PhD Supervision in Creative Writing
Developments in PhD supervision in Creative Writing have been characterised by three things: increased use of virtual learning; growth in recruitment; an increasingly transcultural postgraduate community. Those characteristics are closely linked and have proceeded from innovations in pedagogy that have re-defined the PhD as a research programme and re-positioned Lancaster as a virtual rather than an actual centre for research.
The presence of a distance learning MA programme in Creative Writing led to the development of bespoke Virtual Learning Environment’s that allowed students to interact with their individual tutors and engage in group activities with their peers. The logic of such provision at MA level led to the development of a virtual platform for a new PhD in which a student could study on campus, by virtual means, or by a form of blended learning that allowed them to modulate between the two. The PhD LUVLE site has facilities for the deposit and retrieval of student work and supervisory reports, online research training modules, online work-in-progress conferences, a café, announcements, news area, individual learning logs, profiles of all students and staff members, including their research topics.
These facilities allow students to engage in research for a doctoral award from anywhere in the world and we now have students in Sweden, Japan, the USA, the Caribbean, Malta and parts of mainland Europe. Some of those students elect to spend a year at Lancaster meeting their supervisor face-to-face before returning home. Such movement is facilitated by the ‘core virtuality’ of the programme.
The advantage of online research training lies in the development of a resource that students can access when they most need it, rather than having it front-loaded in year one. The learning logs have re-defined the bureaucracy used to record supervision as a dynamic and flexible exchange that both records and extends its dialogue. We have also developed an archive of successful theses that students can access online.
Virtual teaching and learning methods for creative writers are linked to the virtual nature of literature itself, which depends largely upon imaginative realisation. Readers and writers don’t actually meet, but nevertheless engage through a written text. So our virtual environment is a rich textual one, which explores pedagogic exchange through ‘writerly’ strategies. Students receive detailed reports on their work from supervisors and peers as well as engaging in regular exchange through the learning log. The outputs of virtual exchange are also permanent ones, so the ‘research resource’ develops and is enriched as the PhD progresses: a uniquely personal archive of correspondence between students and supervisors that can be reviewed at any point in their studies.
A key factor in these developments has been a process of cultural exchange: between supervisors and students and also within the online work-in-progress group sessions. Students working in English from very different cultures ‘meet’ and discuss – sometimes fiercely debate – issues relating to language, cultural context, cultural practice and power relations. This has now become a defining characteristic of our provision at Lancaster and one that has led to a steady stream of research application with transcultural themes.
The use of the VLE enables an immediate overview of every student: their profile, their research topic and even the exchanges with their supervisor. If there are problems and my help is sought, then its relatively easy to visit the site and take a look at some supervisory exchanges. That spirit of transparency can be a good way to generate and share (with permission) good practice for less experienced supervisors, enabling professional development as well as educational exchange.