"IT MUST be fascinating getting to know a new class," Susie, one of my Wednesday morning students said as we walked to the first class of the new block. "A bit like unwrapping a big pile of Christmas parcels."
The simile was topical and deadly accurate. As everyone in further education knows, none of the parcels comes with a label Fragile or Handle with Care, so you never know what you're going to get once you start peeling away the layers of shiny paper. Something you've always wanted or something you'd like to return.
This block, though, I've discovered most of my classes are already unwrapped. Some have been with the college for nearly three years. Knowing your students well, however, doesn't make them appear any the less interesting.
Vicki used to be blonde until she dyed her hair lime green. It wasn't quite what she intended and she couldn't concentrate on her assessment for worry. She and her boyfriend had just landed a modelling contract with a jeans manufacturer and were flying to Berlin that weekend. "They're paying us fantastic money, but my hair," she wailed. "It's not what I wanted." She should have my worries, I thought.
A fascinating weekend dominated by a carload of assessments to plough through. Peter's, however, wasn't one of them. He had waylaid me on the stairs that morning and confessed he still hadn't come up with an idea for his project.
"Well you've got all lunch time to think about it," I told him in the voice that lecturers use when their patience is just about exhausted.
In the afternoon, he turned up only to excuse himself. "I had my tongue pierced at lunch time," he mumbled painfully. "And it's beginning to hurt. "
It was an original excuse and I was intrigued. "How much did it cost?" He struggled for some time with the tense fricative but eventually he managed "Th-Th-thirty quid."
Retaining students doesn't just mean fewer surprises and less stress for the lecturer. It's obviously cost-effective and the longer students have spent learning a skill or gaining a qualification, the more committed they usually are. No longer mysterious parcels, they are old friends, house trained and familiar with the territory.
But brand new students, brand new groups often face a challenging first few weeks though most take it in their stride. The forming, storming, norming and performing processes of settling in usually cause hardly a blip.
One of our new groups, however, seemed to hit problems head on. A thorough mix of ages, background and experience, they didn't seem to be able to find a way to work together in order to draw support from each other.
Richard, the baby of the group, was finding the transition painful. He had left his school chums behind - "I could phone them up but what do I say?" - and he hadn't made any new friends at college. "People turn up for classes and then disappear," he complained.
"There's nowhere to socialise, nowhere you can drop in and be sure of finding somebody to have a beer with."
He has a point. We retain our students for all sorts of reasons but one of them isn't that socialising is made easy. Despite a proactive student's union, college facilities do not compare well with those afforded to university students.
We can all rehearse the mitigating factors. The complex pattern of attendance and large numbers of part-time students. The fact that most come from the immediate surrounding area means that huge numbers already have a life thank you very much and don't need college to provide anything more than education and training.
The introduction of fees and loans also means that students spend long hours in part-time work. Yet it's precisely because of that fractured existence that students need suitable leisure facilities.
Whatever the difficulties and financial considerations we can argue, we do recognise that we could do a whole lot more to ensure that college is a real focal point in our students' lives.
Thankfully, Richard's unhappiness was short-lived. The problem with our new group was solved when they became aggrieved about option choices. "It was great," Richard said. "We spent lunch times with the whole class squashed round a table meant for six in the canteen and everybody was talking and arguing all at once." They were drawn together in magnificent resentment.
It was one way to get them all together, I suppose, but it would probably have been a mite safer if we could have afforded them a less negative scenario for bonding. Richard suggests a cosy little bar, a disco, and a few good gigs every month.
Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media communication at Dundee College.