Boredom is a high risk factor

3rd April 2009 at 01:00

We just don't understand risk, we're told. We're panicked by reports in the press of encroaching pandemics or hurtling meteorites, yet happily take our chances jaywalking on a busy street. Take teaching - now there's a risky business. I'm not talking about the ones covered by and accounted for by risk assessment and health and safety, but those inherent in the unpredictable collision of learners and lecturer when they meet to negotiate the learning journey.

The statistician Hugh Aldersley-Williams has co-written a book about risk, and the way media hype has turned us into panic-stricken scaredy-cats. To demonstrate his thesis, he once asked his audience at the start of his talk what they thought was the biggest risk they might face within the next hour. He expected the usual answers of meteorite impact, or terrorist attack, which he would then prove were extremely unlikely. Instead, a hand shot up in the front row and someone said "boredom". Ah, the chancy, risky world of interaction. Ah, the perspicacity of the retort.

Boredom - now there's a high risk factor. Teaching a unit called "Correcting Creative Text" is high on risk assessment. Generally, it's teaching learners where they are weakest, and whose philosophy is that the spellchecker will get it anyway, so they don't need to bother. And, they counter my arguments, when they do get their fabulous jobs in media, there will always be someone looking over their shoulders to catch anything they miss.

So before we begin with apostrophes and compound adjectives, I try a little reverse psychology. They'll hate it, I tell them. It's dry, but a necessary evil. With a combination of competitive teams, a virtual learning environment to customise the learning, and cultivating a sense of professionalism, we normally get to the stage where there's a grudging yet protective defence of the unit: "Well I quite enjoyed it. I feel more confident now."

Usually, it's not difficult to sell a unit to a class. After all, if you're studying narrative in fiction and film, or creative writing, what's not to like? But even here there's the chance someone will pop your balloon. You have, you thought, given a bright, sparkly introduction covering the main goals. You are ready for some interaction to enable you to fill in the details. "Any questions?" you ask. You nod, ready to respond as a hand is raised. "Can we go for a break?" The Aldersley-Williams risk.

For lecturers, boring their audience is a very high risk - and unforgivable. However, it's worse when learners bore their lecturers. My first-year tutorials as an undergraduate usually lasted 20 minutes - the length it took for the sounds of snoring to emanate from our professor, the signal for our group to tiptoe out of his room since we had delighted him long enough.

Yet, do I worry about this high risk of boredom? Not usually. If you see me quivering in the staffroom, like Linus when his blanket's in the wash, it's not because I fear I might send a student to sleep or come second to the canteen. It's that meteorite that worries me.

Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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