- In Virtuality Veritas
virtuality: virtual or essential nature or being, as distinct from external form.—Oxford English Dictionary
Consciousness is both the most obvious and the most mysterious feature of our minds. On the one hand, what could be more certain or manifest to each of us than that he or she is a subject of experience, an enjoyer of perceptions and sensations, a sufferer of pain, an entertainer of ideas, and a conscious deliberator? On the other hand, what in the world can consciousness be? How can physical bodies in the physical world contain such a phenomenon?—Oxford Companion to the Mind
This essay will refer to some of the key developments in creative writing e-learning at Lancaster University, including the establishment of virtual learning environments, robust "distance learning" methodologies, and new virtual/actual supervisory structures for the creative writing PhD. We will assess the effects of such innovations in relation to the concept of the virtual academy and will discuss—provocatively, we hope—developments in the context of the disciplinary union of creative writing with English studies at Lancaster and the relationship between creative practice as research and more orthodox concepts of research and knowledge attainment.
The growth of creative writing in higher education has taken place over the past twenty or so years in a remarkable context, coinciding with the hegemony of literary theory within the academy and the appropriation, commodification, and objectification of literature as cultural secretion. The National Curriculum has increasingly squeezed creative writing out of the GCSE and A-level curriculum in secondary schools;1 in primary schools, "child-centered" notions of education that privileged the developmental values of creativity have been superseded by attainment targets designed to be delivered and measured according to fixed matrices. Yet outside the formal educational sector, the development of the creative writing workshops as an extramural activity; the use of creative writing as a developmental agent in health care and other therapeutic contexts; the appropriation of creative writing as a radicalizing strategy by marginalized groups in society (gay writers, [End Page 513] disabled writers, and women writers, as well as ethnic- or cultural-minority writers); the growth of the literature festival; the amalgamation of small-scale publishers into multinational corporations; the revolution in main-street bookshops; the development of postcolonial literatures that have challenged the hegemony and status of "English" language and literature; the rise of the Internet and widespread computer ownership; the digital age of telecommunications; and the establishment of the author as a chic media icon have all coincided. The rebirth of the writer outside the academy has coincided with the death of the author inside it.
Creative writing at Lancaster has been contested ground from the very outset, when (in the early 1970s) the unit broke away from the English department to go it alone. A checkered history, mainly of underinvestment, followed, with many other universities outstripping Lancaster in size and breadth of provision by the year 2000. In 2001 Lancaster engaged a new team of writers, and creative writing was reunited with English without much in the way of disciplinary reconciliation. More managerial sleight of hand than strategic measure, this move led to the establishment of the Department of English & Creative Writing. The ampersand in the name now seems as contested a typographical signifier as the hyphen in post-colonial.
The growth in creative writing at Lancaster has been consistently student centered: the first creative writing degree offered an MA (eventually developed as both a full- and a part-time option), and its practice-based ethos influenced the design of our subsequent, workshop-based undergraduate degree schemes. In the establishment of a distance learning MA option and of a creative writing PhD, we were able to build upon this pedagogical base, extending its range and potential by the development of virtual learning environments. In a significant sense, our emphasis on praxis was also an emphasis on writing as a form of research rather than writing as a taught discipline.
The burden placed on campus staff by the extension of teaching into the virtual domain was ameliorated by the recruitment of an "offshore" team of freelance writers...