Belonging: creative writing, pastoral care and precarity
Jessica Farr CoxMMUg
The Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities (www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/study/foundation/students/) is a one-year course designed specifically to allow those with few or zero qualifications to access higher education. We teach and mark them very much like first years, with an emphasis on equipping them with the skills and confidence to go on to a Bachelor’s degree.
All the students have a difficult relationship with education and are forming their identities as scholars in ways that are quite different from the experiences of ‘conventional’ undergrads. Moreover, Foundation Year students have complex lives, including histories of addiction, immigration, domestic violence, physical and mental illness, caring responsibilities and time in the armed services. They may be working in their second or third language and the age range can span several decades. Consequently, their pastoral care can be challenging and time-consuming. We must support every student with warmth and understanding, but without creating dependency and/or unrealistic expectations of what they should expect as undergrads, and without placing an unmanageable burden on part-time, precarious staff.
For the last two years, I have run a small, optional creative writing group for these students. This was intended to be a fun ‘extra’, with no anticipated impact upon their other writing. In fact, it has proved to be a pedagogical tool of considerable and subtle power. Firstly, the informal setting and format has improved relationships between students, and between myself and the students. Secondly, it has given the students a safe space in which to process trauma and personal issues through fiction if they so wish, as well as alternative ways of engaging with material covered in class. Thirdly, it has allowed them to encounter and experiment with different modes of writing, which has had a noticeable knock-on beneficial effect on the quality of their essays and their confidence when handling complicated and varied texts. This has been particularly useful for students who find writing essays difficult, but who have excelled creatively, allowing them to battle their imposter syndrome. Fourthly, the CWG has given the students a space in which to practise responding to feedback, which has improved their responses to marking and their behaviour in seminars. They have also learned to give constructive feedback to each other, and to me: while I lead the sessions, I also offer my own writing for them to critique and take their comments very seriously.
Finally, the CWG has benefitted me enormously. I have been teaching on this course since its inception seven years ago, but have never had a contract longer than eighteen months and for the first four years was employed on a succession of ten-month contracts. Like many staff in similar positions, I cram all my teaching, meetings and office hours into the smallest space available, which can lead to a profound sense of ‘missing out’ on the life of the department. The CWG has changed that for me, because I have (accidentally) created something that contributes to the life of the Department, helping both me and my students to feel a greater sense of belonging.
I propose this session as a small pop-up workshop, using the format we employ in the CWG: short, timed creative writing exercises with prompts; reading creative work aloud and critiquing it; and seeing where the discussion takes us. Ideally, I’d like participants to write something on the theme of ‘belonging’ in advance, to bring with them and share with the group, but I’ll also bring some work that my students have written.