The best start to work is an informed start

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
In the eight years I have been in the communication business I have worked under a variety of banners: academic studies communication, communicationpersonal social development, communication, mediacommunication and latterly cultural and creative industries.

No matter the title, the aims have always been the same - to nurture confidence, to build skills in terms of the written and the spoken word.

These aims have always been lauded by government, employers and the colleges themselves. Strange, then, that communication departments in vocational colleges seem always to be fighting to justify their existence.

Feeling unloved seems to come with the territory. We face hostility from vocational groups which expected to leave "English" behind with the school uniform and, on occasion, indifference from parent departments which give students the impression that unfortunately communications as a subject does matter but they wish it didn't.

Most communication lecturers do a pretty good job of convincing classes that they are learning skills which will last a lifetime. Hostility from students is frequently born of lack of confidence, a feeling of being tested on the weakest skill. Usually, hostility turns to a genuine attempt to gain certification and often to an enthusiastic appreciation of the subject. Why?

Classes are linked to familiar vocational areas, a great deal of time and energy is spent building confidence and belief in success, and continuous assessment dispenses with the fear of external examination. A communication module or unit takes up precious time and is expensive in terms of energy and lecture hours, but the pay-off is priceless.

If we are so marvellous, how come we are unloved and undervalued? Part of the problem is the packaging. Communication? What is that, exactly? Very few people you meet know what it entails. "Oh, English," they say vaguely. The only reason we have been thrust into the spotlight recently is because of the furore over English and communication in the Higher Still reforms - and the media can't even get the name right.

Communication is to do with sharing information. Communications, as we have been dubbed, is about networks and systems.

Unloved, undervalued, misnamed - who would be a communication lecturer? Only someone who believes that language empowers the individual, that education and training are inextricably linked and that in further education we have a duty to give our students the best possible start to the rest of their lives.

At the validation of our new professional writing course, employers were overjoyed at the emphasis on exacting standards in grammar, spelling and punctuation. A managing editor confided that she had had to let two graduates go because they simply could not spell.

As educators, we see career paths thwarted by poor literacy skills. Sylvia, a mature student in my Communication 4 class, is looking forward to a management position in the catering industry. She has got the right people skills and life experience - but her written skills are holding her back.

The problem is not simply with basic skills such as spelling, grammar and punctuation. We need to develop sophisticated and analytical skills too, or face the consequences. If as a society we bombard our young people with a huge range of sophisticated information but fail to equip them with analytical skills is it any wonder Alf Garnet is hailed as a hero figure, Harry Enfield's Loadsamoney becomes a role model, or that kids have voted Homer Simpson as the person they would most like to be their teacher?

In order to introduce the concepts of archetype and stereotype, I split a class into groups and asked them to draw a range of nationalities. I wish I could say that the man with his boot-polish hair, moustache, tight trousers and jackboots, complete with swastika-encrusted jacket and shocking banner was an ironic, post-modernist deconstruction of a racist stereotype but . . . 'fraid not.

In a 36-hour Communication 3 module, the lecturer will fit assessment tasks round the vocational area, develop life skills in reading and analysis, in listening and understanding complex messages, in writing sound prose in specific forms and in addressing an audience with authority. Nobody said the job was easy.

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

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