Novelist, educator, researcher and UWP author Paul Breen of the University of Westminster (above undertaking radio media work) is our guest blogger today. He reflects on the principles underlying his own varied multitasking in academic life.
For me, every form of writing is a journey. It begins with the spark of an idea, and progresses to a plan of action. Usually, I create a working title in my mind, then sketch a rough itinerary of the course I want to travel with a particular story or article that I’m working on. Then, to get me through the itinerary, I draw on a range of skills carefully developed over time to help me in writing, which like teaching, is a continuously developing craft.
Regardless of genre, I apply these principles almost universally. However, there are very clear differences in the various types of writing activities that I have been engaged in over these past few years. Since 2014 I have had two works of fiction published, and a number of academic works, including one edited collection of chapters and a recent publication in the area of teacher development with University of Westminster Press. Some might see this as trying to be a jack of all trades but I would argue that all of these works are drawn from the same knowledge base that shapes the singular craft of writing.
Each form of output has been different in its own way but the same underlying principles have shaped each one. Though different genres have different expectations, they share common ground. Firstly, research plays a vital role in laying the foundations for the writing journey. Though this plays a more substantial part in the academic domain, it also makes an important contribution to fiction. When I was working on my first book, The Charlton Men published by Thames River Press, I carried out so much background research on a combination of sporting and cultural events that now, half a dozen years later, my memory plays tricks on me. When I look back on the London riots that feature in the book, for example, I see them not just through my own eyes but those of my characters too.
Once the research has been done, in any domain, the next essential part of the plot, so to speak, is the power of storytelling. For example, Robert Yin, best known for his work in the area of qualitative research, likens the research journey to that of Christopher Columbus voyaging to the New World. This, for me, is a powerful image that I sometimes use in my own reporting of educational research.
Increasingly too, as academics, we also need to disseminate our message to a wider audience and do that in a way that never dumbs down the most important aspects of our research. For example, some of my most recent research as been on political identities in Northern Ireland, which began as a spin-off from studying teacher identities. As Northern Ireland is a hot topic right now because of Brexit, this often means writing for the popular media and here again, there is a need to draw on the same set of skills whilst producing content in a very different genre. That requires other skills too, such as critical thinking, creativity and editing ability.
Perhaps most difficult of all is the ability to express complex ideas in a simple language. Admittedly, this was one of my own greatest weaknesses at the start of my writing career, and one that I am still working on. That’s because writing, like teaching, is a craft which can never be perfected. We move along a professional continuum of skills and knowledge that is never quite completed, as I discuss in my most recent publication. This then is where teaching connects and indeed is threaded through my work in these different areas of writing. In the teacher education classroom, where I am primarily working at the moment, I draw on many of the same skills that I employ in my writing – creativity, research, storytelling, adaptability, organisation – and try to encourage my teacher trainees to do the same in their work. This is partly why I am such a passionate advocate of technology in the classroom, since new technologies are such a powerful medium for developing resources, sharing knowledge, accessing information and communicating ideas.
Here too, teaching and teacher education are part of a journey, one that is developmental but also inextricably linked with self-identity and the story of the self. Every student that I teach has their own story as people and as prospective teachers. Drawing on their own personalities and their own knowledge base in the classroom can make them better educators. To conclude then, maybe the ultimate comparison between teaching and writing – at least in the fictional sense – is that character is central to everything. Ultimately too, I would hope that the strongest characters I shape are the trainee teachers who pass through my classroom in the real world. Or pass through my classroom and then go out into the real world of their own classrooms using skills and knowledge I have helped them develop.
PAUL BREEN is a Senior Lecturer in the University of Westminster currently teaching on the MA TESOL teacher education course, and recent author of Developing Educators for the Digital Age, published by University of Westminster Press. Paul is on Twitter, in a personal capacity, @CharltonMen