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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 February, 2004, 20:00 GMT
Oxford poets break with tradition
By Angela Harrison
BBC News Online education staff

A group of people sit anxiously around a tutor's sitting room in Oxford University, fiddling with their hands or flicking nervously through their note-books.

The English Literature students have been asked to do something very unusual at Oxford - write some poetry of their own and read it out.

Tutorial room
Students and tutors examined each other's poems
Jenny reads her 14 lines, breathes a sigh of relief and sits down.

The tension is broken and attention moves to the next person - only this time it's a student.

Jenny is Jenny Lewis - poet, author and creative writing tutor, kicking off an innovative project in Oxford.

Tutors and students at St Edmund Hall have been working together on creative writing aimed at boosting both their own creativity and their understanding of key aspects of English literature.

With English don Lucy Newlyn, Jenny Lewis is challenging the idea that English at Oxford has to be taught as a purely academic subject.

An increasing number of universities in the UK offer creative writing at undergraduate and graduate levels, but in Oxford, English literature has generally been seen as something to be studied rather than created.

"Creative writing has had a bit of a bad name.

"Resistance to it stems from the idea that you can't teach people to be poets," says Jenny Lewis.

"In America, creative writing is seen as a development of people's communication skills."

Stepping down

Despite her background, Jenny was nervous about putting herself on the line with students.

"I was stepping down from a position which was quite protective to produce work and be judged, but I realised that this was what the students were being asked to do too, to take a risk, and it's good to take risks."

Those involved believe the experiment has paid off.

For Ben Burton, who is now doing research on creativity in the curriculum as well as writing a novel, the poetry workshops broke down the barriers between students and tutors and also sparked an interest in theoretical areas of English literature he thought he would find dull.

Jenny Lewis and Lucy Newlyn
Jenny Lewis and Lucy Newlyn are challenging tradition

"By discussing these matters in the context of my own creative writing, I was attracted to elements of my English degree that might otherwise have seemed dry and abstract," he said.

He would like to see more creative writing in the school curriculum.

"As you go up secondary school there are fewer and fewer opportunities for creative writing," he said.

The poetry workshop - which is known as Synergies - began after Easter in 2001 at St. Edmund Hall.

It was not a compulsory part of the English course and students were not examined on the work involved, indeed some had to be cajoled into taking part.

In the future, Dr Newlyn hopes to offer a course bringing together creative writing and critical analysis as an option in Oxford's English degree.

Structured work

Caroline Boon, who is now studying law, was a reluctant participant at first, but now writes poetry for pleasure.

"I had never written anything before then. The most important thing for me was the idea that I can just write poetry by myself and for myself," she said.

In the workshops, students and tutors worked in a structured way.

First they had to each come up with a pool of words on a theme, such as the sea.

Participants in Oxford's Synergies workshop
Those involved all said they benefited
They each wrote a sonnet using the pool of words and these were then analysed and discussed by the group, in the way English students usually study literature.

In the next stage, students re-worked or edited other people's sonnets, in effect creating new collective works.

The finished results, together with the methods used, have been published in a book, which was funded through a grant from the Oxford-based Institute for the Advancement of University Learning.

The institute, which works to support Oxford teachers and the development of teaching, was interested in the idea that the group's approach might change the traditional relationship between tutor and student.

Paul Ashwin, from the institute, said: "What's most interesting to me is that it is a joint production, that teaching and learning are not separate tasks.

"Instead of teaching and learning being separated between the roles of tutor and student, students and tutors learnt together through their engagement in a single task."

For Oxford don Lucy Newlyn, the workshops proved to be a turning point in terms of her own creativity.

After about two decades of researching and teaching English literature, she has published poems of her own and has had a collection of poetry accepted for publication next year.

"I didn't write anything four years ago and it's all happened because of this," she said.

Her collaborator Jenny Lewis also believes taking part in the workshops fired her own creativity and believes everyone could benefit from creative writing.

"I think using your creativity makes you happier," she said.

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