There are occasions when a completely explicable linguistic slip unfortunately creates an image that overpowers everything around it. Here’s a specimen from the latest batch of Newtonian mechanics assignments to land on my desk:
Due to the momentum of conservation…
My immediate mental picture was of a railway wagon, loaded to the brim with the great and the good of the WWF, the RSPB, the SWT and the committee of every Village Green Preservation Society in the land, and thundering down a steep track towards the camera at an unstoppable rate of knots. A little more thought suggested, rather, that “the momentum of conservation” is the great hobgoblin of property developers and precious metal miners: the irrational but irresistible force that threatens to sweep away their dreams of profitable avenues of stockbroker tudor or streams glistening with cyanide. What I’m having great difficulty doing is reading it as a simple transposition of “conservation of momentum”, which is what the poor student certainly meant, and I’m fighting a dreadful temptation to give him or her a bonus mark for momentarily brightening my weekend.
Reading the travails of those who have to mark Freshman Comp, I sometimes wish my students would come up with more horrors that were entertaining rather than just infuriating. Given how easily I seem to be distracted on the rare occasions that they do so, I ought to be more careful what I wish for.
I was back in the archives last week: this time looking, inter alia, at the early editions of the student-run Glasgow Technical College Magazine. It’s a surprisingly useful resource for the enquiry I’m vaguely pursuing, and it sheds more light on what life was like in the institution. All that’s required is to decode a little undergraduate humour, which is not among the more subtle methods of encryption going. Continue reading
People have said to me, You seem to like frogs.
They keep jumping into your poems.
— Norman MacCaig, My last word on frogs (1981)
The SQA have just released, to the inevitable fanfare of complaints, the list of Scottish set texts for National 5 English (the qualification previously known as Standard Grade). I’m not a school English teacher, so I’m in a poor position to comment on the teaching or assessment implications of their choice — and the SQA do make it clear that “a central consideration… was the suitability of texts for assessment purposes”, not some absurd definition of absolute literary merit. What does tempt me to an opinion is the welcome return of Norman MacCaig to the poetry list. It’s a sensible if unsurprising selection of poets (along with MacCaig we have Carol Ann Duffy, Edwin Morgan and Jackie Kay), and someone has evidently listened to some teachers at some point in the process. The choice of six poems from the eight hundred or so in MacCaig’s published output was always going to be difficult, though, and I can’t help feeling slightly puzzled in places. Continue reading
Following yet another contretemps with an academic publisher, I feel the need for a word to describe the mangling process carried out by over-zealous copy-editors who appear to have read The Elements of Style and no other book in the English language. I’d like to nominate “strunkation” for this role. (Unfortunately I don’t seem to be the first person to have thought of it, but the coinage that appeared in the Columbia Daily Spectator in 1976 doesn’t seem to have caught on at the time.)
The central dogma of strunkation is that every sentence written by an academic can and should be made shorter. Two points here are important. First, I’m not going to deny that most academic prose is awful, or that in particular it is often verbose and self-indulgent; only that reducing it is not as simple as the strunkators imagine. Second, the unit on which strunkation acts always seems to be the sentence, rather than the paragraph or the article, and this can be where trouble lies. Continue reading
More notes from the Tech College… Digging around among the institutional histories, I came across a reference to The Education of Civil and Mechanical Engineers (E. & F. N. Spon, London, 1880) by Professor Henry Dyer, later a life governor of the College and a major influence on the pattern of training it offered. The book has helpfully been put online in its brief entirety by the nice people at openlibrary.org, and is worth a read for anyone who’s been charged with the education of engineering students and wants to know whether they were always like this. The answer, in short, appears to be “yes”. Continue reading
Earlier this week, a colleague tells me, a student walked out of one of his lectures in protest.
This wasn’t exactly the spirit of ’68 revived. The lecture was part of an introductory course in classical mechanics, and the student’s protest was against the use of vectors. More specifically, my colleague had been setting up a problem involving a particle moving under gravity, and had introduced the gravitational acceleration g as a vector. At this point, the student announced loudly that he knew from Advanced Higher Physics that this was nonsense and that there was no need to do mechanics using vectors, and he walked out.
So, what the hell was going on here? Continue reading
Over the last few months I’ve become interested — the Domina would say “tediously interested” — in the old Glasgow and West of Scotland Technical College, apotheosised in 1912 to the Royal Technical College, Glasgow. As an institution it seems to have been a fairly major knot in the tangled network of Glaswegian commerce and society; its struggles to acquire both academic prestige and industrial relevance, while not necessarily a parallel for our own time, are at least easy to empathise with.
The authorised biography of the Tech, along with some of its precursors and its main descendant, is John Butt’s John Anderson’s Legacy (Tuckwell / University of Strathclyde 1996). The book’s main project is to co-opt earlier notions of “useful learning” for late twentieth century purposes, but here and there one finds a little nugget that’s worth excavating. One such nugget comes at the end of Chapter 5, where Butt notes that in 1908 the young John Logie Baird was ”in the same class” at the College as the man who was to become television’s first great adversary, John Reith. Presumably this is well known to anyone with an interest in the history of broadcasting, and it wasn’t news to me that Baird had spent time at the Tech, but I was surprised by the intrusion of Reith. Digging a little further brings up one of those unlikely little episodes that ought to be worth either a comic-strip treatment a la Kate Beaton or Sydney Padua, or a slightly pretentious two-man Fringe production; if anyone reading this has the time and energy to realise one, I hereby waive all claims to copyright. Continue reading