Tumult at the Tech

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.

Having myself been a victim of the practical joke that is the layout and room numbering system of the Royal College Building, I was amused to find that this was established as a running joke more or less immediately the building had opened. One article, for example, describes the experience of an intrepid group of students who discovered the mythical North-West Passage from one side of the building to another; another article recounts an adventure that begins by accidentally stumbling into the College’s private airship where it lies tethered among the other impedimenta of the roof.

It’s also interesting to find, as early as 1908-09, that one J. C. W. Reith is strutting his officer-class stuff as the Secretary of the Student Representative Council, but hegemony of the Magazine probably belongs to the writer known to his readers as H2O, and otherwise as John Logie Baird. By his student days, Baird had perfected an easy facetious mode of Biblical parody, which it seems he could reel off in industrial quantities. The following, from the November 1912 issue, is fairly typical.

The Lecturer’s Lament

Woe! unto ye. Woe! Woe! Woe! for ye have hidden the chalk, and have omitted the dates from your exercises, and ye are all utterly condemned, save only Mr Brash, who hath gotten him full marks.

Woe! unto ye. Woe! for the day of the final examination cometh, and all of ye stand unprepared except only Mr Brash, who hath full marks.

Verily I say unto you, there shall be lamentation and great weeping, and many shall cry “Sir, Sir. Give unto me a class certificate,” and there shall be none given unto them.

And there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Ye laugh and make merry; ye make a great tumult with your feet; and one among you hath smitten me with a pea.

But woe unto Mr Russell, who sitteth on a back bench and doeth his mathematical exercise. Verily it shall be exceeding hard for him on the day of the examination.

What came ye here for to see? Fain would I have shown you crystals of Perthalium Tetroxide, very beautiful. Yea, and the Rhomboidal crystals of Formaloid, like unto which there are none others, and ye would not; putting me to confusion with your tumult.

And when I would have shown you Alums, very precious, ye mocked me, singing, “I care not for the stars that shine.”

Depart ye far from me. Get ye hence unto monkey houses; depart ye unto breweries, for I, having suffered long, will tarry here no longer with you.

*

One can’t imagine that Baird senior would have been terribly impressed with this rendition of Presbyterian jeremiad, but it has an exuberance and a sense of cadence that carry it down the years in rude condition. I don’t know who the lecturer being lampooned is, but somehow I can most readily visualise him as Teacher from the Bash Street Kids (probably it’s that pea that does it). Mr Russell, on the other hand, I think I have taught, and he’s the reason I now set homework deadlines for the start of the class rather than for the end.

The piece is also interesting as a counterweight to Baird’s later (and possibly equally reliable) description of the Tech as an “extremely efficient national institution” full of “poor young men desperately anxious to get on”. It seems that it may not only have been the “heavies” like the young Reith who occasionally gave their teachers hell — which in an odd way is encouraging, and a further reminder that some of the challenges of teaching endure from age to age.

Perhaps, though, there’s some excuse for the “tumult” raised by the students with their feet, if not for that ballistic pea. I seem to remember reading somewhere, possibly in Highet’s The Art of Teaching, that it was a tradition in Scottish universities for students to signal their discontent with a lecture by stamping their feet. If so, perhaps the Tech was simply following the lead of its ancient neighbour in adopting this very direct mode of student–teacher feedback. Fond as I am of the customs of the ancient universities, this is one for the passing of which I can’t feel much regret.

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