COLAs and DECRAs: a comparison of kindergarten and higher education

In February of this year my 5-year-old daughter started kindergarten. Starting school is one of those thoroughly ordinary and expected events in your child’s life that still manages to knock you sideways when it happens, not because of what it is but of what it represents. My child is independent, my child is brave, my child is smart, my child is growing up.

But this is not her story, this is mine.

On her first day of kindergarten Ms 5, Mr TSC, and the other kindergartener parents and their kids met at the school for a briefing. We all congregated under an outdoor shelter while teachers chastised us into silence, but then spoke far too quietly for most of us to hear. The gist of it was that our children were to enter into a new routine, that the expectations for them were to change. Likewise there was the acknowledgement that our roles as parents had shifted as well, but that we should rest assured that our children were to be supported and well cared for.

At least that’s what I think was being said. There were far too many parents and I was way up the back.

Then the expected routine was outlined. We were to drop our kids off at the COLA if we arrived before 8:30. If we arrived after 8:30 we were to take them directly to the classroom. Bags went here, umbrellas somewhere else. If x scenario was to happen then y was to be contacted. Information was spewed at us by a kindly, but harried (and again, softly spoken) assistant principal. We were told of SRCs and P and Cs. NAPLAN tests and Crunch and Sip. And I thought to myself WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT?

I would steal surreptitious glances at my fellow parents, hoping beyond hope that I wasn’t the only one lost, awash in a sea of acronyms and jargon. Being someone who prepares for every possible scenario, I had been arrogant enough to assume that when it comes to kindy I would have it in the proverbial school bag. Boy was I wrong.

Later I was talking with my husband about the proposed drop off routine. “What the hell is a COLA?” I asked. He replied (as if this as the most obvious thing in the world) “a Covered Outdoor Learning Area”. My husband in his long-term association with the building industry had been tasked with building many of them under the Australian government’s Building the Education Revolution school’s stimulus scheme. Revenue offered to government schools as a part of this scheme was often used to build, amongst other things, large concreted spaces with rooves. On the plans he would see this acronym and came to learn what it meant. Later I struck up a conversation with another Mum while waiting for Ms 5 to come out of school. I confessed in that conspiratorial way that parents are wont to do “I didn’t even know what a COLA was until yesterday”. She turned to me and exclaimed “oh thank god, I thought it was just me!”.

Jargon can be defined as “unnecessarily technical language which provides polysyllabic replacements for perfectly adequate simple words“. Acronyms are a form of jargon, obscuring simple concepts behind codified letters, which then become part of a new language which make sense according to their own internal logic. I am not saying the abbreviations and language that was used on that first day of kindy don’t make perfectly rational and logical sense to the people who work in primary schools, or that they aren’t useful as signifiers, just that they didn’t make any bloody sense to me. The end result was that I felt like an idiot. and in order to hide my apparent idiocy I kept my ignorance to myself.

Anyone who has worked in higher education would agree with me when I say that it has its own internal language which you need to learn. Much like my daughter’s primary school, tertiary institutions create and adhere to language and logic of their own. Some acronyms are relevant to higher education providers across Australia (SSAF, DECRA). Others are more institutionally specific (TELT anyone? How about SMAH? Should I ask TEL or ITS?)

If you are a staff member at a tertiary institution, deeply embedded in the discourse of higher education, think back to being a student starting out in this space. Sure many of these acronyms are useful, and jargons can make sense, but their use is exclusionary. As a new student I remember being faced with acronyms for everything from staff members, to faculties, to support services. In orientation these were thrown about with such abandon that you would be forgiven for thinking that this language must be the norm and that you are an idiot for not knowing. I internalised that, as many students do, but used it as incentive to learn and become a part of the institution. I fear that not everyone has that resolve, and students who face extra challenges in accessing higher education don’t really need additional barriers put in their way. If higher education is already challenging for you then feeling like you don’t know your LD’s from your LLS can be a real pain in the A.

Similar problems exist for staff working in higher education. Mysterious internal workings are obscured in outdated websites and policy documents nobody reads. The person you talk to for annual leave is different to the person who arranges maternity leave, they both work in departments which are acronymed but you’re not sure what it is as the website hasn’t been updated and neither work after 3 anyway. The person who supports the phone is different to the department that supports your computers, and who the hell do I ring when video conference isn’t working? This environment fosters a great deal of self-sufficiency in higher education staff, and breeds a particular resilience in casual staff who often can’t, or don’t know how to access these support services and administrative staff at all. But it also divides the staff between those who know (or know someone who know) and those who flounder their way through the murky internal systems unique to their institution, taking six months to find out information that could have taken them five minutes had they have known the appropriate acronym to input into Google.

This critique isn’t unique to the tertiary sector, or any of the institutions where I have worked. This sector just happens to be the one I know best. But that day at my daughter’s school it hit me: it has taken me over a decade but I now have a passable understanding of the langauge and internal of higher education. For a long time the language and internal workings were foreign to me, and functioned to make me feel like an outsider, even after working as a casual (sorry ‘sessional academic’) for so long. I was familiar with the practices of higher education sure, and was more than comfortable with teaching and research, but I didn’t know the language. I could visit higher education, but it wasn’t my place.

Next time you refer a colleague to ITS, or a student to “the hub”; think about what you are asking them do, and what assumptions you are making. Not everyone knows to stand under the COLA until 8:30. Extend your institutional knowledge to your colleagues and students. Orientate your staff (particularly your casual staff, especially your casual staff) in the support networks and departments they should be aware of. When creating new departments and programs and roles, think about ensuring the transparency of the role, and the accessibility of the services to the people who need it most. A link on a website or a byline in an email isn’t enough: people need to know what it means. I extend that kindness to staff and students I know because know what it is to be the foreigner confused by the language of the locals. It makes you feel like an idiot, and worse, it makes you feel like an outsider.

Meet me under the COLA at 2:30 and I will tell you all about it.

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