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Three hours in the life of a caring, sharing lecturer

I've learnt a lot from the librarians I've been putting through their paces these past few weeks - not least how difficult their job is. I'd always thought it nice work, fuelled by stereotypes from B movies.

"Why Miss Smith, with your hair down and without your glasses you're really rather beautiful", as Miss Smith vainly tries to rescue her neat little hairdo and smiles myopically at the real world.

Library work isn't like that at all. As we developed tools and strategies for coping with daily challenges, I began to see their job isn't so different. We're both dealing with real people. We both teeter on the thin ice of order and routine, threatened by a plunge into chaos at any moment.

Some people think being a lecturer is a nice quiet job. Indeed, as we near the end of session, things should be easy peasy. After all, our learners have been with us a while, we have grown used to their faces and they all know the routine. Only it's not like that at all. The ice has thinned, and oh look - chaos has come again.

My classes just now range from the surprising to the surreal and my role is continually in negotiation, somewhere on a continuum which ranges from party hostess to police officer, from Alison Steadman's Abigail to Helen Mirren's steely Ma'am.

Let me put a glass in your hand, a tray of cheesy bites at your elbow and walk you through yesterday's class. Ray, sporting a large plaster across his eyebrow, edged in delicately, placed his bag on the desk as a pillow and kept his head down all through the lesson. He'd been dancing on a table the night before, he told us, and his mate had pushed him off. He was, obviously, feeling sorry for himself. Yes, he was fine. He'd been checked out at casualty. We left him to contemplate his excesses. With a start like that you know the session is fated to bounce into the surreal.

A class discussion on the artist John Bellany touched on the accout of his near-death experience and its effect on his painting. A voice came from the back: "I've had one of these." The remark hung in the air spookily while the class held its collective breath. You don't get a lot of time to decide just how to deal with a statement like that. We waited, and the class listened to the halting story. It was touching, and it was moving, and from someone who rarely volunteered anything. Getting a class back on track after a dramatic self-disclosure isn't easy, but Mike's mobile went off as his wife went into labour and he was called away. Cue dewy eyes from all the mature ladies and lack of concentration for the next 10 minutes.

Steven wasn't impressed. In fact, nothing impresses Steven much and he gets bored if he is not the centre of attention; so he tried his best to stage a small insurrection with his mates in the back row. When that failed, he decided there was nothing else for it to try his hand at the task in front of him. When he does work, it's brilliant. It just takes him for ever to get round to it.

Next a student turned up late - six weeks late, because I'd never seen him before. He wasn't unduly worried at how much he had missed so I tried not to be either. Jonathan, on the other hand, has never missed a week and he's the kind of student you'd like to clone: bright, interested and keen to do well. Only this week neat, quiet boy becomes trendy college student, with pink and green spikey hair, torn jeans, body piercing and attitude, a metamorphosis as sudden and spectacular as Harry Enfield's Kevin turning 13.

Three hours, then, in the life of a lecturer. You mop up the rudeness because you know that most of it is unintentional, caused by inexperience or lack of social skills or just plain fear. And somewhere along the line, you get some teaching done. So who wants a nice quiet job anyway?

Dr Carol Gow lectures in media at Dundee College.

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