Quest for a new word order

October 8, 2004

With universities looking abroad for intellectual inspiration and for students, the profile of distance learning is rising, writes Harriet Swain.

One of those to recognise its potential is Graham Mort, director of postgraduate studies in creative writing at Lancaster University, who set up a project to put young African writers in touch with professional author-mentors in the UK.

He started Crossing Borders after a 2001 writing residency in Uganda introduced him to young African writers hungry for access to contemporary literature and contact with UK writers.

The project has expanded to include eight African countries and 30 mentors from cultural backgrounds ranging from Wales to Sri Lanka. It also has a website where writers can discuss writing practice and technique, and Lancaster is to gain two writers in residence - from Canada and from Uganda.

This is only one way that the scheme, run as a British Council-funded research project, is influencing teaching of Lancaster's masters in creative writing.

There are overlaps between the masters teaching techniques and those of the project's mentors: in both cases, students submit an original piece of creative writing, alongside reflections on the creative processes involved in producing it. The project has given the masters an international feel attractive to overseas students.

Mort says a key concern was to avoid the colonial overtones of senior UK writers forcing African writers to conform to English writing norms. He stresses it is about cultural exchange. Some tutors are second-generation African, while students want to write in English to reach a wider audience.

Creative writing, says Mort, is ideally suited to distance learning since the relationship between a teacher and student who have never met echoes that of reader and writer.

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