Sunday, February 19, 2006


As threatened, here’s my review of the Open University’s short course, A175 Start Writing Poetry.

The course lasts for 12 weeks, has 5 blocks, 2 tutor marked assignments, and is an online course, which means that the main materials are made available on a dedicated web site accessed from the OU Student Home page (all OU students get one of these when they enrol on a course). They do also make most of the materials available in paper or as PDF downloads (the Anthology is sent in printed form along with various other booklets), although the downloads are slightly abridged when it comes to the block material.

To give you a good overview of the course, it’s probably best to quote directly from the Course Guide:

“This course is designed to introduce you to some techniques and approaches to poetry writing. You will be looking at such technical aspects as rhyme, metre, stanza size and the use of metaphor. Through activities, short readings and longer assignments you will have an opportunity to practise, improve and reflect on a range of skills. The course proceeds from the premise that writing poetry is a craft that can be learned, but a craft that also presents obvious imaginative and creative challenges. The course will help you build confidence through diagnosis of your writing strengths and weaknesses. It is ideal for anyone embarking on other Open University Arts courses, for those studying literature, for instance, and those interested in reading poetry. This course is suitable for those who are completely new to writing, for those who have written some poetry before, or those who may have written in other genres.”

The other thing you get is access to dedicated online conferences – one is a ‘café’ where any and all OU creative writing students (they do other courses – have a look here), can go for general chat (most of which is of the “hello, where are you from?” variety) but the main one is your tutor conference. Here your own tutor can set up a variety of conference rooms – for work-shopping, for posting the activities that you do throughout the course, for chatting about writing generally, for tutorials, whatever.

The course material is very good for what it is – an introduction to poetry. If you are already writing, self-learning and active in a decent workshop, the materials themselves will be a waste of your money – a good ‘how to’ and a decent anthology will be much better value. Where the real value lies is in the tutorial experience and what you get here, as you might expect, it is a complete lottery. If your tutor is active and skilled at running online collaborations, and at least some of your fellow students in your group are at the same level of learning as you (whether you’re a rank beginner or a more advanced beginner), you might have a very good time and be happy to have spent £125. If, however, your tutor does the bare minimum, your group is dominated by one or two users who post rhyming journal junk and the feedback is of the “I can really feel your pain” variety, you might feel like you was robbed.

So, on balance, I would recommend this course to anyone who wants a steady paced introduction to writing poetry, a first experience of online work-shopping that is ‘supportive’, and has plenty of cash to spend on their whims. Otherwise, stick with the self-learning path and find yourself an online workshop where you feel comfortable.


Victoria said...

I think this is a pretty fair summary. As I suspect happens with all the OU creative writing courses, the key is the quality and commitment of the tutor, from which everything else - including effective conference participation - follows, and it's a shame you were one of the unlucky ones :-(

I had an involved and very skilled tutor, not only a published poet but also a tutor on a uni creative writing programme and a published author of critical textbooks: her input alone was for me worth the course fee and more.

As far as the tutor group conference is concerned, there will always be those who seek to dominate. At the beginning there is bound to be some dreadful stuff posted: my experience is that the only way to combat this is to grit your teeth and keep posting and encourage others to post too; again the tutor is key in reinforcing this. By the end of the course we were probably down to a core of around 8 posting regularly from an original group of around 20 (some of whom never participated at all), together with our tutor, which was enough to make the experience of giving and receiving crit and feedback a worthwhile part of the course.

Anonymous said...

I'd go along with most of your remarks. As a beginner, I got a lot out of the course, but could have gained much more if the conferencing had taken off. The tutor's input is crucial, particularly with these on-line courses,I think.

Feedback from other writers is essential: if the tutor group are uncommunicative or unsure how to offer a fair and constructive crit, it's impossible to judge your own progress. An involved and communicative tutor will direct the conferencing if necessary, so that dominant contributors, who may not be the most knowledgeable on the topic, don't kill it off completely.

I was happy enough with the course materials and used them in conjunction with other poetry guidance books. Paying for the course certainly helped to compel me to work at my poems - I probably would have resorted to numerous displacement activities otherwise. :o)

Anonymous said...

I found the course material by Eva Salzman particularly good. I'd say it's much better than the 'How To' books I've read. She seems to have squeezed so much information on writing poetry into her guide. I don't know how she did it.

I've been to face-to-face workshops and used online workshops and I found the online tutor group very good. People are often less inhibited when using an online group. I think it was good preparation for getting used to going to a face-to-face workshop and it gave me the courage to do that.

You find the same things in a face-to-face workshop. You can get stuck with a group of people who just don't participate. It can also cost a lot more so the price seems reasonable to me. If you're stuck with very awkward or insulting people in a face-to-face you have to put up with them, but the OU groups deal with it and remove them.

I've been on a few OU online courses and I've always found that plenty of people contribute and the tutors have been of a very high standard. Their comments on the marked assignments are probably worth the money on their own. The software that came with the course was useful to me, as were the CDs of readings and writers talking about how they work.

The points from the courses can be used towards a BA so they have that advantage over other workshops too. People on benefit don't have to pay, which isn't true of many workshops and face-to-face courses.

Writing can be very solitary and not everybody can get out to a workshop. Of the options available I'd say the OU courses are probably the best. If you can suggest a better course I'd be interested - or a how to book that matches Eva Salzman's guide.

Messalina said...

Thanks Victoria, Eve and Anon for adding your comments to bring some balance to my fence-sitting opinions ;o)

Anon - I didn't intend to imply that the course materials weren't good (in fact, I think I said they are) - what I meant was, if your tutor feedback and online conference experience weren't good, then you ended up only getting the course materials for your £125, which isn't good value (no matter how good they are!) :o)

Anonymous said...

I'd still have to argue that there's plenty you can do if you feel the tutor isn't up to scratch. I've always had really impressive tutors from the OU so I imagine you mean they weren't doing their job or putting in the effort. I think you'd find that the OU would deal with complaints and as all the teaching is done online it's easy for the OU to check up on a tutor who gets complaints. Much easier than a poor tutor you see face-to-face. I think the OU would soon get rid of tutors who aren't doing the job well so I'd have to disagree that it's a lottery.

A poll of students from the courses to see how many had good or bad experiences and also info on what happens about complaints would be the only real indicator.

You do find that at workshops it's often the case that people don't participate and only want feedback on their own writing. I'd even say you get more participation from more members of the group on these online courses.

People often pay over £100 for courses that last just a day or two, or high prices just to get feedback for half an hour with a published writer. So I think the fee is pretty fair.

Messalina said...

I'm not sure it is worth "arguing" about - it is what it is; different people have different opinions and experiences. For myself, I had one really good tutor in 6 years with the OU. That's not to say the others were bad - just not really good (according to my own personal opinions and experiences...).

Anonymous said...

Creative writing students are the first to complain - or so I've noticed. So I don't think those tutors would get away with it for long. I think expectations are also very high among creative writing students so we're very hard to satisfy. I'm not sure I envy the lot of a creative writing tutor on any course.

I agree with you, though, that we'll all feel different about what we get from these courses and how good or bad they are. Even whether it's worth studying writing at all. I'd say it's worth it for the contact as writing is solitary otherwise.