Five things I learned struggling with the octopus

Near my desk is hanging a reproduction of this picture, which shows a sailing ship in the grip of a giant octopus. In my head, it’s titled ‘My Dissertation and Me’. I’m pleased to say I successfully grappled with the octopus and gained my PhD last year. In the process I learned lots about aspects of poetic form, both in my own practice and in the work of Eliot, Auden and MacNeice. This post, however, reflects on a few other things I learned along the way – things connected to writing and creativity that I’ve learned about myself and others.

1. Interesting things are going on in Scots language and literature

As a poet who sometimes writes in Scots, I feel like I have a little window on a whole world of interesting new writing, and moreover on some fascinating discussions about language and identity. Scots hit the headlines a wee while back when it was discovered that most of Scots Wikipedia was written by an American teenager who didn’t really know what he was doing. This has ultimately had a positive outcome, with the formation of a coordinated group of dedicated Scots Wikipedia editors. Other interesting developments have been Michael Dempster’s free online Open University course and poet Len Pennie’s twitter presence, as well as some relatively high-profile publications including full-length novels and sci-fi in Scots.

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with the community project Open Book over the past couple of years, as associate lead reader for a Scots shared reading group that meets via Zoom. Once a month, we meet for an hour to read and discuss poetry and short fiction in Scots. This has highlighted what a huge range of work is out there, and it’s great to meet readers from all over the UK and indeed the world who are interested in reading Scots.

More recently, I was asked to write a book review in Scots, which was something of a challenge for me. It made me realise how readily, in formal writing, I reach for those polysyllabic Latinate words that may not exist or may be obscure and archaic in Scots. As this article points out, ‘the challenge o navigatin a flude, complex leid and findin the words an concepts tae express scholarly thocht is nae easy’, and this seems particularly true in the case of Scots, which, for social, historical and political reasons, has not been allowed to develop into a modern academic language in the same way that English has.

2. I actually quite like teaching online

OK, let me rephrase that: there are a lot of things to hate about teaching online, but it also offers certain advantages.

I don’t have to struggle to remember the names of my online students, who are all helpfully labelled just underneath their faces. There’s no photocopying and no commute, and my thoughtful partner can creep into the room off-camera to deliver a fresh cup of tea halfway through the lesson – which might look a bit strange in a physical classroom. The messaging function, which students use quite instinctively, cuts down on a lot of unnecessary hand-raising, and the flexibility and accessibility of remote participation means that students can join who might not otherwise have made it to class: I’ve had a student joining (via smartphone) who had literally just stepped off a plane and was going through passport control.

It must be admitted, though, that most of what I’ve just described are advantages for me. Do the pros of online learning balance out the cons from the student’s point of view? The potential downsides are numerous: access problems for those with poor wifi or tech or with no quiet place to set up a laptop; the strain of staring at a screen for hours, perhaps while quarantined, with no real face-to-face interaction; and perhaps most depressingly, the lack of organic small talk and opportunities to make friends, before and after class. When I think of the situation in these terms, I can’t wait to get back to in-person teaching.

Nevertheless, over the past two years, I’ve embraced online teaching, finding that its pedagogic challenges have prompted me to reflect on and develop my teaching style and techniques. For instance, I have always taken an organised and meticulous approach to planning lessons, but I also try to create a relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere that allows for spontaneity in discussions. Synchronous online teaching has highlighted the vital importance of both these aspects. On the one hand, I must think even more carefully about planning, timing, clearly communicating expectations, and anticipating any technical issues, while exercising patience and giving clear directions to those who may be unfamiliar with the technology. On the other hand, I feel that human connection, warmth and humour are particularly important in this digital environment, and I make an added effort to ensure that all students feel included and encouraged.

3. Everyone’s an artist, everyone’s a singer

When I was mainly a visual artist, I was surprised how often a visitor to my studio would tell me ‘Oh, I can’t draw’, and I was never sure how to respond to them. It seemed somehow rude to reply, ‘Yes, you can’, even though I am firmly of the opinion that everyone can draw. I suppose ‘I can’t draw’ is meant as a shorthand for ‘I wish I could draw like Michelangelo’ – though strangely, I rarely hear people saying ‘I can’t write’ as a shorthand way of saying ‘I wish I could write like Shakespeare’. It’s taken for granted that everyone can write in the sense of having basic literacy, but the ‘I can’t do X’ statement attaches itself to artistic talent, suggesting that it is a sort of binary, you’ve-either-got-it-or-you-haven’t gift.

Art – drawing, singing, dancing – is something that we all do naturally as young children, and it’s only as we approach adulthood that we start to become self-conscious about making art in front of other people. It usually emerged that the visitor to my studio who was making this statement had, at some point in their childhood, been told by a thoughtless adult that ‘You can’t draw’ and had internalised this judgement. I belatedly realised that it’s the same story with me and singing. I used to love singing to myself as I did jobs about the house, but I took to heart some rather unkind, off-hand comments my then boyfriend made about my singing abilities. Before I knew it, I was fully signed up to an ‘I can’t sing’ narrative about myself.

Luckily, I never lost my confidence when it came to giving poetry readings or presenting conference papers, and this eventually allowed me to find my way back to singing. Presenting a paper on Hamish Henderson – the poet, folklorist and songwriter – it seemed daft to simply read out the song lyrics I’d quoted in my paper, so I woke the audience up a bit by briefly launching into song. I dare say that singers instinctively know what poets and public speakers should know, about giving every word – every syllable – its due; in any case, it became clear to me that the activity of singing was closer than I had realised to the kind of spoken word performances I had been giving. I went on to learn the rest of Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye, as well as a handful of other folk songs, and I found a supportive community of singers back in Edinburgh. Defying that internalised critic, I’ve learned more about my strengths as a singer and how to choose songs that play to those strengths. Whatever the song, once it has captivated me, I’m mainly motivated by the desire to do it justice in presenting it to other people. I don’t always succeed, and there’s nothing like forgetting the lyrics in front of a packed pub audience to provide a healthy lesson in humility.

So while I will still say ‘I wish I could sing like Ella Fitzgerald’, I am hereby revising my opinion of my artistic abilities: I can sing, as everyone can.

4. Everyone needs help with academic writing

For ages, I was quite snobbish about teaching academic writing, and I thought it very strange that so much time is dedicated to it in American universities. When I was an undergraduate, we were given a flimsy booklet explaining the basics of citation, but otherwise we were expected to just get on with writing essays. My conversion to the belief that essay writing can and should be taught began when I first started teaching ‘freshman comp’ and realised how much I didn’t know – I don’t believe I’d ever actually heard the term ‘thesis statement’ before this. Through grasping such contexts by teaching them, I was able to see basic aspects of essay structure – such as topic sentences and transitions – which I had been using in a somewhat instinctive way, in much clearer and more purposeful terms.

There’s always more to know about writing, and there’s always room to improve. After all, even established academics submit to peer review and editorial suggestions. Unlike artistic expression (see above), academic writing depends on a set of objective conventions that can be learned and skills that can be acquired. Currently, much of my freelance work is as an academic editor and proofreader. A lot of people think this work is just about spotting spelling and grammar mistakes, but it often extends to commenting on the structure and clarity of the text (perhaps an entire master’s or doctoral thesis), making comments and suggestions to help the writer express their argument as clearly and effectively as possible. In this sense, I see it as being very closely related to teaching.

There’s still no permanent, physical Writing Centre at the University of Edinburgh – even though the university subscribes to a Widening Participation agenda, and there are now massively increased numbers of international students for whom English is not a first language. In any case (quite apart those two facts), writing support should be made available, because everyone needs help with academic writing.

5. Running metaphors are real

‘The PhD is a marathon, not a sprint’ is advice often dispensed to new doctoral students. It reminds me of the analogy that’s often explained to first-year writing students: ‘Signing up for a writing class is like going to the gym: your tuition fees are like the gym membership, but you still have to put in the hard work to get results’. It’s a handy metaphor that I employed in my own syllabus, not least to forestall grade disputes – but I understood it in an entirely abstract sense, never having stepped inside a gym since I was at school.

I started the Couch to 5K programme in an effort to avoid gaining weight. But since that was about the time I also started my PhD, I quickly came to understand that ‘running is both an exercise and a metaphor’, as Haruki Murakami puts it in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I found the exercise aspect in itself to be conducive to PhD work – it was great to make a regular practice of stepping away from the desk and doing something physical, enjoying the weather and the outdoors. The physical and biological realities of running, though, really made the metaphor hit home for me. I’ve often been guilty of staying up late to meet a writing deadline, but when training for a race, the equivalent of ‘doing an all-nighter’ would be stupid and impossible. The only way to achieve the desired result is to commit to a schedule, putting one foot in front of the other and putting in the hours, even when your performance isn’t of the highest quality. Little by little, this leads to achieving what initially seemed impossible, through a process of building strength, fitness and efficiency.

I’m not anywhere near running a marathon, but I now see how it’s not impossible for an ordinary person to contemplate and even attempt doing such an extraordinary thing. I know I’d do well to apply this sense of discipline and commitment to writing.