In praise of precious soul-searching moments

4th April 1997 at 01:00
Does nobody ever buy washing-up liquid or toilet rolls?" my husband used to complain whenever we visited my son's student flat and we found ourselves each time stocking up on such essentials from the corner shop. My son held firm. He'd bought them once, and now it was up to one of his three flatmates to shell out.

They never did, as I recall, so over the five years of my son's studies, the corner shop was a stopping off point before we called at the flat. What poetic justice it was then when my son, now no longer a student but a member of the human race, complained about the London flat that had been lent to him for a weekend. "Pretty grim", was his verdict. "There wasn't a pint of milk in the fridge. We even had to buy loo paper." A volte face to treasure.

I see my own full-time students change, too, over the period of two or sometimes three years they are with us. Usually it is not a sudden volte face but more of a gradual metamorphosis. Colin hated the Writing for the Media unit when I outlined it to the class on week one. "It's crap. A waste of time. " His stage whispers were accompanied by much rustling of paper, waving of arms and bristling of a reddening neck. After the requisite 12 weeks' attendance, he was all smiles. "I'll miss this class," he said, without one tinge of irony, or indeed embarrassment. Another small miracle. Well no, actually. Another instance of the kind of hard work lecturers have to put in with students. When Colin flapped at the beginning of the unit, I had some choices; ignore him, beat him around the ear, try to have a quiet word. Letting him talk revealed he was feeling under pressure because of money worries and a crisis with his partner. He didn't want to pursue any of the formal support networks in college. But having someone to listen cleared a space for him to buckle down to some work.

It is not unusual for lecturers to come across barriers to teaching either in individuals, or occasionally in whole classes. You can walk into a room and just sense the atmosphere sometimes. One Monday afternoon a first year group were remarkably dependent - even for them. Finally, feeling as if I were performing an all-singing all-dancing show in a complete void I had to stop. What on earth was wrong? Was there some dreadful event I hadn't heard about like World War Three? Like a primary one news session they each had something to tell. A stupendous gas bill, an argument with parents, a failed assessment. Once they'd got that little lot off their respective chests, they seemed to cheer up and began to respond. We all know that the people who come to study on full-time courses have problems and emotional baggage just like everybody else. Usually it's debt, sometimes it's relationships, and occasionally it's assessments or tutors. Our student service department offers students advice, practical help or referral. We also operate a system of class tutors, lecturers who are assigned an hour each week to act as mentors.

Such formal support systems are vital but the impetus to talk or to confess or just blow off steam often just happens accidentally. Formal systems have their rightful place but so, too, do the informal systems. Quality time sounds OK in theory but let's face it, the most important, most deeply satisfying, chats you can have with your children occur at odd, fractured moments. How much soul-searching dialogue has gone on while you've been waiting for the kettle to boil or peeling potatoes? It's much the same at college; it's when you're collecting in folders at the end of a teaching session, or when you're checking progress individually, that a student will seize the moment to talk. Or maybe it's a chance meeting in a corridor, or in the lift. The most important discussions tend to happen unannounced.

There are times when just listening is enough. Lecturers are there to teach and facilitate and shouldn't overstep their remit and become counsellors and advisers, or (heaven help us) amateur psychologists. But we know the students well and can spot problems and when help or advice is needed the class lecturer can give the student the impetus needed to go and talk to our specialist staff.

It doesn't need a crisis to effect change, however. Often the metamorphosis is achieved through the day-to-day contact with staff and students and college life in general. It is called growing up, and even our adult returners do that.

It is always bittersweet to watch the process. Yesterday, Karen bounded into class having spent the remains of her tight budget on a green glass cruet set. She opened the box, unwrapped the tissue paper and showed it off lovingly. She's just got a new flat, you see. It's freezing because she can't afford to heat it and it's pretty bare. But she fell in love with the green cruet set because it was really cool. By graduation her priorities may well have changed. That's further education for you.

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

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