Antithesis

August 11, 1995

The phallic function of language also cannot be forgotten. Some chance. Whatever else changes in academic life, the propensity of students to devise disconcertingly sexual imagery in response to the pressure of examinations appears eternal. And no bad thing - the field for the 1995 Antithesis examination howler competition would, like those of all previous years, have been markedly thinner without it.

That response to a question on semantic change marked by Anne Macdona of University College, Dublin had its equivalents on this side of the Irish Sea. No howler competition would be complete without the astounding discoveries made by Open University education students examined by Peter Barnes. One asserted that The penis becomes a salient point for boys. Well, it would, wouldn't it ?

Almost as consistent are students at Newcastle University, in particular the classicists examined by Trevor Saunders. Images of a Hellenic Vinnie Jones were summoned up by the assertion that It was easier to foul a whole Athenian assembly than one Spartan king, while a whole new dimension of epicureanism is implied by the discovery that Epicurus did not believe in splitting the atom.

Similar breakthroughs were being accomplished in Newcastle's English department where one of Judie Newman's examinees found that Shaw's style was in the main Shavian.

Having acquired a fair proportion of its population from Ireland during Shaw's lifetime, Newcastle has now dispatched the howler in return. By what means is not entirely clear, possibly the manner in which Pope Bull first ordered the English language to come to Ireland.

That impressive misreading of Papal orders was among the highlights of a truly awesome list of revisionist interpretations proffered by students examined by Elizabeth Baldwin of University College, Dublin's department of Old and Middle English.

Given the Catholic origins of UCD it was ironic that her students seemed to have difficulty with the church and its members, viz: Few sacred cows remained unsullied in the Canterbury Tales and the church is no exception while one Chaucerian character was described as A none and consequently a virgin. Women in general seemed to be problematic, although one had to admire the fastidiousness of A gentle lady who pities animals and sweeps at the sight of blood.

It wasn't only in Ireland that examinees were giving women a hard time. One of Dr Barnes's creative pupils stumbled on the proposition that A mother cannot be a mother without a child. Another displayed the classic howler's ability to create scenarios one would love to see enacted in reality: Summerhill School, founded by A. S. Byatt.

Even rougher fates were being dispensed by Judie Newman's Newcastle examinees who alleged that Cather's heroine had failed to emulate herself on her husband's pyre, while a more successful suicide bid was reported as Cleopatra gave the aspic to her breast.

Student debt is not yet a subject set for examination, but it appears to be impinging so firmly on the conscious and subconscious minds of examiners that references to it are creeping in, even to classics papers.

One of Dr Saunders' students was unable to suppress the note of admiration implicit in his description of Catiline, the champion of the poor and depressed. And admiration brings with it strange dividends, such as those vividly evoked by another Saunders examinee's observation that Aristocrats are treated with great respect and put up on a footstool.

But this was the year of Dr Baldwin's UCD examinees, who put in the sort of performance normally only associated with Kenyan steeplechasers by taking the first four places.

Whether the student who argued that Most nuns seem to be hell-bent on education was convent-educated is unclear, but the images of an education system whose directness would shock even Rhodes Boyson were evident in another examinee's revelation that There were strong penalties, canning etc, for pupils who did not comply. Third and second places respectively to those two.

But it was Geoffrey Chaucer's year as much as it was Dr Baldwin's. Always capable of confounding students, he can also inspire such heartfelt asides as Chaucer thinks that living a life of poverty and chastity would drive you mad (Indeed it would).

Fourth place for that one, but this year's winner shows once again that there's nothing like good old double-entendre for catching the eye of the THES jury: Chaucer would have regarded the Prioress as a noble, godly lady - fitting company for a valiant night. Thanks as ever to all entrants, and the annual bottle of Chateau Antithesis to Dr Baldwin.

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