Friday, April 25, 2008
Interview: Marianne Wheelaghan, online inventor
Marianne Wheelaghan is a fiction writer and teacher. She used to teach Creative Writing for the Open University in Great Britain and for Edinburgh University. She's now developing new courses for her online writing school, http://www.writingclasses.co.uk/. While not from the American South, Marianne offers great insights about online learning, especially important in today’s world of cyber-degrees and virtual classrooms.
You earned your Master’s through a distance-learning program. Can you tell us a little about how that worked, logistically?
When I began to inquire about enrolling on a Master’s program I was running my own business and caring for my two children, who were still quite young. These commitments meant attending face-to-face classes on fixed days at set times in inconvenient places was simply not an option for me. On the other hand, online distance learning was perfect, I could ‘log on’ and download my course notes as well as meet my colleagues at a time that most suited me, and better still, from the comfort of my own home. And although my colleagues weren’t necessarily online at the same time as I was - the conference program we used was not asynchronous – when I logged on communication felt instantaneous and a very real ‘virtual’ community rapidly developed, which was both stimulating and supportive and conducive to learning.
Did you find it harder to write, not being in a classroom environment? For example, do you think it would have been easier listening to critiques in person?
No. I found – and still find - the physical classroom environment rather intimidating and not conducive to creativity.
As for giving and receiving feedback – well, I find taking and giving critiques much easier in the virtual environment. In the virtual classroom students have to write down their comments in black and white, this process tends to make the students better consider what they are saying. At the same time, for those who are receiving feedback, there is time to reflect on what is said and as a consequence one tends to react intellectually rather than emotionally to comments. Furthermore, everyone has an opportunity to have his or her say in the virtual classroom – there are no loudmouths hogging the floor, intimidating the less confident student.
Why did you decide to start your own online creative writing school?
I passionately wanted to teach creative writing, not just because I enjoy writing so much myself, but previous to doing my master's degree I had been on so many bad creative writing courses that I was determined to create a ‘good’ course once I’d qualified. And what do I mean by ‘bad’? Well, so many of my ex-tutors seemed to have had an ‘airy-fairy’ idea of to how to teach creative writing – especially those tutors on short courses. They invariably talked about being ‘gifted’ and brought ‘interesting’ objects into class to inspire creativity - usually something like a hideously large orange-brown ash tray in the shape of a dromedary, found in the back of a shed at the bottom of the tutor’s garden (where it should have stayed!). I found it frustrating not to be ‘taught’ specific writing skills, and was not in the least bit inspired by objects that meant nothing to me.
So, now that I have experience and amassed a good deal of writing ‘know-how’ I have created courses, which teach specific writing skills and techniques. Through the honing of these skills I encourage both beginner and emerging writers to discover the things that matter most to them and show them how to write creatively about these things.
What “challenges” have you had working online? For example, how do you encourage group interaction and the exchange of ideas?
The main challenge working online is to keep students logging on. It is too easy not to switch on, and the longer the student stays ‘away,' the more isolated the student feels and the more disengaged from the learning process. Students need to understand that participating online is not like attending face-to-face classes. Online participation is more fluid – students need to check in frequently but they don’t necessarily need to check in for a long time on every virtual visit. So students have to be both flexible and disciplined.
Once students get used to the idea of logging on frequently, group interaction and the exchange of ideas is more likely to follow – especially if the students have been given stimulating course notes and/or assignments, which give the student the opportunity to have his or her say.
What are some advantages to working online?
It’s convenient and flexible – you can participate at any time from anywhere. It cuts down on paper. There’s no travel time. It’s less confrontational than the face-to-face environment. Everyone is equal online. It’s more conducive to learning.
Tell us a little bit about the writing projects you working on right now.
I am writing a fictional account of my mother’s life. The first part is in memoir form. It covers the period from 1932 to 1946 and specifically looks at the way of life of an ordinary Lower Silesian family and how the Nationalist Socialist Party coming to power affected them. It culminates in disaster, when they are forced to flee their home at the end of WWII, when Silesia was handed over to Poland as part of the Potsdam agreement. Millions of Germans [...] were made refugees by this agreement. It is now acknowledged that a wrong was committed against the indigenous German population of the former Eastern districts, but specifically in Lower Silesia, where almost all the population was indigenously German. I want to tell the story of these German victims – one of whom was my mother.
What is your “guilty pleasure” reading?
The Inspector Montalbano Mysteries – by Andrea Camilleri