Bradbury charts creative sea change

January 23, 1998

A GREY light, washed from the sea, picked out the animated figures of academics, community workers and writers as they debated the future of creative writing among the cliff-top buildings of the University of Wales, Bangor...

Or, to bring things up to date with the current student trend for screen writing:

(A slim man wearing a long ponytail and tweed jacket steps up to the microphone to address more than 100 delegates to the first national symposium on writers and higher education) Graeme Harper, writer, lecturer at Bangor and symposium organiser: "Pretend you have had several glasses of new year cheer. We want to get some thoughts going."

University creative writing is going through a sea change, speakers including History Man author Malcolm Bradbury and playwright David Edgar told the symposium.

Professor Bradbury, who started the University of East Anglia's ground-breaking creative writing course nearly 30 years ago, said: "When we started out at UEA it was considered an offensive and aggressive practice. It was an American import like the hula hoop and a great deal of suspicion had to be overcome."

Now courses like that at UEA have become a respected part of the university establishment, in spite of constantly adapting to changing trends. The university was about to offer its first PhDs in screenwriting to satisfy popular demand.

Research carried out by Dr Harper found that dozens of courses involving creative writing were now forming part of university degrees. It was increasingly being treated as a subject in its own right.

He also found more cross-over between academic study of the subject and use of literature and drama in the community. In some institutions, creative writing was being used in courses in therapy and self-development.

Dr Harper, who compiled the research from surveys sent out to more than 500 people involved in university creative writing in 1995 and 1997, said he understood the picture had changed even further in the past year, particularly in relation to research.

Since the results of the research assessment exercise were published in December 1996 lecturers in creative writing have been pushing to be included in the next RAE round. Until now, many have been left out or classified as part of other subjects, such as education.

But Dr Harper said many of the writers surveyed still felt uncomfortable about being part of the university.

He said: "A lot of people said, 'I'm not an academic. I write.' Not one response mentioned the subject-based research needed to produce a work of poetry, fiction or drama."

The National Association of Writers in Education is forwarding a petition to the Higher Education Funding Council for England asking for creative work to be given equal weight to critical analysis in the RAE.

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