You don't have to be a comedian, but it does help;Opinion

17th September 1999 at 01:00
I WRITE this with doors bolted and answerphone plugged in. Just me and my computer in a solipsistic calm, a devout disciple of Dostoevsky's Underground Man. It's the end of the first week of teaching and I've forgotten just how tough it is.

The trouble is that holidays allow the connections between brain and mouth to atrophy. Before class you can try prayer, as many do (Oh God, Oh God). Or maybe, till you get into the swing of things, you could wear a little earpiece as television presenters do, with a God-like voice in your ear to prompt you:

"How interesting, Sandra, but I want to switch now from body piercing and turn to the hanging participle."

As a communication lecturer you've got a reputation to protect. I was once introduced to a college principal as frighteningly articulate. Unfortunately I had just put a treacle toffee into my mouth. "MMMaarhglug," I responded in a frighteningly articulate way. Come to think of it he did look frightened.

So we're not perfect. A colleague once confided: "I'm no good at small chat." I found this endearing, not because the disclosure allowed for a deeper bonding, but because I get those well-worn phrases mixed up, too. Pick of this week are sharp as a button and you could have knocked me down with a bargepole.

It hasn't helped that I've spent much of the holiday writing an interactive learning pack and the discourse has become ingrained. Now I can't ask a straightforward question or make a statement. Can you suggest which vegetable a man in your position might choose to accompany this steak? You should think about a) the season, b) the availability of produce from the garden and c) other relevant matters, I say, when I used to say "Sprouts tonight, darling".

Even the software I've been using has been trying to undermine me by attempting to anticipate what I want to say and write ahead of me. When I key in "yours", the eyes of Paperclip Icon Man bulge with inspiration and the suggestion truly pops up. It would seem he has aspirations for me to give up further education and become a writer of popular lyrics.

Perhaps PIM is right to suggest there are easier professions. A stand-up on the Edinburgh Fringe last month went round the audience asking what they did for a living. "Communication lecturer?" he responded. "Aren't you glad you're not me!" The professions are both close enough together and far enough apart for that comment to raise a laugh.

Some classes are now labelled "edutainment". It's a ghastly word but at least acknowledges the demands on the lecturer. The fact is, most classes should be edutainment and all lecturers have to be pretty good entertainers and performers. It is no longer enough to be good at your subject, organised, efficient and proficient. Good communication lecturers involve their audience, work them, entertain them and involve them. That's edutainment.

Lifelong minister Henry McLeish has said lecturers are crucial. Of course they are. All the research shows that dropout figures are influenced not by finance, which would be someone else's worry, but by the student's teaching experience. If the buck stops here, then we have the added discomfort of knowing that students' expectations have never been higher.

In a multicoloured, multimedia world, we have to work hard to compete as key players in the learning process. What we need, perhaps, is staff development from a good stand-up. Someone who knows what it's like to be nominated for the Perrier Award but not win, and the next morning has to follow readings from the diaries of Holocaust victims with a 10-minute set without script but with a blank mind, a paralysing hangover and nerves of steel.

If that scenario rings a bell and suggests your first week back teaching I can't help it. Writing a column often means you manage to offend lots of people simultaneously. All I can say is, if the cap fits, stay out of the kitchen.

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

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