Clones to the left of me, writers to the right . . .

IT'S all a matter of perception - whether you see the glass as half full or half empty - but the first weeks of teaching do tend to bring out the pessimist in lecturers. It's a punishing schedule welcoming hundreds of new learners and grooming them for success, especially when you're travelling round different centres. I haven't taught in our Kingsway campus for years and so relinquished a desk there a long time ago. At the moment my admin system is centred round a small cardboard box. Everyone is under pressure.

In the workroom, tales of those who have made the Great Escape prevail - to the South of France, Bexhill-on Sea, Australia or Coll. "And they took all their hens and ducks, too, all labelled. . ." Fragments of conversation tease as Elsewhere beckons but you head instead for the classroom.

On Tuesday, every seat was taken by nine. But the door kept opening to admit another, then another, then another. Forget that old punch line "Speak up, the folk on the window ledge can't hear you," this was a full house. Soon I was looking for an extra eight tables and chairs. I bemoaned the numbers to a colleague I bumped into. With a class this size I had visions of taking several years to finish the oral presentations.

She had no sympathy, though. "At least you've got a room," she said. Her class was still hovering in the corridor while a mix-up over rooms was sorted out. "And how come," she added, "you've got a roomful of handsome hunks and I've got giggly girls?" "Just lucky, I guess." Irony, as well as pessimism, is big the first week.

Marketing folk, admittedly, are renowned for their optimism, their ability to put a Ronseal gloss over anything, so my marketing friend was not going to nurture my pessimistic outlook. "Big classes? Oh good. Our strategies are working, then," she beamed.

It's not just the size of classes that bothers me. The students are strangely homogeneous, even stereotypical. The engineers look like engineers, and the pre-nurses look like pre-nurses. The awful truth hit me as I directed two sets of students to their rooms: "Drama this way, Beauty this way".

Unerringly, I could have picked the right students for each class. Cue creepy music. I'd hit on marketing's strategy. Cloning! They'd picked the perfect students for each course and cloned them.

They've forgotten to clone my writers' circle, though. Belonging to what is affectionately - if somewhat rudely - classed as the "grey market," they nevertheless defy labels. They're insatiable learners. This week, I'm introducing them to their virtual learning environment. One is 90, but she's keen to join the learning revolution.

I've always rated highly the social aspect of college life for our students. Yes, they pick up specific skills but there's also much extra-curricular learning going on, especially in social skills.

It has suddenly become clear, though, that whatever our learners come to learn, they gain not just social skills but sophisticated ICT skills as well. Word-processing, desktop publishing, the Internet - all part of student life now.

Once the first few weeks are over, the optimist in everyone will resurface, I hope. It helps that the new learners look keen and happy to be here, not Elsewhere. They're all a bit high with excitement and anticipation. It seems a shame to stop Joannie flirting when she should be analysing a case study, or insisting they return on time from tea-breaks, or that mobiles are switched off.

An education, after all, is only one of the reasons you come to college.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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