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Fuzzy logic means it'll all come out in the wash

AJURY citation meant I had to plan a week's class cover. Ensuring my materials and lesson plans were accessible for my part-time replacement was easy. Offering useful advice sought by my self-confessed inexperienced stand-in was more difficult.

With some classes, record sheets and attendance registers seem less like efficient computer fodder and more like pieces of paper we shore up against our ruin. With some classes you don't need all these neatly-ruled squares and categories. What you do need is fuzzy logic. Washing machines are given fuzzy logic so that the machine can adapt to varying patterns of water movement. When planning teaching sessions, you must build in fuzzy logic so that you can adapt to . . . just about anything, really. It's how you explain all that to someone who desperately wants to be seduced by neat little forms, boxes and lists.

Tuesday afternoon's class would pose the biggest problem. They'd taken six weeks to warm up and I knew they wouldn't take kindly to a new face. "Just chat to them," I heard myself say. A look of incredulity flitted across my colleague's face.

And that's when I realised how hard our job really is. Most of it is - what? People skills? You certainly have to be good with people in the way some people are good with animals. And it's probably built on instinct, rather than learning. However, experience counts for an awful lot. And the more experienced the lecturer, the more expert at employing fuzzy logic.

My Wednesday afternoon class is a class with attitude. The first week, they were suspicious, disenchanted, and, I was informed early on, loners: "We don't talk to each other because we don't like each other." Now bear in mind that one of the integrated units we're doing here is Working With Others.

Fuzzy logic comes in handy with such a class. You start a long way back. Push too hard and you turn them off. They are nervous gazelles. Youare David Attenborough. You negotiate terms, contracts, subtly, delicately. Forget the standard procedures and categorisations. You're in fuzzy logic territory now. It's hard work. We are producing a magazine and, deliberately thrown pretty much on their own resources as regards planning and delegation, they have begun to make decisions and co-operate with each other.

Observing them for Working with Others outcomes, I was delighted to see they were working in twos and threes on the computers, arguing, deciding, compromising. Then Graham, acting laddish, switched off Kelly's computer. "If I've lost these two pages..." Kelly's cheeks burned. Graham realised he'd gone too far, helped recover the lost pages, and they made up. I think that counts as building relationships.

Covering classes is always difficult. How can I warn my replacement not to be offended if she's treated coolly? Classes feel possessive of lecturers and hate disruption. We've all been on the receiving end.

"Where's Mary?' they'll ask suspiciously when you arrive. And if Mary has the misfortune to miss more classes, you may be greeted by the oddly disconcerting, but charmingly philosophical: "Is it you again?" Ponder that one and you'll be there all day, so it's best to forget fuzzy logic at this point, grin brightly and affirm pragmatically that yes, it is you again.

I know that despite the small headway we've made, a strange face will send each of my Wednesday class scuttling back into a carapace of indifference. They'll need to be coaxed out, teased into learning, their successes captured painlessly. How can I begin to explain all this to my replacement who's clutching forms and lists like a comfort blanket? I think about recommending Fuzzy Logic for Just Plain Folks but chicken out. The best I can come up with is "just talk to them".

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

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