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Last year I was fortunate enough to have the creative component of my Ph D published as a novel.Would I say my Ph D has taught me how to write novels? As Helen Garner has famously said, ‘we have to learn to write again for each new book’.I might also add that, anticipating the importance of this student–supervisor relationship (having experienced similar, less successful, iterations during my time as first an honours and then a masters student), I followed my chosen professor from another university and across state lines.
In the case of my Ph D I received: close editing of my work (as one creative to another, but, importantly, from an author who’d had extensive experience working with a seasoned editor); guidance on my writing career; advice on becoming an academic; and even reflections upon becoming a mother – and balancing (or, more actually, juggling) all these things.
It may be relevant to confess here that my degree took me a long time to complete – a very long time. This was clearly a factor in the life events that occurred over the course of my candidature, and probably also played a role in the relationship with my supervisor that evolved.
To connect Stover and Brabazon’s perspectives, supervisors don’t only help students navigate the university system, they must chart a path themselves that protects both their time and that of their student meetings.
In many institutions the preparatory experience for this one-on-one supervision, honours, is under threat.
While she has ‘never received any satisfactory, effective or useful supervision’, I’ve been particularly fortunate in that two of my previous less-positive supervisory experiences have led to invaluable publishing and teaching opportunities.
One individual in particular has proven to be as generous a guide, both personally and professionally, as any student could ask for.And while these academic skills will likely have future application, and further development (and possibly a broader audience than my creative work), that’s largely because I’m already employed as a university lecturer.(Both the creative and critical endeavours – and their interrelationship – have honed my professional research, writing and editing skills, but as Justin Stover argues in ‘There is no case for the humanities’ this is ‘a valuable by-product’ rather than the core learning outcome of a humanities degree.I have been awarded professional and personal insight into how I can now further my development alone. In ‘Why teaching (writing) matters: a full confession’, Jayne Anne Phillips argues that, more important than teaching writing, an MFA is a way ‘those engaged in the practice of an art can mentor apprentice artists, and apprentice artists, in community, can mentor one another.’ Our industry has long been aware of the value of mentoring: not only have established authors throughout history advised and edited emerging ones, but the trade itself is founded upon that all-important author–editor relationship (or author–publisher, depending on who takes on this developmental role).As our profession and creative practice differs from fine arts’, so the nature of creative writing mentorships also vary – from other sectors, and within our own community.It’s ‘the kind of thinking that probably does make certain of the young less ideal recruits in their armies of the employed’, Marilynne Robinson argues.) Should I then say, as Stover does, that the greatest insight my capstone qualification has given me has been into the particular and idiosyncratic bureaucracy of the university system?Even more specifically, that of the university where I was studying?Rather, I see the value of my Ph D in, above all else, the supervisory relationship.This unique experience, in all its complexity and intensity, is an introduction to – an induction into – how our writing and publishing industry works.Regardless of the role the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the USA’s creative writing MFA programs have played in the ascendance of this model, all of the institutions I’ve studied or taught at in Australia have favoured group workshopping as their preferred pedagogy. ‘[G]raduates of MFA programs often go on to teach in other MFA programs,’ KC Trommer points out, prompting me to consider anew my own experience in this context, both in the trade and academy.I may be somewhat of an anomaly among creative writing teachers (though not among publishing lecturers) in not having undertaken such courses at an undergraduate level – I do remember enrolling in some subjects, but was always put off not by the quality of the work but by the positive response that it invariably received.