In the era of Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø, crime fiction is enjoying a resurgence. But, when it comes to academic interest, whodunnits have more likely been found on literature courses rather than in criminology departments.
This divide is being challenged by a group of Spanish academics, who have taken the unusual step of commissioning leading crime authors to write novellas that could be used as learning materials on undergraduate criminology degrees.
The project at the Open University of Catalonia is designed to test whether fictional narratives can help students engage with and understand key concepts in their courses, and whether the texts can act as intellectual catalysts for critical reflection.
Lluís Pastor, director of UOC’s e-Learn Center, initiated the experiment by contacting Andreu Martín, who he described as “the most famous Catalan writer of thrillers”, to ask for suggestions of authors who might like to take part, only for him to take up what sounded like an interesting professional challenge himself.
The project resulted in two short stories: Complex Olímpia, a crime novel by Mr Martín, and De Fora Vindran, by Alexis Ravelo, which focuses on social issues.
According to Professor Pastor, there was a clear division of responsibilities in the creative process: “The professors certify the level of knowledge and the writers certify the level of entertainment.”
Teaching staff compiled key concepts and information that the novellas should cover, and offered guidance on the functions of key players such as judges and the police, while also offering insights on key areas of academic debate. Meanwhile, the authors created characters that readers could identify with, engaging themes such as love and conflict, and plot elements including surprise, suspense and mystery.
Innovative elements of the novellas included the use of bold to highlight words considered important to learning processes and their inclusion in an index offering further theoretical detail, as well as a recommended reading list of novels and films on similar subjects.
According to a paper on the project written by Professor Pastor and colleagues and published in Studies in Higher Education, students’ responses to the novellas were broadly positive. Among the 113 students who responded to a questionnaire about the teaching technique, the average rating for the novellas as learning materials was 3.9 out of five.
Asked whether the texts helped them to understand concepts better than traditional teaching materials, the average answer was 3.7, while the same score was given when students were asked whether the novellas boosted interest and improved motivation.
Not everyone was convinced: 11 per cent of respondents highlighted what they felt were the poor narrative qualities of the stories: one student described a text as being “such a simple story that seemed written for young children”, while another described a novella as “an unnatural story where several theoretical elements have been inserted in a way that sounds inauthentic”.
Professor Pastor, however, believes that the overall impact has been positive. With novellas now being used to teach communications, psychology and technology as well as criminology at UOC, he hoped “to eventually introduce them into all subject areas”.