Happy to be between a rock and a festive place

13th December 2002 at 00:00
Be festive! It started as a light-hearted exhortation from a friend in my former college and ended up as a recruitment poster pinned up in the workroom every Christmas, complete with accusing finger pointing at anyone who seemed too slow to sign up to the festivities. Be festive, and that's an order.

The problem is that the run-up to Christmas coincides with the change-over of our block system. Yes, we want to be merry but we just don't have the time. Come in to our workroom this week and you'll see a bemused lecturer grimly attempting to decorate the bookshelves with fairy lights, while the rest of us are frantically trying to press-gang learners through final assessment. Seasonal rosy pink spots appear on cheeks as stress levels rise for lecturers, while learners become jollier and can think of nothing but their Christmas night out.

You know you are focusing too narrowly when Richard comes dolefully to tell you he's lost his college bag - someone's picked it up from the bus luggage rack and has gone off with his girlfriend's Christmas present and his report - and all you can think of to say is "So when will you be able to redo the report?" An abandoned Santa hat, perched forlornly on a radiator in the college corridor, suggests a metaphor with your name on it.

You resolve to get with the Christmas spirit. My young class on a Tuesday are a noisy bunch. I can't get them out of the habit of calling me "Miss", as if they are still in primary school, and most of the time I find myself trying to calm them down. This week I'd prepared a quiz for them - I know, Christmas cheer knows no bounds once you let yourself go - but would this be too much stimulation? They worked happily and noisily in teams. I have two coins worth 55 pence. One is not a five-pence coin. What are the coins? Joanne yelled the questions aloud to her group, as if sheer volume would provide inspiration and they shouted suggestions back. They were determined to win. A cowboy sets out on Tuesday and comes back on Tuesday. He has been gone two days. How can that be?

When it was time to go over the answers as a class, I suggested we should stay calm. "What kind of voices are we going to use?" I prompted. "Quiet ones," Margaret said dutifully. Then Joanne's yell rattled the windows:

"Ooh miss, we can't! We're too excited!" Obviously not yet candidates for The Chair.

The good news was that such excitement exhausted them, and we were able to go on and discuss sensibly a newspaper feature about CCTV cameras in nursery schools. The writer had used the phrase "Sisyphean task" and our detour into an explanation of Sisyphus and his boulder drew a sympathetic response from learners who had begun to think they were fated to remediate outcome one for ever. If their anonymous evaluations of the course include the words "Sisyphean task", I will accept full responsibility.

Matter of smaller proportions than Sisyphus's boulder popped up in creative writing. The class is only fractionally less noisy than my young learners, but even more competitive. The task had been to write a poem on a very small subject. Peter had written a poem on neutrinos. "These are the particles that behave erratically when observed," someone clarified.

Love fifteen. "Ah - you're referring to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle?" Peter countered. Fifteen all. I'm looking forward to the small talk at our class Christmas lunch.

Big boulders, little boulders. Teaching is always surprisingly good fun. By the end of the week I begin to feel festive and full of good cheer. But not so much so that I'm going to give you the answers to the quiz. You should be able to work them out for yourselves.

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

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