Creative rigour

June 22, 2017

Does Paul G. Ellis really believe that a PhD in creative writing does not involve “intense intellectual capability and effort” (Letters, 15 June)? I am sure that he is familiar with the Quality Assurance Agency’s Subject Benchmark Statement for creative writing, which establishes what is required at BA level in creative writing and can extrapolate from that to gauge what might be required at MA and PhD levels in terms of “academic integrity”.

I am assuming that he must also have looked at some PhDs in creative writing. In case he has not, I would like to offer two of my current PhDs as examples. One is engaged in practice-based research into home, displacement and memory. This will produce a volume-length sequence of poems exploring this area. The candidate will also produce a 40,000-word dissertation, which, in the first year of research, has involved, in addition to literary critical work on the poetry of Carolyn Forché, extensive reading in the theorisation of space and an engagement with Derridean hauntology.

The other, working on the poetry of disaster, besides developing her practice-based research in this field and exploring the literature of disaster, has spent some of her first year taking an MA module on disaster theory to equip herself with the disciplinary framework for the 40,000-word dissertation that she will write.

Ellis seems to privilege “logic and maths” as the only forms of intellectual and academic integrity – as the only forms of knowledge and knowledge production. Practice-based research has long been accepted as a form of knowledge production. Fiction, poetry and other creative work produce knowledge and challenge the privileging of “logic”. Ellis’ apparent ignorance of the master of fine arts degree – and of the difference between the MFA and the PhD in creative writing – suggest that his research in this area has been something less than rigorous.

Robert Hampson
Director of the MA in creative writing
Royal Holloway, University of London


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Finally, the promised reply, together with indications of a possible longer reply, all assuming Professor Hampson’s rejoinder was not simply postmodern irony: The short reply: virtually every one of the above assertions can be countered, on the basis of: a) Detailed considerations from over 100 references (listed below), unfortunately needing more time and space to present coherently than is available at present. b) Unexpectedly, perhaps: significant personal experience of the performance world, both semi-professional and professional (in addition to STEM-type research to post-doc’ level), including: o employment in a PhD-awarding performing arts institution, for some years o elsewhere, a close (but strictly-professional) working relationship with a creative writer who’s been awarded a PhD in that subject o a modest amount of published and unpublished creative writing (some even of a hauntological character) plus a considerable body of academic editing. The long reply requires completion of what might prove to be a novel line of argument exploiting distinctions between natural and formal languages, also augmented by some of the listed references. “To a teacher of postmodern thought there comes a time when the world is but a place of many words and man appears a mere talking animal not much more wonderful than a parrot.” (with apologies to Conrad.) 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