Still two worlds? Creative writers as academics

By Shane Strange

In the last thirty to forty years there has been a concerted drive in the Australian academy, to justify creative arts training in forms that articulate with economic worth, vocational function and government policy. This is evidenced in terms of the ‘benefits’ of so-called creative industries to the ‘new’ economy; as graduate outcomes, employability, and skill-sets that those with creative training bring to ‘non-creative’ jobs(a capacity to write, ‘creativity’, problem-solving etc), and to new articulations of work (‘flexibility’, ‘networking’, self-employment, portfolio careers etc).

But how is creativity recognised within the academy itself?  While there have been great gains in recognising the value of creative work within academic frameworks, their effect on the creative academics who deliver these graduate outcomes remains underexplored, especially at a time when the pressures of market-oriented universities are adjusting to tertiary education policies in this country by focusing on vocationalism as an attractor to students pressured to be ‘real-world’ or ‘job’ ready.

How do artist/academics negotiate their roles as researchers/educators with their roles as creators, as artists? This is particularly germane to the field of creative writing where numerous established authors have taken the opportunity in recent decades to ‘upgrade’ their credentials and move into an academy that has to some extent made room for them.

How does one be an active creator under the influence of academic work? In 2013, my colleagues and I were asking ourselves this very question. Does the creative practice suffer or adapt? How do other creative academics articulate these two worlds? Are there, in fact, two worlds, or were we looking at this the wrong way?

much of the work that had been done in this area revolved around either the effect of teaching on (often casual) ‘industry-practitioners’, or on the effects of creative teachers on shaping the creative careers of students, little has been done on the lived experience of creative academics. . .

We found that much of the work that had been done in this area revolved around either the effect of teaching on (often casual) ‘industry-practitioners’, or on the effects of creative teachers on shaping the creative careers of students,  little has been done on the lived experience of creative academics at what Jen Webb calls the ‘cross-purposes’ of academic and creative achievement.

So, we asked our colleagues in tertiary creative writing departments across Australia to respond to a pilot survey: a series of questions revolving around their experience at this nexus of creative and academic labour (Strange, Hetherington & Eaton, 2016).

Broadly speaking, while the survey highlighted a number of complex intersections between the daily practice of creative and academic work, there were three key ‘pressure points’ around which much of the data coalesced:

The undervaluation of creative outputs – creative work is accorded significantly less value in the economy of academic labour. Although the ERA process in Australia has enabled the recording of so-called non-traditional research outputs (i.e. creative works), our respondents believe that, in general, creative works remain of lower value within the formal (and often informal) economies that make up the value regimes of contemporary academic output. They believe that ‘traditional’ academic research, on the other hand, is valued much more highly and tends to marginalise creative practice in terms of its value to an academic career overall.
 

Time pressures – coupled with a perceived lack of value accorded to creative work within the academy is the perception on the part of many respondents that the requirement to shoulder significant administrative and teaching loads made the pursuit of creative practice difficult to achieve on a consistent basis.
 

The privilege of intellectual work – however, despite these significantly negative perceptions attached to the intersection between creative and academic work, there are real and significant benefits perceived in the capacity to undertake intellectual labour within the academy (including research and teaching) that for a considerable number of respondents enhanced their creative practice. This is consistent with a broader perception among respondents that substantial privileges are associated with academic positions, including a high level of intellectual stimulation, the opportunity for communal and collaborative work, and financial security.

While academic work underpins the livelihoods and intellectual engagements of many creative writing academics, these privileges are counterbalanced by. . . the concerted undervaluation of creative work as a significant contribution to an academic career.

While academic work underpins the livelihoods and intellectual engagements of many creative writing academics, these privileges are counterbalanced by academic administration (a fact of life in the contemporary university for all academics) and, most tellingly, the concerted undervaluation of creative work as a significant contribution to an academic career.

Overall, it would appear that there is a broad acceptance of the notion that working within a contemporary creative/academic environment should ideally not involve a binary between creative and academic work. Nevertheless our survey results indicate that there is a strong tendency among scholars working within the field of creative writing to apply this binary to an analysis of their professional experiences, even if only tacitly or unconsciously.

In an ideal world both creative and academic careers would be integrated in both intellectual and material terms. However, the truth is these articulations are far from resolved. Enlightened academic managers are few and far between in this regard, and the struggle to better recognise creative work for its value in an academic setting continues.

References

Strange, S., Hetherington, P., & Eaton, A. (2016). Exploring the intersections of creative and academic life among Australian academic creative writing practitioners. New Writing13(3), 402-416

Shane Strange is a teaching fellow in Writing at the University of Canberra where he lectures in writing and literary studies. His research interests include creative labour and cultural work; subjectivity and creative practice and cultural representations of the city. He is a writer of essays, short fiction and creative non-fiction who has been published widely in Australia. In 2010 he was an Asialink Literature Fellow. In 2014 he was a contributor to and co-editor of the book Creative Manoeuvres: Writing, Making, Being (Cambridge Scholars Press). He is also publisher and editor at Recent Work Press – a poetry publisher based in the ACT.