Creativity vs Academics: Should universities teach creative subjects?

Is there value in studying a creative degree at University? This is my experience.

Creativity vs Academics: Should universities teach creative subjects?

In September of 2020, I embarked upon a Masters in Novel Writing. As of June 2021, I have mixed feelings about the efficacy of such courses in creative arts, which this article aims to explore. My initial reasoning for undertaking the study was that it would challenge me and help guide me into the next step of my career as a writer.

However, the unpleasant truth was that the course was poorly constructed and sold as a lie. The course was initially marketed as being led by professionals who would mentor the students and develop them into novelists. 

In reality, working with industry professionals extended as far as communicating over an internet forum with very little direct input from lecturers. There is very little lecturer-student time, and there hasn't been an opportunity for in-depth tutorials (beyond one single twenty-minute zoom call) and constructive critique.

Even course materials are not exclusive to the course. Much of the material was drawn from external sources and other web pages commonly accessed by the public. This raises the question, why would someone pay for a course that they could teach themselves?

There isn't any material you couldn't learn yourself, which is a common theme within many creative university courses. As a result, these creative courses have become cash cows for universities, which prey upon students who are trying to learn and grow their creative talent. 

There is also the issue that universities choose to focus on theoretical rather than practical knowledge. In my case, there are often topics – such as character – which I believed could be explained in simple phrases or terms. However, the academic text is drawn out and overly convoluted, with fragments of practical knowledge scattered throughout. At times it has felt like I'm paying to read blocks of text on a white screen to decipher slivers of actual helpful information.

Much of the information is more clearly explained and much more actionable when learning through craft books or similar material. For example, Sacha Blacks Anatomy of Prose, within the first 50 pages, contains a plethora of easily identifiable and actionable information that can directly impact my writing quality. 

An unforeseen issue that I did not anticipate was that low grades or poorly critiqued work seriously dampens the creative spirit and damages my confidence as a writer. Because creatives care so much about their passion, it is tough to separate it from your self-worth. For example, a lecturer may not like your work because they are unfamiliar with the genre, more generally creative work is always subjective. So when you are told that your work is not very good and you receive minimal constructive critique, it often leads to feelings of inadequacy and defeat. For example, it has not been a rarity for my classmates or me to receive feedback, such as highlighting an entire block of text via Turnitin with one singular word of critique - 'bad'. How is any creative supposed to identify the error and make improvements from there? What part was bad – the concept, writing or execution? The grammar? Feedback is vital for development, and these basic comments leave us with nowhere to go.

Despite this, I believe there is some value from similar creative courses as there are networking opportunities, and you are still exposed to new material. However, compared to learning it on your own for a cheaper cost. I believe university courses can't compete, especially at the prices they charge for tuition. 

Considering the various aspects of the course, I do not believe it is worth the money although there is some value to be had. Furthermore, I think the deciding factor is your expectations as a student. The degree itself is not worth much to future employers, but if you use the course as a medium to learn and grow your creative talent, there is something to gained.

Header Image Credit: Patrick Fore


Magellan Dissanayaka

Magellan Dissanayaka

Magellan is a writer and personal trainer by trade. Like all writers, he has a flair for the dramatic and enjoys creative pursuits such as literature, film and games. He studied Counselling and Psychotherapy at university and is currently studying an MA in Novel Writing. When Magellan isn't working on his novel, he's training martial arts, where he's been a practitioner for 10+ years.

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