Supporting Writing Skills: the Royal Literary Fund Scheme and other Initiatives
Dr Siobhán Holland, English Subject Centre, Royal Holloway, reviews the factors contributing to the success of the Royal Literary Fund scheme for supporting writing skills.
Since 1999, the Royal Literary Fund has appointed creative writers to posts in HE institutions where they have worked with staff and students to develop writing skills. The scheme has been hugely successful and although it is not focused on contacts with English departments, a large number of the fellows, and the writers working in the new project fellows scheme, have worked closely with colleagues in English and Creative Writing.
In January 2003 the English Subject Centre hosted a symposium which explored the conditions which have made the scheme successful in English departments. It also considered the range of strategies for improving basic and academic literacy which are being explored not only through the RLF scheme but through the departmental projects funded by the Subject Centre.
In the course of the event it became clear that a number of factors help to promote success in fellowship schemes. Of greatest importance is the need for an RLF fellow to have an effective relationship with his or her academic mentor. The mentor should take responsibility for introducing the fellow to relevant procedures and practices within a department and, more broadly, in the host institution. The mentor should also play a key role in informing colleagues and students about the fellows role and responsibilities. This might involve the mentor in helping the fellow to develop appropriate and successful publicity material for distribution to students and staff throughout an institution, or in devising a programme for introducing fellows to students in person. At Oxford Brookes, the RLF fellow attends the student Freshers Fayre and sends out a letter to all academic departments while at Queen Marys, the RLF fellows work is introduced in lectures on study skills.
A good relationship with a mentor will help an RLF fellow to become a visible and active part of departmental and institutional life but other practical factors will also affect the fellows relationship with staff and students. At Anglia Polytechnic University (APU) the fellow, Sally Cline, has an office which is located in the centre of the department and this physical location has played an important role in the integration process. At APU, where the SpeakWrite project has been encouraging students to develop their writing skills for a number of years, lecturers feel that the fellow also benefits from operating in a departmental culture which emphasises that writing skills are central to the English programme and are not treated through bolt on or remedial measures.
While it is important for fellows to be included fully in the life of their host institution, it is also crucial to their success that they maintain an identity which is seen to be outside the structures and hierarchies of academic programmes. For students, part of the freedom they experience in discussing difficulties with fellows is predicated on the fact that the fellows are not implicated in the process of setting and marking assignments. The independence of the fellowship from academic programmes encourages students to express anxieties and explore solutions that they might not be willing to discuss with lecturers involved directly in grading their work. Of course, the process of consulting with a wide range of students on a programme will often mean that the fellow develops insights into the strengths of, and gaps in, existing provision and can therefore provide useful feedback on general issues that emerge.
Fellows and academics stress the need to clarify the schemes purpose and to emphasise the importance of students developing their own creativity and independent study skills during their contact with the fellow. Problems can develop if students are allowed to develop a sense that they are dependent on the support of an RLF fellow, either for their academic success or for their personal wellbeing. While fellows were positive about the role they can play in enhancing students self-esteem they sought to avoid any kind of counselling role. Fellows should therefore be involved in the same kinds of referral procedures used by academic colleagues (for further details on student support structures, see the Disability Issues page on the English Subject Centre website).
A number of fellows have adapted the initial systems they set up for students to book appointments in order to encourage students to use the scheme flexibly rather than regularly. In one department, in the first year of the RLF programme, students were able to book sessions as often as they wished and 80 students attended regularly, on average meeting the fellow 9 or 10 times each. In the second year, the system was changed to offer students a range of bookable time slots (from 10 minutes to an hour) as well as writing clinics which operate on a queuing system.
As Mario Petrucci, Project Fellow at Oxford Brookes, pointed out during the event, many of the problems students encounter when they write essays derive from the fact that they have learnt to think about writing as a non-creative process. Students have often come to associate success in writing with careful adherence to rules rather than with experimentation and the opportunity for contact with a creative writer who is engaged in writing as a creative practice can be immensely helpful. For the Royal Literary Fund fellows, the scheme offers an opportunity for them to work in a community engaged with writing. It also offers them valuable opportunities to reflect on their own practice and assumptions about writing. The success of the scheme as a positive opportunity for writers is clear in the continued contact that a number of fellows have retained with the scheme and the institutions in which they were placed.
The success of the RLF scheme has led to a number of English departments retaining their links with the scheme after the first fellows tenure has ended. In the long term, departments will need to work to ensure that changes in personnel do not disrupt incremental developments or undermine progress that has been made. Steve Cook of the Royal Literary Fund stresses the need for lecturers to develop the institutional memory of the scheme so that valuable insights are not lost. As new Royal Literary Fund fellows are appointed in the spring to posts that begin in the following autumn, there is time available for departing fellows and departmental staff to establish an efficient handover process.
The remit of the fund is not to support English departments alone. Nevertheless, as the project has developed, links with English departments have proved successful and this has contributed to the continued interest, at subject level, in the potential of the scheme. It has also allowed departments to develop interests evident in other areas of their activities. At Oxford Brookes, for example, where lecturers are part of a research centre on contemporary poetry, poets have been selected for the role of RLF fellow. In other departments, the fellow offers support not just to students but to academics who are engaged in their own professional and creative writing practices.
Interest in issues related to the development of academic literacy, fluency and creativity is evident in the project work being undertaken by lecturers involved in the English Subject Centres departmental project scheme. At the Royal Literary Fund event, Dr Susan Bruce from the University of Keele outlined the work she is doing through her Write Through the Semester project which encourages students to reflect on their own writing practices and those of their peers. Dr Jonathan Worley of St. Marys University College, Belfast, discussed the peer mentoring scheme he and his colleague, Dr Matthew Martin are using which involves students in tutoring each other (For details of departmental projects, see http://www.english.ltsn.ac.uk/projects/deptprojects/index.htm). It is likely that discussions about basic and academic literacy as well as creativity in the writing process are going to retain their currency in the subject communities which are involved in teaching English Language, Literature and Creative Writing. The Royal Literary Fund, its fellows and departmental staff involved with the RLF scheme are in an excellent position to inform and develop these debates.