Should Writers Go To Uni?

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Just in case you’re not boned up on the origin of The Morning Bell, it started as a way to continue the discontinued anthology created by the students of Box Hill TAFE’s professional writing and editing course. The graduating class of 2013 was the last, as TAFE cuts kicked in and our course, already on the bottom of the Box Hill pecking order, was given the boot.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my TAFE course and courses for writing in general. Now, I am glad that I decided to study writing and editing, I really am. I learned invaluable skills, made some great friends, and it lead to my debut book, which started as an assignment. No regrets. Blew my previous failed attempts at tertiary study right out of the water.

But, in a problem that isn’t exactly rare amongst writers, I’m not rolling in dough or job opportunities. Could I be in the same position in my writing career if I studied something else with better immediate job prospects? Probably not, I think, but you never know. I wonder what self-taught writer Lucas would be like? They’d probably be more dick jokes without all those literature classes.

So, I went to great lengths for my research, and contacted my old classmates on Facebook. I wanted to know where they were at, and what experiences they might what to share. ‘This isn’t a proverbial dick measuring exercise’ I said, because I’m a classy interviewer. In fact, I felt a sense of pride as my former classmates posted the jobs they’ve gotten and the opportunities they had made for themselves.

The majority of my fellow 2013 graduates went on to further studies, as they followed the path from TAFE to uni. Apart from two students, the rest continued to study the arts. Most are studying, or recently graduated from a BA (Bachelor of Arts), with a variety of majors. The arts degree interests me, not because I want to start one myself, but because of the wide range of responses to the course. Opinions have ranged from ‘hugely useful’ to ‘basically useless.’

The BA can be the butt of jokes, the punchline being a variation on ‘it’s not going to get you a job.’ However, the first thing I noticed in the Facebook discussion was the work the BA students were getting. I’m not saying the going to uni handed them jobs and internships on a plate, they may even have got them by *shudder* networking like writers are supposed to do. But as someone struggling to find work in the industry with a diploma, it stood out to me.

When I asked the Box Hill alumni to compare their TAFE and university experiences, I got some interesting responses. ‘Uni is shit. TAFE is superior. That’s the short version,’ was the first response I got from Amy, a recent BA graduate.

‘I did a third year level writing classes, and no one knew correct formatting, how to format, that formatting was a thing,’ continued Amy. ‘Tense, punctuation, fonts, story structure… pretty much the essential shit we learned on our first day with Euan (Mitchell).’

At this point, I imagined myself in that class – editor and publisher of three journals and published humour author – being introduced to an em dash. I guess it would be better that struggling to pass, perhaps?

‘Uni is definitely more academic,’ said Arriel, currently studying a BA in Wellington. ‘I find that I did more hands on stuff with TAFE than at uni. However, I am learning more due to the heavy schedule.’ This was the general consensus amongst the students, and I found this myself is my previous years of university, as well as in high school. Knowledge of the theory is valued the most, or at least is assessed more than anything else. For further proof, look at the widespread existence of exams.

Why no, I'm not a fan of exams. Why do you ask?

Why no, I’m not a fan of exams. Why do you ask?

This opinion is echoed in a book I read recently, Funemployed, a fairly pessimistic book about Justin Heazlewood’s life as an artist in Australia. ‘From an educational experience, uni is wasted on the young,’ writes Heazlewood. ‘You can’t learn creativity from a textbook, nor can you understand the industry until you get your hands grotty.’

In TAFE, you are able to get your hands dirty fairly early. In my course, placement was done in year one and in year two the publishing class made an entire literary anthology. Deakin used to give third-year students the opportunity to write a draft for a novel, then take it to a publisher for editing. Then it got cut, much to the chagrin of Rebecca, who originally picked Deakin for that project.

Before you tear up that acceptance letter to university, all of my uni-going friends had good things to say about their courses. But whether or not you’ll have a good time in class depends a lot on one thing – the teacher.

My course had fantastic teachers. They were highly experienced and knowledgeable professionals who, and this is quite important, gave a shit about the students. Yeah, you’d think that last one would be a requirement, but it isn’t. When there’s 100 plus students in your class and a stuffed syllabus to get through, it can make a teacher lax. One particularly heinous example was a supernatural literature teacher at Deakin who canceled 9 out of 12 classes and finished the classes she actually taught early, one time by 90 minutes. ‘It’s Friday night, it’s late, no-one wants to be here, let’s go home’ is not a thing a teacher should be saying.

She was fired, but I somehow doubt the students got their money back for that quarter-arsed class.

That’s a horror story, but thankfully not the norm. Stephanie, another recent graduate, struggled in her first year before flourishing in the second. ‘What I appreciated about university is the study life and the culture of it,’ she said. ‘I began branching out into studying history, landed an internship at the State Library of Victoria and got to meet some great professors.’

So what’s my hot take on this? Well, I still have the same conflicting feelings about uni that I had previously. Is it worth going to uni to study the arts? Well, I’d recommend TAFE first if you can find a course that hasn’t been gutted, but yes, it is. Time at university isn’t time wasted, despite what Justin Heazlewood says, but you may need to go out and get your hands grotty yourself. You can’t rely on schooling alone to shape the artist you’re going to become. Consume as much literature and media as you can, go out and see shows and take other classes. Ed Wood and other hapless filmmakers have informed my writing career as much as my early idols Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett, but Plan 9 from Outer Space isn’t going to screened in any tertiary classes.

So go do that BA, just remember to remind your teacher that their job is kind of important if they start seeing students as essay dispensers.