Writers' block

25th May 2001 at 01:00
Mervyn Lebor asks why English language examiners cannot agree on ways to assess original writing

Art teachers do it. Music moderators do it. So why cannot English language examiners do it? Why can they not assess creativity?

This is a notoriously problematic area. In literary criticism exams, students can be judged through knowledge of texts, coupled with the ability to propose an argument supported by sufficient evidence and analysis of language or ideas. With variations for content or covering theoretic approaches, most academic arts and social science subjects follow a similar formula.

But what if the students are actually to write the text themselves? Many students are attracted to this for several reasons. It is a return to the earliest education they received, listening to and making up stories. As stories are ways of explaining and interpreting the world, so they can slant events from their own point of view.

Creative writing is a kind of freedom, a chance for each student to express their own individual vision of reality, tell the key story of their lives, enter imaginary worlds or produce fantasies within the tight confines of the short story genre. Students may wish to identify with certain writers or cultural outlooks. Creative writing, if professionally successful, is highly prized in society. The aspirant may wish to find the beginnings of recognition. There are few enough opportunities within the education system for young people to explore their feelings or personal outlook. This is an important avenue.

Original writing often combines construction of a series of attitudes, creation of characters or a society, imagining others' lives, exploration of psychological and ethical problems, and flexibility of language, but also the development of creative solutions to issues of representation of gender, ethnicity and cultural difference. Whereas argument and evidence are the key elements in most academic subjects, in originalstory writing these features are implicit.

But what if the writing that results is highly personal, populist, or adopts a slangy, colloquial tone that does not conform to the norms of clear, grammatically correct prose, yet is able to engage the sympathies or interest of readers? If criteria are based only on the emotional impact of writing, judgments on its effectiveness will be subjective. How do we measure whether writers are able to achieve emotional effectiveness or sustain interest? They may be correct but boring.

In the past, English teachers have always claimed to have a gut feeling, but this has usually been a sickness related to being in the teaching profession. They instinctively "know" what is good, but this is usually justified by the paraphernalia of "correctness". It is a perspective that tends to undervalue innovation, experimentation or attempts at, say, "streams of consciousness". Presumably, a classic of English literature, James Joyce's Molly speech at the end of Ulysees, would fail most English language exams.

The opposite argument could run that the more experimental, non-derivative or truly "new" a piece is, the more it should be credited with marks. The problems wih this view are several. The focus moves away from traditional academic criteria, coherence, argument and technical correctness, but also ends up as an exam for which only very exceptional students can produce something that is arguably original.

Newness of form, style, structure or even "content" may be credited, but writing that does not illuminate or at least focus on human experience tends not to engage the interest of readers. We are also living in a post-modern post-novel age, or so we are told, where every conceivable approach to fiction has supposedly been tried.

Many of these tensions are always present in the critical process of evaluating both new and older established or published literatures. Furthermore, all the differing schools of literary criticism could compete to inform the criteria for judging students' work. To overcome some of these problems, new AS Language or languageliterature extended writing options have asked students to model their work in some respects on contemporary or modern classic stories.

Pastiches are not required, but some element from the model work such as attention to closures, epiphanies, styles of dialogue or character construction would show development of the writer's craft. Students are also required to write a commentary, identifying differences between the model and the student's product, explaining their story's use of language, metaphor or plot, but also the difficulties and influences involved in devising this work.

However, certain values are implied in the new specifications for judging achievement which might be considered irrelevant or unfair for this particular area. The equivalent straight AS Literature or Literary Criticism paper on Short Stories for the Extended Writing modules each demand 1,500 words, yet the original writing requirements demand 1,500 words of story or stories, plus 1,000 extra words of commentary. It is as if the creative writing element does not carry enough weight or is discounted as not being of sufficient significance.

The reason for this imbalance is that if students only wrote the story, then they would not achieve most of the QCA-determined assessment objectives. So "communicating clearly knowledge" and "using appropriate terminology" (AO1) assume that students are writing about texts, rather than producing them. Similarly, all the other assessment objectives imply that students are being assessed on secondary writing about primary texts, so they have to identify "values in speech and writing" (A05), respond to literary and non-literary texts" (A02i), "analyse texts using literary and linguistic concepts" (A03i) or show understanding of how "contextual variation" shapes the "meanings of texts" (A04).

It is as if the QCA or the examining boards did not trust creativity or that only the commentary was going to be assessed. The creative writing part did not fall within what could be credited as educationally valuable. By not constructing AS criteria that are relevant to "original writing", the system shows itself as not valuing creativity.

Mervyn Lebor is lecturer in English in FE and HE in West YorkshireEmail: mlabor@waitrose.com

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