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An adventure in emancipation and poetics

Category: Teaching and research

15 April 2024

Tim Jarvis

Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing Tim Jarvis reflects on his tried-and-tested methods for engaging students in lectures and seminars.

A successful lecture or seminar can often feel like the proverbial lightning in a bottle (a tired image, one I’d definitely encourage students to avoid, but which feels apt in this context). I find it can be hard to understand exactly what went well. Similarly, sometimes no amount of preparation can mitigate against a flat session – circumstances outside a lecturer’s control can play a part.

But there are a few pedagogic ideas I’ve often thought about and a few approaches to teaching that I’ve found to regularly engage students, and going into a recent MA Creative Writing module, Patterns of Story, I decided to explore these in a slightly more structured way.

Whenever I reflect on sessions in which I’ve been a learner, it occurs to me that when content to be imparted is held sacred, the process is usually less compelling and valuable than it is in sessions in which teachers, lecturers, and trainers encourage a questioning (or even subversive) attitude.

In the case of studies at postgraduate level and in an area of creative practice like Creative Writing, I feel this might perhaps be especially true – knowledge is often fairly evenly distributed in the room, and the lecturer might have as much to learn as to give.

So, when teaching the Patterns module, I wanted to aim for subversion, but within a framework that encouraged development. This led me back to a text that has been often in my thoughts since I first read it, Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987).

This is an account of early 19th-century French educator Joseph Jacotot’s experiments in ‘emancipatory’ pedagogy. Exiled from France following the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815, Jacotot obtained a teaching position in Louvain, where, among the students wishing to study under him, there were a number of Flemings. But Jacotot had no Flemish, and these students, no French.

Jacotot’s solution, a makeshift one, but also a ‘philosophical experiment in the style of the ones performed during the Age of Enlightenment,’ was to provide the Flemish students with copies of a parallel-text translation into Flemish of Fénelon’s Télémaque (a popular retelling of The Odyssey) and to set them the task of learning French with the help of its translation (Rancière 1991: 2). This was the entirety of his intervention.

When the students were later asked to write, in French, essays on what they had read, Jacotot discovered not ‘barbarisms’, but passable compositions. At the heart of Rancière’s telling of these events is the idea that traditional models of teaching are hierarchical and stultifying, while a model in which learners are given the tools to develop knowledge themselves is liberating.

Rancière’s description of Jacotot’s ‘intellectual adventure’ suggested I try developing an approach I’d already been using, but in a more focussed way. Creative Writing is a highly self-reflexive discipline, and one in which students are best able to succeed if given the tools to interrogate their own practice – there are craft skills that can be taught, but if students don’t learn how to be unselfconscious about the intensely self-conscious activity that is writing, then they’re unlikely to build up the momentum to keep working independently on their portfolios outside the more structured teaching sessions.

So I got students reading texts in advance of the seminars, which could be discussed and unpicked – a fairly standard version of the ‘flipped classroom’. But I think it was the selection of the texts that was key.

I think it’s crucial to a potent Creative Writing pedagogy that a middle ground is found between theory and practice. Lorna Sage wrote of Angela Carter that, ‘French structuralist thinkers (Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault) were important to her […] because they provided an armour of theory she could call on to protect her creative intuitions,’ and I find this idea really inspiring (Sage 2007: 2).

A productive creative process must, I believe, combine, in a fluid way, theory and practice. Too much of a focus on craft can lead to a rote repetition of techniques and the exclusion of ideas and the wider world of literary texts from the classroom, while too heavy an emphasis on theory can be stultifying, give rise to an inhibiting inwardness, and end in efforts to get writing to fit certain concepts, ideas – writing that’s bloodless.

To this end, I paired the creative readings on the Patterns module – all novels, mostly short, so I could really home in on structure – with theoretical essays exploring related themes.

I developed this from the idea of ‘poetics’. Following the writings of Robert Sheppard and others, I position poetics as a hybrid discourse between acts of writing and acts of theorising. Students comparing fiction to theory in the context of their own practice hopefully develop an awareness of poetics as a nexus between creative and critical thinking; and learn to write creative texts with a self-conscious and critical understanding of how they relate to their own developing practice, with an unselfconscious fluidity. This gives them the tools to evolve their own work – to interrogate their aims for their fictions and to develop techniques that allow them to realise work that answers those aims.

I think it was ultimately this that provided the sense of liberation for my students, the genuine lack of constraint, the fact that challenging ideas were being explored, but in a free and playful way. Very much a version of the intellectual emancipation espoused by Jacotot.

So we had productive conversations about everything from the origins of the novel, looking at Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in relation to Ian Watt’s famous analysis of that novel’s relationship to capitalist individualism, to resistance to totalitarianism through surrealism, exploring Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda’s brutal and bizarre Death in Spring, in the context of Gilles Deleuze’s notion of minor literature. I also built writing exercises into the sessions, so creative practice was happening alongside these conversations.

This approach seems to have paid off, with engaged and dynamic seminars and an excellent set of portfolios submitted for assessment. And I feel I now have a new and useful approach to pedagogy to bring into my teaching.

By Tim Jarvis
Tim is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at ARU, and a writer of supernatural fiction


Rancière, J. (1991 (1987)) The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessions in Intellectual Emancipation, trans. Ross, K. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Sage, L. (2007 (1994)) Angela Carter, 2nd ed. Writers and Their Work. Tavistock, Devon: Northcote House.


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