The alien lecturer who came to convert us

3rd August 2001 at 01:00
I walked into a time warp the other day. Or at least that is what I thought at first.

It started innocuously enough - at a training course that was most definitely of the 21st century. I could tell that because as soon as the course began I was put into a group and told to discuss a topic that none of us knew anything about.

Then I noticed that one of the group was different from the rest of us. He certainly looked different. For a start he was under 40, unwrinkled and suffering from a distinct lack of grey hair.

But it was what he was saying that really set James apart. I call him James for convenience - I never did learn his real name. Maybe he didn't have one, because I must say that at one stage I began to question if the man was actually "real" at all, or some kind of alien mutant. But I am jumping ahead of myself.

What James was saying was that he was a teacher. He enjoyed his teaching and felt unencumbered by the baggage of admin which blights the life of so many of us.

As if to prove the point he indicated his bag of books. These, he said, were related to his subject and used on a daily basis to prepare his classes and read round the subject.

Read round the subject! We knew the words and dimly grasped their meaning, but the concept that lay behind them was only a distant memory for most of us.

What followed was even more sensational. Aware that he now had the attention of all, James boldly proclaimed: "The pay's good too, I think."

We shook our heads and banged our ears, but no, we had not misheard. An FE lecturer had just told us that he was well paid. It was as if in the midst of an evangelical prayer meeting, one of the faithful had declared God to be dead.

This was the point at which some of us began to doubt the nature of James's existence. Which college exactly did he work for, someone asked. His answer sounded plausible, though none of us had actually heard of the place. Could he perhaps be the victim of an alien bodysnatcher we wondered - his script perfect but for those two fatal flaws? James laughed. He pulled down his sweater to reveal his neck. "Look, no join."

So what could account for such eccentric opinions? Once again, there was a calculated plausibility to his explanation. James worked for two different departments on two separate sites of his college. When one made admin demands on him he cited the demands of the other. With meetings it was the same. Somehow the teaching requirements elsewhere meant that he was never able to attend. Then, of course, there was all that time-consuming travel between the two buildings.

On pay, James pointed out that it all depended on the comparisons you made. He was young, unattached, mortgage-free. And most of his friends were social workers, nurses or teachers in schools. Lecturers' pay measured against these didn't look so bad, he said.

For a while we sat and digested this. Then we were distracted by having to report back to a plenary session on the subject that none of us knew anything about. Funnily enough, none of the other groups seemed to know anything about it either.

As the day wore on I noticed that James was switching groups at every opportunity, talking to as many of the other participants as possible. But it was only when the final session was almost over that at last I twigged.

Across the room I could see James talking animatedly. From the expressions on his listeners' faces I knew what the topic was.

Of course! Why hadn't I worked it out before. There was no time warp. James wasn't a throwback to the 1980s. Nor was he from the planet Zog. Obviously he was from the Association of Colleges.

Quite clearly they had put together a team of missionaries to go out and hammer home their latest message - that college pay is as good as that of other teachers. Their much-ridiculed survey to this effect was obviously just a first phase.

The real work - of proving that black was white and that two and two really did make five - was down to an army of Jameses, currently impersonating lecturers at conferences and courses across the land.

As James said his goodbyes and headed for the door I put my theory to the test. "Gibson," I called after him. He hesitated, looked as if he might go on anyway, then turned to face me.

"David," he said, "David Gibson. Head honcho. He is a wise man." He gave me a look of blazing sincerity. "You would do well to take notice of him." And with that he was gone.

Stephen Jones is a lecturer at a London FE college

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