Reach for the skies with exercises in wonderland

14th June 1996 at 01:00
There's been a surreal touch to this week. On Monday I telephoned our learning resources unit, not a little out of humour because a vital tape had failed to turn up. I was greeted with a rendition of Old Macdonald had a farm quacked out in perfect time. I learnt later that the battery-operated duck can only be stopped by a thump on his dear wee fur-fabric head. Clever idea. And better than thumping a media technician.

On Tuesday my flexible-learning ladies were delighted at the news of Susan's pregnancy. Would it be a boy or a girl? No work was done until Susan lay on the floor, a wedding ring and a gold chain borrowed and suspended over her tummy by her classmates. Slowly the chain gathered momentum and formed a perfect circle. That means, apparently, that it's going to be a girl. Susan was relieved because she's got masses of wee lassie's clothes.

My diary entry for Thursday looked promising. The unit editing group were to edit 10 astronomy units. I found myself humming the Star Trek theme. It's National Certificate, Jim, but not as we know it.

I would say I came down to earth with a bump once we started editing, but that would be a little too corny. Suffice to say it was hard work. Editing one outcome left us with "describe ways in which the earth moves". We thought no, maybe not. And thought again. Then there was the desire to shorten "write a paper on given subject in astronomy" to "write an astronomical paper". Oops! What about "write a paper on an astronomical subject". Maybe not.

When the group sat back, editing complete, I felt a bit sad that the mysteries of the skies had been reduced to performance criteria and competencies. "What happened to just looking up and wondering?" I asked our chair. My question obviously triggered a memory of another strange colleague, with whom he regularly shared the drive home after night class. "One night she asked me to pull into a lay-by," he said. "I was taken aback, naturally, and feared for my safety, but I complied. Once we were parked, she sighed. 'I just wanted to look at the stars'."

There was no time to gaze heavenwards for me, because my editing stint ran straight in to a course committee meeting. Sugar levels low, I found my mind wandering. It would be nice if we weren't governed by the clock, I thought, and lived by approximate times. We could finish classes when the shadows lengthened, hold course committee meetings when the moon was full and plan assessment schedules according to the position of the planets.

In Utopia College, no one would fail to achieve. At worst, they would remain "not yet competent" where possibility beckoned and time for assessment rolled round again like spring following winter. Our language would be cleansed of Scottish vocational educational councilspeak, and we'd dispense with the binaries of rightwrong, passfail, competentnot competent. Instead, we'd use Edward-speak. The Higher National Diploma students have been studying the film text Edward Scissorhands. They've pointed out that while others in the film use the second-hand discourse of consumerism and advertising, and see things in terms of binary oppositions, Edward's language exists in the realm of possibility and becoming. "Seen the ocean?" someone barks at him. "Sometimes, " says Edward. Thus, in Utopia College, the gentle response to "did I pass that assessment" could be "sometimes".

I discussed the formation of Utopia College with a colleague as we walked to the car park. She looked unimpressed. "Aren't you the one who negotiates a 9am start to your classes?" she reminded me. Well, yes. "Haven't you been known to wear two watches?" Well, yes. "And don't you tell your journalism skills students that if copy misses the deadline it's only fit for the bin?" Who me? Under her steely cross-examination I conceded defeat. That way lies Dystopia College and madness.

By next session, there will be an influx of people keen to find out about the solar system. And the more they know and understand, the more they will have to wonder at. Meanwhile I wonder, too. Wonder if I'll be in time for tea, if Susan's baby will be a girl, and if I phone media resources tomorrow, will I get that woolly-headed duck again?

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in mediacommunications at Dundee College

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today