As postgraduate students, we are expected to be reflective. I don’t think it is possible to be reflective in a vacuum, into space, nothingness; even if not expecting an echo, not possible to reflect into empty cyber space. Which is why this is addressed to my blog. To which the question must be added: will anyone ever read this?
I’ve found the Workshop experience interesting but disturbing. There are two sides to the coin and each is multifaceted. The two sides of the coin are, of course, experiences as a reader-critic and experiences as the one read-criticised.
I was excited at the concept of being a voiced reader-critic. Everyone who reads is a critic. Views, opinions, ideas are realised in the mind. Being part of a Workshop concept, each reader finds a voice. Having spent a lifetime marking the work of children, I had thought this would be an extension of that; ‘marking for adults’. In some ways it was without the grading, but it set me off on the wrong foot. With children’s work, one is always looking for ‘correctness’. That is dictionary perfect spelling, appropriate and exciting vocabulary, correct sentence structure, observation of the conventions of written English, allied with the beginning of a way with words that enlivens what has been written, that conveys graphically the picture in the child author’s mind.
Starting like that was an error. I was shocked and rather disturbed to be able to find many ‘errors’ in some of the work I was given the read. Passages marked as sentences that weren’t sentences even given latitude for the passion of a creative mind. Passages that were sentences without capitals and full stops but not apparently intended as ‘stream of consciousness’ devices. This hindered my ability to look deeper into what the author was actually trying to say. And slowed, impeded, the narrative flow. Looking for clues to explain this, I came to the conclusion that two of the authors I was reading were people speaking English as a second language. In some cases, the quality of the language was imaginative and varied but figurative writing, similes, metaphors appeared to miss the mark. There was clearly a strong desire to use literary strategies but without impact. And there were misconstrued colloquialisms.
One of the things that I failed to pick up, because my view was obscured by semantic challenges, was that I had been given almost 4000 words in one piece, when the university specifically said between 500 and 2000. This piece was in a genre completely strange to me, and although I felt able to comment on it, at times I felt that I was floundering through a morass. A morass that contained some very strange concepts and some very strange vocabulary. I worry that this has negatively affected my feedback to that writer. There was OU advice about word count and how to treat longer pieces, which I managed to neglect.
I found the OU format for feedback to be generally useful. In the old days, marking pupil’s work, I had a similar way of marking and analysing. However, the university’s response areas were much more detailed than mine had ever been. As a result, I didn’t always want to respond about a particular point in the writing. Sometimes one of the OU points didn’t stick out. At times there was nothing good to say and nothing critical to comment on. It was the last area of the format that confused. I know that I am not alone among students to have been confused about that. It appeared to be the case that ‘all bases had been covered’ with a summary box and then - a final summary box was revealed. I am aware that some students just put n/a, or a bland one sentence comment. I tried to write a summary, a précis, if you like, of what had been said in the previous boxes but found this very repetitious.
Where my comments were perhaps rather more strident than I would have liked them to be, I tried to refer directly back to OU guidance which some of the writers I was given appeared not to have read, or chose to ignore.
On the other side of the coin, comments received about my writing were generally encouraging. Despite the fact that all my life I have resented criticism, no matter how well intended it has been. However, I was puzzled by some comments. In my critiques, I always tried to respond to what the writer had written, not to what I thought the writer should have written. I believed this was what was required.
In some cases, those reading my work wanted to change my characters, or the plot, or modify the setting, or add more detail when one of my greatest problems is keeping stories within word limits. I found myself surprised that readers focused their appreciation on characters other than those I felt were central.
Elsewhere, it was suggested that some minor characters could have been cut from the story. However, had that been done, it would have left my central female figure, naked, on an isolated river bank, screaming for help, with no one to hear her. In that case, she might still have been there today. In my view, the minor characters identified were an integral part of the story and vital to the plot.
Perhaps in summary, I need to recognise that I may be an impaired story teller and a worse editor, with a badly misleading critical stance that no-one in their right mind would wish to tolerate. I think I also need to recognise that I'm probably very arrogant about taking/not taking guidance.