Writing the future? Creative writing in the classroom

This guest post is by Jeremy F. G. Moulton at the University of York!

Writing the future? Creative writing in the classroom

This semester, I finally dared a teaching exercise that I had been considering using for some time – asking my third-year Green Politics students to complete a piece of creative writing in their seminars.

I say that I “dared” to do this exercise, because it is one that I have been putting off over concerns about its potential reception. There is a small, active English-Politics cohort on the course, but I had concerns that outside that group, the Politics students might be less than enthusiastic about engaging in creative writing. I worried that I could have a revolt on my hands.

However, the timing seemed fortuitous. All the classes were on the same day as the UK’s National Poetry Day and the announcement of the Nobel Literature Prize. I was hoping that would be a suitable backdrop to asking students to stray into what likely felt like alien territory in their political studies, embracing the chance to explore their creativity.

The subject is also one that I felt lent itself to this type of creative endeavour. Environmental politics is a subject that, to some degree, asks students to engage with potential utopian “what ifs” when considering changes in the human-environment relationship. While the 1975 novel Ecotopia is a well-referenced example of this engagement of environmental-alternatives-through-literature, the growing interest in climate fiction (“cli-fi”) shows how important fiction is in developing our understanding of that relationship.

The topic we were discussing in these particular seminars is a pronounced example of the importance of developing one’s imagination about potential futures – degrowth. Degrowth, the notion of reducing production and consumption norms to bring both environmental and human benefits, is at a marked remove from many of our core assumptions in politics. In today’s political landscape, where governments and politicians are primarily assessed based on their capacity to maintain steady economic expansion, the idea of degrowth may appear unconventional, controversial, or, at the very least, a somewhat abstract notion. Therefore, it is a concept that can be challenging for students to critically engage with.

My idea for the exercise was a simple one – at the end of the seminar, after discussing the academic readings on the environment and different political economies (with one reading focused on degrowth), students were given around 15 minutes to write about a ‘degrowth future’. What that future looked like; I left entirely up to them. I gave a short briefing that it might be “a utopia, a dystopia, or something in between” and then left them to it.

To help calm any creative nerves, I assured the students that they didn’t need to read their piece aloud, nor share it with any classmates, but I did ask that they email them to me after class so I could read them. In the seminar itself, I asked only that they discuss the experience: how did they picture that degrowth future? Was there a theme from that reading that they brought more to their creative piece? And (importantly) did they find this a useful exercise to do?

I ran the class three times on the same day and am extremely relieved to report that there was no revolt! In fact, the students largely jumped at the chance of doing something creative. Of the 50-ish students on the module only one expressed dismay at having to do creative writing on a Politics course – an outcome that pleasantly exceeded my expectations.

The quality of the work that was sent to me was outstanding. I read all the pieces between meetings the following day and was amazed. In the limited time they had been given, the students created intricate and insightful worlds that spanned a range of possible ‘degrowth futures’.  They did so in a way that drew on the reading and showed what features of the concept had stood out to them.

So, as we navigate the uncertain terrain of our environmental future, there’s one future I can predict with confidence – I’ll be running this exercise again!

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3 Replies to “Writing the future? Creative writing in the classroom”

  1. I love this – I also get my students to write about what the future might look like and one wrote about what UCL would look like if we rewilded it, which was wonderful. I use lots of optionality in my assessment, so students can be as creative as they like – they nearly all jump at the chance.

    Was this an assessed (formative or summative) piece of work, Jeremy? If you wanted to assess it, what assessment criteria would you use?

    1. It really was such a fun thing to run and see the variety of ways that they took things – a rewilded UCL sounds like a great example.

      This wasn’t for an assessment but I would be interested in trying to do that in the future – potentially with half the word count for the creative piece and half for a critical reflection linked with the scholarship. If you have an assessment criteria that you are currently using for creative work, I would absolutely love to read it! (jeremy.moulton@york.ac.uk).

      Many thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. As luck would have it, I’m thinking a lot about assessment criteria at the moment, so I’ve just written a post with a full list (https://activelearningps.com/2023/10/30/is-it-in-the-assessment-criteria/). Students ask me a lot what I mean by ‘creativity’ or worry that they are ‘not creative’, which is why I was wondering if you have a good way of putting it into criteria 🙂 I tend to use the ‘creativity’ criteria as a way of talking to them about what sorts of things creativity might mean: yes, if you do your own artwork or write a song, that is creative, but creativity can also be about having a new idea or writing in an interesting way. The instructions on the assessment also say: ‘You can post text, pictures, video, audio or anything else. Go wild, be daring and creative, and have fun!’ I think that just gives them a bit of permission. Lots of them really take me up on it!

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