EXPERIENCES Learning to Love online: N M Browne

Welcome to our new series in which our Deputy Editor, A M Dassu invites authors to tell us about their publishing experiences. This month author and Creative Writing tutor N M Browne tells us about teaching an MA during the pandemic. 

When I was young and foolish, I didn’t really understand the point of a Creative Writing courses. I’d never done one and I was fine. Yes. I know, of course I was taught how to write. I cringe with embarrassment every time I remember young me because I think I might have brayed that statement out loud. More than once. 

Fast forward mumble harumph number of years and I absolutely understand the point of Creative Writing courses. I have a PhD in Creative Writing and have taught it at every possible level, from infants to pensioners: for Arvon, the British Council in Greece, several universities, and currently at Oxford University Continuing Education. I’ve done online and face to face, mentoring and book doctoring for published, soon to be published, and never-going-to-be -published -but -that’s -not -what -its -about- writers and now I can add to that - teaching through a pandemic. 

I was teaching face to face in Oxford last February when my sister, visiting from Australia, got sick and I cancelled my class. I was keen to carry on via Zoom, but the course administrator told me to hold fire and within a week all classes were cancelled. It was a great group and I’m still sorry I didn’t finish their course. However, the students got a refund and the tutors all got paid so all credit to the university. By the summer it was proposed that some of us should pre-record ten hours of lectures and provide a hybrid online class in the autumn (or Michaelmas as Oxford like to call it): 50% pre-recorded material and 50% live teaching via Microsoft Teams. 

I have recorded myself teaching before, but I was young then and I didn’t have so many saggy bits of face. In my head I remember an altogether more glamorous figure, wise and measured. In reality I look like a mop headed maniac: all the style of Professor Trelawney, all the warmth of Meryl Streep in The Devil wears Prada

It got better. Practice makes, er, practised. Can I point out that it takes a long time to prepare and record ten hours of original material? By the end of it, I had become so allergic to the sound of my own voice: I could only listen to the recordings at twice the normal speed. I had so schooled my face for video that I now only have two expressions: horrified and appalled. 

I love teaching. I’ve taught online by text and audio before now, so Teams held no fears. All those little circles with random letters on them completely replicates the face-to-face teaching experience… Okay, let’s just say there are challenges. 

The first session I tried to run a workshop with eighteen unknown, invisible, sometimes silent, and often anxious students from all round the world was uncomfortable. My connection wasn’t perfect in every sense, but by the end of the course I absolutely loved it. There is something very democratic about being online. The noisier students don’t get to dominate (and I have control of the mute button). We had a rule that everyone commented on each piece with two positive observations and two suggestions about what might be improved. There wasn’t time for waffle, there wasn’t time to be self-conscious. The students were fantastic. You could hear their concentration, the crackle of engagement coursing through my computer screen to heat my chilly London office with their energy. 

By lesson two, I knew I wasn’t shouting into a void, but talking to a whole host of real human people in different time zones; juggling children and cats, bad broadband and coffee cups, but participating with an intensity that is rarely matched in a classroom. Because of bandwidth issues only the person presenting had their video camera on – but I loved seeing glimpses of students sitting in their homes, their windows showing blue skies when London was dark, wet and thoroughly locked down. It felt like each of us opened a private portal into a uniquely twenty-first-century shared experience. Maybe in lockdown connection with other people is more intense, more precious. It is exhausting and occasionally difficult yet I can heartily recommend online lockdown learning. When it works, it really works. 

I start my new term of (Oxford Weekly Online Worldwide) classes tomorrow. Wish me luck.

N M Browne has published nine YA novels with Bloomsbury as 'N M Browne'. She has been twice nominated for the Carnegie medal and translated into Italian, Spanish, Dutch and German. She has published eight books for young children as 'Nicola Matthews' and has had poetry published in a number of literary magazines as 'Nick Browne'. She is manuscript doctor, writing mentor and a tutor for Oxford University continuing education department as 'Dr Nicky Browne'. Apart from these multiple identity issues, she lives an unremarkable life with her husband and whichever of her four children needs a bed. 

Her tenth novel, Bad Water is out now.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting Nicky! As TA myself, it's been a steep learning curve this third lockdown teaching and supporting lessons online. Good to hear how a professional has also struggled but learned to love the new teaching platforms. :)


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