Drama and a dash of doom
With a new session looming, you can bet there will be an FE lecturer somewhere clutching the duvet through a long sleepless night, wondering whether filling supermarket shelves might be a less stressful option.
It's a wobble everyone in teaching will recognise. It's like first-night nerves in the theatre. Someone has proposed teachers should take acting lessons. I'm all for that. The best teachers are just big show-offs, after all, who work an audience and persuade them to join in a shared adventure, suspending all disbelief and accepting the outrageous idea that maybe learning can be fun.
In the wee small hours, though, you rehearse the probable scenario. If you're teaching literature, the first line in the script is usually: "Do we have to write anything?" Then the grim warning: "I hope we don't have to do poetry. I hate poetry."
Perhaps the supermarket shelves are not for you after all but, if you're teaching language skills, you will find yourself musing that life would be simpler perhaps if you taught something practical, like how to fillet a fish perfectly, or how to get the cream to float on top of an Irish coffee. There are probably golden rules for success here.
The trouble students find with critical analysis, for example, is that there are no golden rules. In fact there are no rules, and that scares them witless. They want to be told what a text means. They want to be told what to think. If they're doing a close reading of a classic text, they want to tiptoe reverentially around it and say the right thing.
Teaching them to be literary vandals helps. Wuthering Heights is a fantastic bodice ripper and Emily Bronte is passionate about alliteration. Reading aloud the scene where Lockwood is terrified by what he thinks is Cathy's ghost, and getting the class to pick out the light leaping or the frenzy of fright, the knocking of knuckles or the ghosts and goblins may somewhat diminish the heightened terror Bronte seeks to create, but it gives everybody a good giggle instead of the shivers. Pupils also begin to see that analysing texts can be playful and fun and that it's got nothing to do with a right answer.
Successful learning is a shared adventure. FE especially has been built upon the principles of student-centred learning and the importance of active learning and discovery. There are times, though, when you can't avoid just telling them, quick and dirty.
More and more, classes seem to have dropped from the sky, their minds new- minted and empty. The Greek myths and Prometheus's ghastly fate? Never heard of him. Classic fairy stories like The Red Shoes? Baffled, classes make that sign that means "over my head". So you find yourself slotting in the missing pieces as if you are finishing off someone else's jigsaw.
If their minds seem new-minted, however, they are also hungry. "Yeaugh, that's horrible. His liver?" And "Cut off her feet? That's for kids?" And they want more.
So just like the theatre, it usually is all right on the night. A big hand, then, for the lecturers who get up every morning and give the performance of their lives.
Carol Gow is a former further education lecturer.