Assessing a portfolio of creative writing
Peter Howarth (School of English Studies).
Assessing a portfolio of creative writing
I joined the Department in 2000 and as part of my teaching, began a module on Modern Poetry. I knew that students wanted to do creative work quite strongly, and could be helped to write better and understand other poets better by doing so. But the problem is that in terms of how it's taught, creative writing is often divorced from the rest of the curriculum. It's as though creativity belongs to one mental realm, and criticism or language work or historical context belongs to another. I didn't feel creativity and criticism should be so split - I wanted the students to understand and love poetry from the experience of writing it and from the experience of reading it. Students need to feel the excitement of live art. And we'd been encouraged to link with the Lakeside Pavilion: the Director had visited the Department the year before and spoken of her desire to explore ways in which Arts and academia could be connected.
The new module
The creative writing sessions with the poet were 3-hour long workshops in which the students were able to see into the process of creativity through asking the poet about their works and through a series of creative writing exercises. The exercises provide different ways into the creative process - creative springboards. For example, they had to take the first line of a poem they were studying with me, and then use that as the first line of their own poem before taking it in a completely different direction. Or they would write the same poem in three or four different formats to see what difference longer or shorter lines made. Some poems were begun simply through generating artificial sound patterns (using poems built from words involving the consonant-clusters in the student's own name, others through trying different kinds of writing process (writing a poem which starts from free association and turns into something ordered, for instance, so that you don't begin with a mental meaning which you later express, you create a meaning from what you find in your mind).
In the latter workshops the students began creating their own poetry, reading out to each other, hearing how it sounds, seeing the reactions of listeners, criticising each others work and through this reiterative process developing their understanding of both creativity and criticism.
The students submit a portfolio of their creative work which counts for 50% of the module assessment. I suggested the portfolio should contain their completed poems (approximately 5 poems unless they were working on an epic), their drafts and notes, the springboard exercises that helped them in their creativity etc. They should also include a reflective account of the creative process itself.
Judging creativity is by definition difficult. Initially students panicked about the assessment, feeling it had to be very subjective. So what I did was to give the student five poems. Three were prize winning poems produced by young writers, one was written by a professional poet and the fifth was just taken from the internet. The students and I graded them using the assessment criteria and in more than 80% of cases we agreed and put the poems in the same order of quality, so they felt pretty reassured.
The poet was not involved in actually assessing the students' work, but he did help me to develop the assessment criteria which fell into four areas :
The portfolios were assessed by myself and a colleague in the Department . I was very reassured by the high degree of agreement we reached. There is often a lot more arguing over traditional essays, I have found, though creative work takes longer to mark.
The students really liked the module: "what I came to University for", I remember one of them saying. Generally I think they loved a chance to be recognised for creativity in a way that doesn't happen very often in the rest of their life. One of the most rewarding outcomes for me, though, was seeing students realise that when they read their poem out loud to their peers it takes on a life of its own. Being asked, "Did you mean this?" and answering "no but I can see how you thought that" helps them see how the poem has some qualities beyond their designs for it. This feeds into their understanding of literary criticism.
The reflective accounts given in the students' portfolios gave an insight into their experience on the module.
"I was beginning to look at the world from a fresh perspective"
"Finding a new way of writing about scenery you have looked at all your life forces a re-examination of your feelings - it's a power and force which can shake the consciousness in such a way that it may change perception of the world".
"Sessions with DP really helped me to get to grips with metaphor and has helped my understanding of Plath's metaphors much more successfully"
"I have come to understand that every word of a poem counts"
"Writing poetry has made me pay much more attention to words and their huge range of possibilities and so has increased my enjoyment of reading poetry as well".
"I had previously thought the two disciplines of creativity and criticism were separate, but has made me realise how they feed into one another and opened up new perspectives".
The external examiner was impressed by the quality of the students' work saying, that this was a really good way of teaching poetry and should be an example elsewhere.
I think that working with a professional poet, someone working and making their living in the Arts, energised the students and made them work really hard. They were using the values and the standards that apply in that world while also being protected by the institution to be as wild as they liked. I think leaving them with the poet when they were creating their own works gave that interesting dynamic. The students could say things that normally can't be said. I think that was also a great outcome. If we limit what art is to what can be said about it in examinations, it's very depressing.