People of all ages are interested in creative writing. Once again, a record-high number of people applied to study creative writing at the Open University of Jyväskylä this spring. “The longest academic traditions in educating writers are in Jyväskylä,” says university teacher Nora Ekström. She is one of the authors of the recently published international work focusing on this academic subject.

What do people taking part in writing studies have in common, and what distinguishes them from one another?

Nora Ekström

“Goal orientation is common to the students. They are ready to work hard and to study writing theoretically as well. The content of the goals is what distinguishes them from one another. Some dream of enriching their writing tasks at work, others want to write to become better Finnish teachers. Some want to write novels, and others want to make video poems, for example. Some come here to get further training, others want to continue their studies and complete master’s degree or doctoral studies,” says Nora Ekström.

How can you learn to write creatively?

“For example, by studying your own creative process. It’s also important to join a community. You often become better at reading your own texts, and you learn how to take advantage of feedback better when you know how to give it to others.  You can also learn from others by discussing and by mirroring. What makes your writing style stand out from others? How can you use other people’s strengths in your own work?”

How is teaching based on research?

“A sub-area of the research on writing is the teaching of writing. It helps to develop activities in practice as in other arts. The doctoral students at our faculty study the teaching of writing extensively. For example, Satu Erra’s recent dissertation studies the general upper secondary school as a writing environment.”

“For example, I have studied our students’ perceptions of feedback and developed our operations accordingly. Anne Mari Rautiainen is currently working on her dissertation concerning writing a learning diary in our academic subject. Her work has made us realise that it is possible to write a learning diary creatively. For example, it could be a dialogue with an imaginary partner.”

“A couple of years ago, Sari Kuusela studied her own transition process from non-fiction to prose at our bachelor’s seminar. The thesis of this skilled researcher was later accepted in Scriptum, which is a peer-reviewed research journal in our field. Now our students study the article as part of their studies so that Kuusela’s observations and process description will make them want to study their own work.”

What kind of teacher are you, and how do the people taking part in the course affect your teaching?

“About a decade ago, I set myself the objective (in my dissertation) of becoming a caring teacher who was interested in students, conveyed her own enthusiasm, and passed on knowledge and skills. A teacher’s mission is to build bridges between students. Students often have better skills in some areas (they have more experience in writing certain types of text, or they know literature or the publishing industry better than me, for example). Everyone’s expertise should benefit the whole group.”

Students’ skills are mapped with the help of pre-assignments before the course, for example. They help us to direct teaching.

How have students benefited from these studies?

“The best thing is when these studies provide insights. For example, I like this thought, taken from a student’s assignment and published on our Facebook page: “Ulkoisten häiriöiden poistaminen on oman sisäisen tilan arvostamista.” (By removing external disturbances you value your own inner space, Mika, a student in writing).
You can also read our students’ stories about the benefits of writing studies in our blog. An example is this text written by Ulla Kumpula. It illustrates how these studies can contribute to achieving a concrete objective.”

Can the studies help you become famous in Finland and around the world?

Sofi Oksanen has praised our basic studies. They confirmed that she was specifically an author, not a researcher. On the other hand, many other things also contributed to Oksanen’s career, like her studies at the Theatre Academy. Instead of reputation, attention should be paid to our students’ diverse objectives, which is also highlighted in the blog mentioned above.”

“Recently, I’ve been happy for Milla and Aki Ollikainen. They are our former students, and they’ve just won a writing competition with a co-authored detective novel. The novel will be translated into at least ten languages. In addition to the international aspect, I’m glad that this victory will draw attention to co-authoring.

The sense of community has long been a central part of the academic subject of writing and the Open University.

The tradition of seeing authors as people who work alone is so strong that it’s good that other models are actively introduced for people to experiment with.”

Differences in teaching around the world

A new book called The Place and the Writer (Bloomsbury, 2021) introduces teaching practices related to creative writing around the world. Nora Ekström is one of the book’s authors.

What kind of picture does the book paint of the differences in teaching in different corners of the world?

The Place and the Writer

“Pedagogy is highlighted in Australia, Iceland and Finland. Permanent staff consists of researchers and pedagogues. For example, countries that follow Iowa’s pioneering teaching methodology emphasise the traditions created by a certain person, practical experience and the place of teaching.

At the Open University of Jyväskylä, we do pay attention to the significance of the place of writing, but we don’t see a certain venue or gathering there physically as necessary.

The most important thing is community and interaction between its members at our contact teaching venues (Jyväskylä, Helsinki and our places of cooperation) or online.”

“I’m also fascinated by how teaching in South Africa is adapted to writers’ multilingualism – there are 11 official languages in the country.

Sometimes, authors use several languages in their texts to reflect their identity as a multilingual writer.

This phenomenon also results in the teacher becoming a learner, removing unnecessary boundaries between roles. Sometimes the teacher needs help to translate the text; sometimes they can just sit back and enjoy the rhythm of the language.”

“It’s also interesting that in China the change in the teacher’s traditional role as an authority is connected to creative writing. When I read about the teaching recently launched in China, I began to think that it might be indispensable to break the teacher’s role to succeed in peer support and peer feedback.”

Basic and intermediate studies at the Open University: https://www.avoin.jyu.fi/fi/opintotarjonta/kirjoittaminen

Master’s or doctoral degree in the writing programme at the University of Jyväskylä:
https://www.jyu.fi/hytk/fi/laitokset/mutku/oppiaineet/kirjoittaminen

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