenlaw) who have become widely published and recognized poets is considerable, on average close to two a year. If one can be proud of the success of others I am very proud of them. There are still others who were and continue to be outstanding writers who should be better known. I wish them luck and am just as proud of them.
I think what I chiefly taught was close listening and close reading, which is of far greater use to a developing writer than any amount of theory, however valuable that might be as an informing discipline. The rest was a perpetual willingness to laugh, a good deal of patience and simply a keen curiosity about what might have been going on in the words of young potential writers. There were times I was hands-on in a way not generally approved ("Why not scrub this, why not move this to there, why not raise or lower stakes here or there, have you tried this or that word…" etc). But the writers all turned out differently. I don't think there is a recognizable spawn of Szirtes, and if there isn't, it is probably because of a personal curiosity. I never consciously preferred one way of writing - or, perhaps even more importantly, one way of feeling - over another. Somewhere in the text I was reading I assumed there was some reason for its existence, or at least an opportunity within it that might lead somewhere.
That is what tutorials were about. The class teaching was not a matter of teaching tricks - there are few tricks that are worth teaching - it was, with the postgraduates, the encouragement of a culture of generous but intense listening (don't immediately tell us whether you like the writing, first try to describe what it is and what it seems to be doing), and, with the undergraduates, a strong interest in discussing the principles of poetry and language, and in introducing works that demonstrated a reasonable range of options.
The original undergraduate course involved five semesters of reading and writing with terms devoted to Poetry as Song, Poetry as Narrative, Poetry as Ideas, and Poetry as Reports on Experience. So there were ten divergent selections of song, ten of idea, ten of narrative and ten of essentially descriptive verse. Not that these were clear distinctions in themselves, but that they were useful ways of entering discussion. Today I would probably extend this with a course in Poetry as Register, and Poetry as Voice.
Shaw told the world that those who can, do and that those who can't, teach. It was a cruel thing to say. Almost everyone has taught: all the great masters of visual art had their schools, most writers had friends to whom they looked for criticism and advice. That is, in essence, all teaching is. It is a sort of friendship based on common interest within a framework. The friendship may well continue once the framework falls away. It is a human exchange based on curiosity, generosity, wit, and close attention.
As for the institutions, they exist as frameworks that facilitate such human exchanges. It is their only proper function. The current drive towards an ever more corporate business model is the opposite of learning: it operates on the lines of the nineteenth century mill glossed by twenty-first century public relations. The UEA is fine at the moment - long may it continue to be. I am leaving at a point when that drive is ever more in the ascendant in many places. It is to be resisted and ridiculed. The human spirit can do better than that.