Tue 21 November 2017
Studying Writing
Studying Writing
Life after Graduation
Cyberstudent
Shay, Helen
Helen Shay writes about studying the Online MA in Creative Writing (Novel) at Manchester Metropolitan University.
As a practising solicitor and mother of two, realizing my ambition to take an MA in Creative Writing presented a challenge. In fact, I postponed any application, until I saw an advertisement in Mslexia for a part-time course, which was conducted through the Internet. Manchester Metropolitan University had used WebCT to set this up. 'Creative in cyberspace?' I wondered. Becoming a 'virtual student' had a certain appeal. Provided I could master the technology (and avoid disappearing into the ether) then I would have no immediate dilemma over whether or not to give up the day-job, together with financial implications. I could continue working part-time, manage family commitments and pursue an MA - at least in theory. In practice, the work-life balance is never easy. However, this method of study at least made it feasible.

MMU particularly attracted me, as I live in Yorkshire. I would therefore be able to attend talks and meetings on campus occasionally, if I so wished (provided I could overcome my trueborn Yorkshire instinct not to cross the Pennines). I therefore made an eleventh hour application in September 2002. An intensive and lengthy interview was conducted over the telephone, with course tutor, Dr Heather Beck. I subsequently found myself enrolled on the novel writing course, with a long reading list and several coursework deadlines.

With trepidation, at the start of the first term, I logged onto http://odl.mmu.ac.uk - the site specifically devised for and dedicated to the course. It comprises six main different sections: a bulletin board, seminar chatrooms, personal mail, syllabus, calendar, and resources. The latter provides links to useful websites on the authors studied and other relevant areas and is a great help with research. Other online tools are a navigation bar, a menu bar, a course map and a help section. There is also access to technical assistance, as and when the need arises. I initially had browser problems, but these were soon resolved.

Seminars take place on-line once per week, lasting one and a half hours. Students log-on to the relevant seminar chatroom at the agreed time, then type in their contributions to the discussion, as it progresses. This often centres upon set reading and style exercises. Style exercises are a particular feature of the course. Students are asked to write a passage in the style of a particular author, who is being studied, and then explore the technical/formal aspects involved, together with what has been learnt as a result. Often the work produced is a creative achievement and amounts to a stand-alone piece. (I have since used one as the basis for a short play, and another evolved into a digital story I made with the BBC, subsequently broadcast.) These elements make the course very much about writing, not just talking about writing.

Seminars also take place, in a workshop forum, to give group feedback on students' writing-in-progress. In addition, seminars form part of other modules included in the course, such as 'The Text', in which we learn about writer-related subjects like copyright and how the publishing industry operates. No seminars are scheduled for the 'Transmission Project', but there is online tutorial contact and discussion with tutors. For this module, students research a specific area of their own choosing, relating to the transmission of text, including through new media.

The seminars, together with a general chatroom and exchanges by email, allow us to get to know other students swiftly. There are over a dozen students on the online course in my year, so inevitably we tend to 'buddy' (which is encouraged) with some more closely than others. There are events held on campus, from time to time, which we can attend. At a lecture given by Michael Schmidt last spring, I met departmental staff and fellow 'cyberstudents' (who proved remarkably solid to the touch) together with several students taking the on-site MA course. You do therefore feel very much part of the overall framework.

A sample weekly schedule for me, is as follows:

Monday - Day job.
7.30pm - 9pm - online seminar.

Tuesday - Day job.
Evening - course reading.

Wednesday - Day job.
Evening - course reading.

Thursday - Work on agenda points for next online seminar and post to bulletin board.

Friday - Work on style exercises and post to bulletin board.

Weekend - Read through tutor's and other students' feedback on bulletin board. Try to have some time for own writing-in-progress.

This makes it sound easy and, of course, it never is. My children are fourteen and sixteen respectively, and to say that one of them is undergoing a turbulent adolescence would be an understatement. Fortunately, I have a supportive partner. Nevertheless, any semblance of routine or work-life balance is frequently demolished, as other factors present themselves. Examples are: family illness; day job pressures, demanding time far in excess of contractual hours; and, worst of all, the dreaded 'writer's block'. There are also social commitments and holidays to fit in now and then. Furthermore, the course is definitely not for the work shy!

I am now approaching the end of the autumn term of my second year of the course. This is the final year of the taught element, with a further year available to complete portfolio work, i.e. my novel, minimum 60,000 words. (Full-time students complete the course in just two years.) To meet the various demands, I find that I must take each day at a time. Louise Macniece once summed up life and our passage through it as being 'by guess and God and hope and hopelessness' (Flying Crooked). When it comes to work-life balance on an MA course, this has much resonance. However, use of the new technology, as demonstrated by MMU's innovative course, is helping more students to make that balance achievable.


Biographical Note

Helen Shay is a solicitor-turned-writer. She writes and performs poetry and has had drama staged in new writing festivals at local theatres. Her work has appeared in various publications. She is currently taking an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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