Confessions of a shame-faced mumbler

4th February 2000 at 00:00
YOU'RE at a party, clutching a glass (and eyeing the bottle it came from - just in case somebody else is thinking of running off with it), then out of the blue comes the question that all FE lecturers dread: "what do you do for a job?"

You're on the spot. And you're alone. OK, there may be some colleagues present, but they've either fallen asleep in the trifle or formed themselves into self-help groups and decamped to the bathroom.

Numberless possibilities flicker through your brain. You could always lie. Go for something different, something interesting - game-hunter, perhaps; city slicker; nightclub bouncer.

There again you could just come clean. Own up. Admit you're a lecturer. But there are drawbacks to this.

To start with, is it accurate? As a description of what you do, I mean. After all, how many lecturers actually give lectures? I don't. At least, I like to think I don't. Probably I do half the time but kid myself to the contrary.

It's a bit like that other hardy perennial, classroom discussion. You have this picture of yourself as constantly promoting it. But if you think for a moment you realise that most of the time it's really question and answer. You ask the questions and then you answer them. After a decent interval, that is, while the whole class tries desperately not to catch your eye.

And if you go for honesty, there's the image problem. But doesn't the word "lecturer" still sound a bit classy. Lec-tur-er. If you mumble it softly and shuffle smartly off towards the crudites, maybe your interrogator will think you work in a university.

Sadly, there is no such cachet about the alternative of teacher. Selecting this label says something about you. In the interests of honesty and self-deprecation, it says, you are prepared to eschew the spurious link with academe, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with your more humble colleagues in schools.

"Teacher", of course, covers a multitude of crimes, roles, ages and peccadilloes. Probably it is a more accurate description of classroom practice than "lecturer". And then if you opt for "teacher" you can always hedge your bets and add "in a college" as a sort of mock modest afterthought.

I have to confess that this was once my own preferred tactic, pathetically hoping to garner any crums of prestige that "college" over "school" might accrue.

But I don't do that any more. Mainly because it no longer works. All right, you might still manage to pull the wool over the eyes of some poor gullible member of the public, but can you be sure you're not actually talking to someone from another branch of education? (Or, to put it another way, don't you always find that 50 per cent of the people at parties are bloody teachers?)

And these days other bloody teachers simply smirk if you tell them you work in FE. Possibly "wino" or "lavatory attendant" might carry less prestige in their eyes; there again they might not.

That smirk says a lot. Generally it can be summed up as follows: "All right, Mr-High-and-Mighty (smirk, smirk), once you had more prestige than us, more money, more holidays, fewer hours and better conditions. That was then. Now it's the other way around. And whatever tawdry little scraps of comfort you may get from misappropriating the title, we all know that nowadays 'lecturer' is synonymous with mug!"

Perhaps the answer is to give up going to parties. You've probably got a pile of marking anyway. But you've still got to go to work. And there too the name game can cause problems, but ones which add up to more than just social embarrassment.

At work the concern with names comes from your employer. Some of them don't like "lecturer" either. Instead, they'd like to call you an instructor, or some real mouthful of a title like "facilitator of learning".

If you think about it, the latter term is probably a better descriptor of our work than lecturer. But then isn't "personhole cover" also a more accurate item of nomenclature than its more pithy male-oriented alternative?

And, of course, the concern is not so much about accuracy as about money. Instructors and facilitators are deemed to need less of it than lecturers. Considerably less. They don't require the same conditions of service and holidays either.

This is the current experience of teaching staff at Hendon College in North London, who have had to resort to strike action when management introduced new "learning facilitator" posts. Strangely, they seem to want to hold on to the antiquated handle of "lecturer". Rather, that is, than embrace the new one of mug!

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