Have you heard the one about the lost fedora?

12th November 2004 at 00:00
If you were to write a screenplay set in an FE college, it probably wouldn't include a learner saying: "I left my fedora in the classroom - has it been handed in?"

"Anyone seen a fedora around here?" I asked my young class. They looked edgy - perhaps thinking of anything from a small furry animal to a refugee from the American Civil War.

Lecturers automatically use different discourses as they teach different classes. Each group brings with it baggage such as life experience, skills and, most importantly, discourse, the whole language packet we inhabit that shapes and colours our world.

So when you mischievously allow a fedora to escape from one discourse to another it can be interesting to watch it scamper. Even more interesting, however, is to see how discourse is changing within similar groups of students who are separated by only a few years.

My group had been working on the subject of violent video games. They were embarking on a formally written proposal to effect changes in legislation.

As a guide, I went through an exemplar, a proposal written by a learner on the same course a couple of years ago in which she argued that antisocial behaviour in children was all down to violence on television. It was a fair attempt, chosen because it was good enough to be inspiring and not so good it would make anyone feel they couldn't compete with such a standard.

I went through the proposal, highlighting the way it had been structured.

Pretty soon it became clear that much of the language used was baffling. We stalled over words and phrases such as "osmosis" and "the nuclear family".

Then the term "conditioning" came up. Nobody had heard of Pavlov and his dogs. Did they want to hear about that? They did.

So off we went down that road. I was aware that we were getting farther and farther away from the point of the proposal. It was five minutes to break.

I got to the punch-line and I could see that "salivating" hadn't hit home.

"Salivating?" I asked. "Anybody?"


"Slavering. Drooling. Their mouths watering," I volunteered. Which was the perfect cue for tea break, of course.

A learner on their programme a couple of years ago had used words and phrases that were unfamiliar to all of this year's intake. What do we take from that? Do we wring our hands in horror, and mutter about the decline in standards, or do we marvel at the speed at which discourse is changing?

One of my adult returners recently came across diaries she had written aged 16 and 17. She read them with a mixture of excruciating pain, much hilarity but little identification. Beckett explored the same theme, of course, in Krapp's Last Tapes, where Krapp listens to his young self expounding into a reel to reel tape recorder. The old man listens, baffled by talk of love, by feelings of optimism and by the complex vocabulary.

So it's not the changes that surprise me, but the speed of these changes. I have no doubt that when my group complete their proposals, they will contain language that would baffle the writer of the exemplar. Their discourse reflects the high-tech world they live in, that's all.

And the fedora? It has been recaptured. My learner came back the next day to say he had found it under a chair. He had come home and skimmed it James Bond style at the chair - and missed. That's the trouble with wearing a fedora. Makes you think you're in a movie.

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

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