A lecturer is someone in need of serious help

30th May 1997 at 01:00
"Have you thought about teaching?" I asked Jim. "Lecturing in Further Education?" "No," he said slowly and decisively. "I think I'd like a job. " An interesting distinction in interesting times.

A mature student who'd excelled during his time with us, Jim is now a few weeks away from completing his subsequent degree course. As students tend to do at this time of year, he'd popped in over tea break to keep his former lecturers up to date with his news. His years in industry, his experience of being a mature student and his interpersonal skills would probably make him an ideal candidate for teaching in F.E. His nice distinction, however, set me wondering.

I can visualise a recruitment campaign, something along the lines of the old Persil ads. Fresh-faced Jim shaking hands with kindly lecturer as he sets out to conquer the world. The voice-over, dripping with warmth and sentiment, asks: "What is a lecturer?" Subsequent shots show the kindly lecturer chatting to knots of happy, laughing students over coffee in bright sunny canteens or facilitating eager learners in their thirst for excellence as they listen to advice and encouragement, or offering slick Powerpoint presentations where everything responds to a flick of mouse's tail. The voice-over concludes: "a lecturer is someone who cares, someone who will guide and shape the future of those in her care and who is valued for the contribution she makes."

Sometimes I look at my job description and try to fit what I do with what's written there. Everyone should have a hobby. I remember, too, as acting course leader, rebelling against writing out hundreds of yellow Post-Its, passing on messages, filling in forms. "Surely this isn't a good use of my time?" I asked, rather naively. "You're co-ordinating the activities of the college," I was told severely from on-high and given another month's supply of Post-its. So that explained it, I thought to myself. I may seem to be swamped with menial, unimportant, ineffective tasks, but I'm really a Big Shot.

But what is a lecturer? There are some lecturers in our college who lecture, who teach in only one centre and even have their own rooms. With pot plants. And lead sensible lives. Then there are the rest of us who can be teaching in any one of five centres, nomads who wander the earth clutching piles of folders and everything but the kitchen sink just in case. A different species.

Let's re-run that promo. Voice-over by David Attenborough, in a hoarse whisper: "What is a lecturer? A lecturer is a wild-eyed, long-armed creature who frequently emits high-pitched cries of What day is it? and, when the answer is supplied, dashes off wailing I'm supposed to be at Melrose Campus!" Better? Or even closer to the truth, let's forget the anthropological approach and try farce. "A lecturer is someone who, having fought for a room with dark curtains in order to show an important video to important people, discovers the curtains have been taken down during repainting and now lie in dark velvety puddles on the floor. And yes, it is the only day of the year when the sun is in God's heaven with a vengeance." Cue John Cleese jumping up and down on aforesaid curtains.

Or let's go for a straight no-nonsense definition. "A lecturer," coos the voice-over, "is a masochist."

It really is the only explanation. As if the job wasn't punishment enough, we're always asking for more opportunities to fill our time creatively.

My colleague and I should really be kept well separated to avoid the "Generating of Ideas" problem. This time it was our contribution to the College's "Africa Day." There was to be a spectacle of music, drama, dance and painting and "A Taste of Africa" food at three. Could the creative writing group do something, too? A small request, surely. When the pair of us get together, however, small ideas germinate and pretty soon we're playing George Kennedy in Airport and controlling the destinies of hundreds of people. Phone my husband and tell him I'll be gone some time. Fix me a sandwich. Clear runway nine. Of the pair, Jane is the outrageous one and I am the sensible one who scrapes her off the ceiling and is obligated to say, "Well no, I don't really think Cherie will be free."

A Poetry Competition it was. Once the entries were in, the Print Production Editing and Design students were given their heads to produce the poems in poster form so that entries could be displayed. They are, naturally, state-of-the-art. Indeed, some of the designs are so good you can hardly read the words. Extra copies have been run off as souvenirs for the entrants. We have a slot - sorry, "window" - in the proceedings booked specially for the award of the prize, which is sponsored by our local Waterstones. The dancers will be stilled, the drums quietened and the drama students physically restrained, while our principal presents the writer with the award. And because Jane and I never know when to stop, there's even going to be orange juice and nibbles.

The preparations are now complete. I wonder, as I write this, if our Curriculum Manager knows he's giving a speech on "Writing on Africa?" I'm sure I stuck a Post-It on his desk.

So, shall we firm up this recruitment video? "What is a lecturer? A lecturer is a masochist who doesn't know when to stop." Jim's probably right. Better with a real job.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in MediaCommunications at Dundee College

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