Halloween: Language & Culture

With the last post being about holidays, that makes this an easy  transition into festivals and today is Halloween.

Halloween is traditionally a time of trick or treat, costumes, sweets and ghost stories. However, there’s also lots of language that surrounds it and can be useful in other contexts.

The phrase ‘trick or treat’ starts us off with an overt threat in exchange for a pay off. If the householder does not offer the children a treat, (or sometimes if the treat is not what the kids want) a trick will be played on them. One house in my neighbourhood was famous for handing out toothbrushes. Kicking in or stealing the pumpkin, toilet paper draped over a tree, a raw egg thrown at the door or window are all examples of some of the tricks played on them, some of them almost traditional as annual occurrences themselves.

Halloween is also a time for dressing up in costumes, wearing masks etc. There’s a number of expressions that can be tied in here. Some people have a ‘mask’ that they wear in public, work, family situations. They pretend to be, or not be something that they are. At Winchester some of the staff usually joke about mr Chips or Hogwarts around graduation ceremonies where we all wear our academic gowns for the only time in the year. Hogwarts was especially popular as Miriam Margolyes was receiving her honorary PhD this year, alongside Patrick Gale, who’s now the third doctor in his family.

You can get ‘dressed up’ as anything you like at Halloween. But, if your colleague ‘dresses up’ a ‘problem’ as an ‘opportunity’ then they are displaying positive thinking, if not necessarily realism.

Occasionally people show the person ‘behind the mask’ meaning that they actually express their true ideas or self as opposed to a watered down version they think will be more acceptable. Of course some people ‘wear their heart on their sleeve’ meaning that they never hide what they feel. Often interviews with celebrities or public figures claim to show you the ‘man/woman behind the mask’ exposing their most private and inner selves. Bringing to mind another idiom ‘like peeling and onion’ meaning that there is always something hidden and always another layer.

In cartoons and comic books the villans, (and sometimes the heroes) are often masked. This gives us the phrase ‘to unmask’ meaning to reveal someone who was previously hidden or anonymous. Of course mask can also be used in cosmetics, meaning to hide or reduce the visibility of something, and also as a treatment for you face, often involving sliced cucumbers apparently.

The pumpkin or jack-o-lantern is a popular symbol of Halloween. A type of squash pumpkins are traditionally carved into faces, originally to scare away bad spirits but more recently the carving has almost become an art form in of itself even jumping into marketing.

Of course there are those that claim Halloween, like Valentine’s Day is a ‘hallmark holiday’ a made up festival with its roots no deeper than a marketing campaign. (That expression connects to the Hallmark card company.) Halloween is connected at least in theme to Samhain an ancient British festival celebrating the autumn, but with all the marketing effort behind confectionary, costumes & carving perhaps the holiday has changed.



Sorry for going quiet on you last week.

I was on holiday, with my family for my birthday. Yes thanks had a lovely time and since we’re back things have been a little busy.

Holidays and friends and family are an important part of your studies. Yes it’s true. Recent developments including brain imaging have proven empirically what many educators (especially those that work with young children) have believed for many years. Breaks and rest are important for learning.

Vanishingly few people can accurately and clearly recall (beyond a few hours) any significant data from an all night cramming session. There are suggestions that they may actually harm performance on exams rather than improve scores.

This is a tricky one to investigate as actually getting people to do something we think would be bad for them, both individually and in terms of academic marks is unethical. Meaning we are stuck with anecdotal non-empirical evidence from people’s memories, that we are at the same time hypothesising are impeded by the very events we are trying to study.

It is important to try to spend enough (as much time as it takes) on academic tasks (as well as any other mentally demanding task or activity). However, the breaks are just as important. The evidence from neural imaging (brain scans) seems to indicate that we actually learn in breaks. Our minds actually construct and formalise the ideas of our new knowledge when our minds are at rest and recreation.  Of course this means that we need to start our studying a little earlier, leaving us time to have a meal with friends, a chat with our families and a good nights sleep before the exam.

Language & Study Progress

Last night we were running a workshop on targeting assignments better towards the task as set. This is because a large numbers of students drop grade bands or even fail assessments because they have done good work, possibly very good work, but not the work they were asked to do. A couple of years ago I was reading a really prescient, cutting and well crafted poetry essay; the problem was I wasn’t teaching poetry. The student in question had written well, with evidence of revision and reflection, they had original ideas and creative observations that demonstrated a high level of analysis. They could have got a 1st or 2.1 (I can’t say I don’t teach poetry) if it had been a poetry module but it wasn’t.

Understanding what you have been asked to do is essential to producing work that will get the mark you want. Related to this is understanding how that work will be assessed and evaluated which is why we included reading and understanding grade band descriptors. (The name varies from institution to institution but this is the document that your tutors use to evaluate and judge your work. So that tutor A’s students get the same treatment as tutor B’s

Although we were focusing on the bookends of an assignment, the task and the assessment most of the questions related to the research and the writing. This made me realise again just how connected everything in an extensive written assignment is. If you write carelessly and at the last-minute it will affect your marks just as much as if you don’t really understand the theories or approaches you are trying to use as will a failure to do and evaluate research.

This makes this an exercise that is tricky and demanding to master (or teach). So how can we get better at essays and reports.

  • Plan your work. Try to work out how long each stage will take and what you will need to have done in what order.
  • Read around the subject not at it? If you only have one text or view of a topic it is almost impossible to be critical when approaching it. Reading one introduction to XYZ might be faster but it’s rarely enough for higher level thinking & study.
  • Organise your work. Being organised will save you time and reduce the stress of the work. Remember it’s impossible to plan for inspiration but you can plan time to allow for organisation.
  • Give yourself time. And then pad it out with some extra time. Nobody can be brilliant all the time and the brain needs breaks from time to time.
  • Read your work. Have you written what you mean? Do your sentences make sense and work towards your task. Read it aloud or get a friend to read it to you.
  • Evaluate your work. Have you done enough? Have you done everything you (reasonably) can to ensure you get the grades you need (if not always the ones you want).
  • Sleep on it. Ok you don’t need it under the pillow. But, you do need to give yourself time to work on things and for your brain to work through them.
  • Step by step: don’t write your conclusion before you do your research. This is poor academic practice. How can you know what your research will find before you do it?

That adds up nicely to progress, you may not be able to go from a D or a 3rd student to top of the class overnight ,or even in one semester, but you can make progress towards getting the marks you want.

Language, Memory, Poetry.

Today is national poetry day, (in the UK). While poetry has its fashions and both waxes and wanes in popularity. It is often a little used resource in the classroom, more of this a little later. Anyway, right now, here is a poem, to be precise a limerick, for you.

There once was a man who said “Damn!
It is borne in upon me I am
An engine that moves
In predestinate grooves;
I’m not even a bus, I’m a tram.”
Maurice E. Hare (1886-1967)

Some argue that the human mind and language is natural or pre-determined, we call these theories nativism. And Hare’s poem is often used to support, frame or introduce this argument.

One suggestion as to why many plays, and stories were originally recorded in a poetic form is that this made it easer for them to be memorised in a preliterate society. Additionally sung poems, raps or jazz chants (or 5 beats if you’re UK based) are often used in both childhood and the earlier stages of adult foreign language learning. Indeed my first memories of learning French are songs. Over the years I’ve had many students who got into music that had English lyrics much more readily than learning the same words or grammatical rules needed to understand or reproduce the song.

There are a number of theories as to why poems, and song lyrics are so easy to remember.

  1. They repeat themselves and are easy to play again, (at least since recorded music).
  2. The rhythms and rhymes of the lyrical structure often mean one or two grammatical patterns are repeated throughout the song.
  3. Any new vocabulary in the song is likely to belong to a lexical set, (a group of words linked by usage or context).
  4. Songs activate a listener’s musical intelligence to complement their linguistic intelligence, any singing or even dancing done also ties in the physical intelligences, and it seems that the more of the brain you use to learn language the better this works.