In praise of the reps who practise kiss and tell

10th January 1997 at 00:00
Thursday evenings are kiss and tell sessions in our college. Or, to give them their official title, course committee meetings, but that sounds so dull a label for such scintillating occasions. You sense the excitement in the lift on Thursday mornings. "I'm teaching all day, then I've got a CCM then I've got an evening class," Moyra beamed at me, unable to contain her excitement at the prospect of such a perfect day.

The course committee meeting often gets an ambivalent response. Like spinach, we know it's good for us but not again, we moan. As a servicing section we can often find invitations pressed upon us from three different chairs for the one evening.

Yet CCMs are often full of drama. The loose cannon at a CCM is often the class rep. Appointed by their class, it is their duty to report to the meeting about the level of class satisfaction and to register any concerns, worries or questions.

At one memorable meeting, Andy, from our Higher National Diploma second year, complained about the price of chips and beans in the canteen. He'd certainly done his research. He outlined the cost per chip, the cost per bean, and compared that with other cafes in the area while most of us snatched a quick 40 winks to prepare for night-class teaching.

Joanna, class rep from one of our National Certificate courses, was well aware that the class had a reputation for being a little less motivated than we'd like and she was quick to condemn them. "They think they're coming to classes for a social outing," she said, tossing back her long hair in indignation. We gazed at her innocent face and tried to equate that comment with the fact that most tutors found her the most disruptive, if most charming, element in the class.

Archie and Peter, reps from an adult training group covering basic reading and writing units, were delighted to be asked to attend their first formal meeting. I was anxious that they'd be tongue-tied, or overwhelmed. They turned up a matching pair in smart suits, shiny shoes and shades, looking like Blues Brothers stand-ins. Shades pushed back jauntily, Archie read the comments they'd collated with the class and Peter nodded. As they left, they winked at the chair, replaced the shades and swept out. Probably the best student rep performance I've seen to date.

There's no doubt that the most important part of any CCM is the student report. We may think we've got the course design and delivery tuned to perfection, but if students aren't happy they will simply vote with their feet. Their reports give us the chance to nip any problems in the bud and to continually monitor, streamline and improve courses.

Yet the system is fraught with problems. It can be difficult to impress on students the importance of their input. Our education system tends to make them feel that education is a process that's done to them, rather than to feel they have a say. Sometimes classes will fail to support the rep system, and reps chosen simply fail to turn up or the individual who agrees to take on the role will be just that - an individual who's there to discuss things on a personal level. And sometimes class reps will turn up, but contribute nothing, because the class feels they don't want to make waves. After all, they have assessments to sit and merits to achieve.

As lecturers we're aware of the difficulties class reps have and can make allowances for reps who are confrontational, sometimes even hostile and who haven't yet learned as we have - that one can smile and smile and be a villain. Nevertheless a CCM squeezed in between a full day's classes and a nightclass doesn't exactly sweeten the most generous lecturer and a rep can get into a position where it seems the whole meeting is intent on shooting the messenger.

But there's more to a course committee meeting than being kind to the class rep. We're kidding ourselves if we think that adding "student report" to the CCM agenda is enough. That's merely lip service to the customer ethos.

In our section we teach business meeting skills, most of us have been to more meetings than the students have had chips and beans in the canteen and we're holding all the cards. Yes, let's ask them along, listen to what they say, act on it by all means, but don't let us make it easy for them. We don't want them to be too good. After all, we can say, what does a pig know about bacon.

Plenty. But we have to ensure that they come as equals in the partnerships we form with them, armed with the same skills of discussion and negotiation. Our students' union is currently running courses for student reps covering meeting skills, assertiveness training and conflict. A recent survey conducted by the students' union aimed at course tutors elicited a nearly 80 per cent return, revealing that tutors were in favour of class reps attending meetings and training session within college teaching time. It's vital that initiatives such as this are supported not just by the Students Union, but by college managements too.

If courses are going to be matched to customer need, then our reps must be good at their jobs. Only then can we truthfully say we're offering our customers an official platform and real power within the system. Course readers are kept on their toes by reps who manage their roles well. Reps who can kiss and tell keep it short and simple and tell it like it is.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunication at Dundee College

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