Howler competition

August 14, 1998

Running a competition for the best howler might seem somewhat superfluous in the year that brought us the Scottish anomaly. But in the absence of a nomination for H.M. Government and its advisers, the soon-to-be fee-paying student body showed itself still capable under examination conditions of generating numerous examples of the bizarre, the uncomprehending and the downright alarming.

Double entendre, presumably unconscious, has always been a popular variety of howler. In this connection one would rather not delve into the unconscious of the Reading student who informed examiner Walter Redfern that Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi had a big thing in common: their sex.

Another fertile source of unintended originality is straightforward incomprehension. Ralph Tuck of Slaithwaite near Huddersfield furnished his memory of an Oxford entrance candidate who translated Les murs etaient couverts de glaces as the walls were covered with ice cream, receiving in return for his insight a place at I Cambridge.

A distinctly more contemporary note was struck by the Southampton geographer who impressed examiner Colin Mason with his analysis of screwdriver plants: a good example would be a Japanese electrical company which derives nearly all of its electronic components from Japanese imports, but only uses British screwdrivers in their assembly.

Given that one contemporary cartoonist has built an entire genre on the comic possibilities of dropping a single letter, one should not be too surprised to see the impressionable young getting in on the act - one of David Finkelstein's Napier University cultural studies examinees noting that the use of comas to highlight "stars" indicates the confusion surrounding the term.

Meanwhile in Nottingham, Judith Jesch, reader in Viking studies, could not but be captivated by the Hollywoodesque possibilities of the Siegfield Saga, while another of her examinees in Old Norse mythology and Icelandic sagas was to be found complimenting leading characters in one saga on their refusal to become embroidered with the feud.

Viking studies, with its potent mix of bloodshed, berserkers and high literary quality, looks as though it could become an extremely fertile source of howlers. But it, and every other discipline on offer in British higher education, has some way to go before matching the unending stream of insight on offer from aspirant developmental psychologists, examined at the Open University by Peter Barnes.

These encompass the mildly metaphysical: it wasn't until the child was nine months old that when the object was covered it was still actually there the cautiously assertive, I think it is safe to say that we all inherit genes from our parents. And an interesting new variation on the what's in a name? conundrum: in a study carried out by Chess, infants are placed on a chequered board surface.

Not content with redefining their own subject with discoveries such as that very soon after birth, the child begins to smile to show that it recognises its family, Dr Barnes's charges also occasionally venture into management studies to locate innovations such as the natural selection game, corporate punishment. Nor are they inhibited about exposing previously unknown facets of the lives of those whose research has defined their subject. Where else might you learn that Geertz agreed that the homo sapiens brain develops like a cabbage, or receive the frankly horrifying revelation that Skinner used teaching machines to drill children.

All of these won some support from our jury. But the leading contenders, normally dominated by contributions from the arts and social sciences, included a rare entry from engineering - a Manchester examinee winning Andrew Starr third place with his sighting of an amorous polymer.

Dr Barnes adds to his long list of honours in this competition with this year's second place, for a development psychologist's identification of behavioural theorists in the tradition of Frank Skinner.

But victory, for the second year running, goes to Dr Finkelstein and the cultural studies students of Napier, who offered fresh support for the theory that if great cultural figures of the past were alive today, they would be scripting EastEnders: all stories must comprise a beginning, a middle and an end, but as Aristotle says, soap operas have an indefinitely expandable middle.

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