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Juvenestus sumus

Time for Yorick to do a Lazarus?

The Lord of Misrule (aka the Abbot of Unreason) used traditionally to surface at Yuletide; but are students today neglecting their ancient duty to make fun of their elders? Ted Nield seeks to excuse a youthful prank…

I recently heard, on very good authority, that at one highly regarded UK Earth science department, postgrads have taken to locking their desks for fear of plagiarism. Good God, what can things have come to?

One might expect this from academics for whom, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the stakes have become so low that they have lost all touch with reality. Such is academe’s occupational hazard - and is precisely the self-inflation that students used to puncture. But no more; for today I fear, when even an appearance at the tattiest Burco Boiler conference must be made to count for something in the wretched struggle to land the dismalest demonstratorship at the most contemptible lavatory of learning, students have become far too afraid of offending. When this happens, history shows, it is unhealthy for the academy.

Now - as a postgrad student I once received a registration form for just such a Christmas conference about fossil reefs, which ended with the words: "I will/not be presenting a paper entitled………………..". Ever the editor, I found this irresistible. Over the dotted lines provided I scrawled: "Granulite metamorphism in NW Scotland". It was the truth - I had not the least intention of presenting such a paper. I thought no more of it until some months later I was asked for an abstract. Incredulous, I wrote off:

“Following Ilkley, Moore, Bart and Hatt, (1930) granulitic terrains in the Isle of Muck will not be discussed in relation to those of the Isles of Wight, Thanet and Dogs. Recent work not performed by the author, using isotopes of Elysium, Nauseam and Cranium, will not be presented. The work of Webb, Foot, Wardle and Dukinfield (Acta Geologica Erratica non-grata 12.1) will not be shown to be applicable in areas (such as the author’s) where Cranium quotients fall below expectations.”

Now, surely, they would see the joke, I thought. Well, a few days prior to the event my long-suffering supervisor happened to visit the convener. Looking forward to all the kudos he would soon accrue, he said: "I see one of your students is giving a paper!". When supervisor duly avowed no knowledge of this, convener consulted (clearly for the first ever time) the abstract book that had been compiled, typed, cyclostyled and stapled entirely by his school-leaver secretary – and who had in fact been made to organise the whole caboodle.

I might have felt sorry for embarrassing my supervisor, but he was a good egg, thought the prank hilarious, and was happy to see stout party suffer a little fall. For frankly, sending out illiterate forms may be bad enough; but dumping everything on a hapless and unsupervised minion is despicable.

Folly, mischief - and priggish rectitude - are surely the proper preserve of cocky young men. I may have grown out of it now, but I maintain that everyone who abuses their authority needs a good slapping. Students, irreverent ragamuffins since the Middle Ages, should always by instinct be thumbing their noses rather than browning them. Alas, a rising tide of solemnity, debt, RAEs and salami science is killing this ancient tradition off. Time for Yorick to do a Lazarus.