A Stirling University Photo Essay

This blogpost is an example of a photo essay as recommended elsewhere on this site in the How To Write A Photo Essay article. This is a brief demonstration of the photo essay principles. This is not supposed to be a literary masterpiece! And first, you may want to read the How To report in order to fully understand the structure of this piece.

A Stirling University Photo Essay

When I was young I lived just outside Swindon. I liked to travel. I visited many places including London, Oxford, Sheffield and Stirling. I didn’t know at the time that one day I would apply to study Japanese at London, Oxford, Sheffield and Stirling. They were the only four universities in the UK which offered Japanese & Business Studies.

The Campus at Stirling University

I received offers of places only from Sheffield and from Stirling and I chose Stirling, a very new, immature university, reputed to have the most beautiful campus in the UK. I hadn’t realised that Sheffield had the better reputation and would have been a wiser career choice. I had based my decision on the territory. Not only was Sheffield an ugly place back then, it had hills throughout the city, and you needed muscly legs to walk up and down them. By contrast, Stirling was clean tidy place, surrounded by beautiful countryside. It was a charming small town. And parking my car in Stirling was a lot less trouble than parking it in Sheffield!

Japan was in the ascendancy back then, and a joint honours degree in Japanese & Business Studies sounded like the right thing to do. I had already been to Japan on holiday (long before it became a popular choice) and pre-holiday I had spent time learning the language from a book and cassette course. I did that a lot. I had learned Spanish for my Mexico holiday, long before I ever went to Spain.

At Stirling, Business Studies was an odd subject, and I wasn’t keen on the deeply academic discussion and all the essay writing. The modules in year 1 were common to the Business Studies course, the Marketing, and the Management Science courses. By the end of year 1, I had elected to follow the Management Science course instead. It involved more mathematical modelling and computer modelling, alongside a reduced requirement for essay writing. It was also a BSc course whereas Business Studies was a BA.

I elected to study Computer Science as my extra subject for one year. Those were the days of terminals attached to mainframe computers. Desktops like the one in the photo were a dream, this was the era of the first few massive clunky desktop computers with primitive black and white CRT screens.

Unbeknown to me until about two weeks before I arrived in Stirling, I had to do a third subject! Apparently everybody knows that Scottish Universities require year 1 undergrads to study three subjects. I didn’t, nor did a number of other students from schools in England. Perhaps it’s widespread knowledge across Scotland, and if your English school had some wise advisors, you might also have been told about this. I wasn’t! My advisor at my school said “go and study maths, it’s the only thing you’re good at”. Consequently I didn’t hold my advisor in high esteem, and that’s probably why I went to few of those meetings!

Study was a mix of lectures, small group tutorials, some computer lab work, and a lot of regular classroom work with a native speaker Japanese teacher. At the start there were 30 students of Japanese, whereas at the end there were just 6. Japanese and Computer Science were reputedly the two most difficult subjects at Stirling, and I was doing them both. In my year I was one of three with that combination. By year 3 there was nobody doing joint honours in Japanese and Computer Science.

The reason that Scottish Universities require year 1 undergrads to study three subjects is that you have an option to change your degree at the start of year 2. Everybody is required to drop one subject, and it can be any of the three that you originally chose. I stuck to my plan, and dropped my subsidiary subject Computer Science to focus on what I came for, Japanese and Business. I was planning to graduate, to move to Japan and make my fortune in the leading economy that Japan was in those days.

Year 2 started with my modified plan, Japanese and Management Science, and across every subject area, year 2 had a smaller cohort of students than year 1. I had also worked out that I could skip many lectures. I was diligent, I did the required Management Science reading in advance, I learnt nothing new in lectures and realised that they were just snapshots for students who hadn’t bothered to do the reading. I went to all my tutorials and I did well. The time I saved skipping lectures was put into more self study of Japanese. It’s actually like two subjects in one anyway. Anybody can learn to speak the language, but reading and writing was a massive challenge, and I spent hours every week working on that.

The attrition rate in Japanese continued throughout year 2. We were down from the original 30 to 15 in a very short time. People dropped out in all subject areas. I tried to stress this to the new year 1 students. I met many of them through the University’s Japan Society which I chaired throughout year 2. We organised educational, social, and food themed events, and many film nights using an old VHS video player. And a Ceilidh. In Scotland, every society in every Uni has to stage an annual Ceilidh, I think it might be a legal requirement!

University life was always fluid. The staff let on to me that they usually know within 4 weeks of the start of year 1 which students of Japanese would drop out, and when. They kindly said that I would make it to the end.

The only thing that is certain is change. Year after year, not only did we move from halls to rented flats and back, some people simply moved away and never came back. Year 3 meant even fewer classroom lessons than before, a regular calendar of lectures (all of which I skipped) and in my final term all my tutorials fell on a Thursday. I went and got a job! I worked in Glasgow four days a week, and attended Uni on Thursdays.

During one of the sparsely attended Management Science lectures a make shift attendance register was passed around. The tutors had realised that lots of us just didn’t show up. Naturally, I wasn’t there when that happened! Remarkably one of my friends was there and his girlfriend was there, sitting in on that particular lecture for no special reason. Under his direction, she wrote my name on the list, in her hand writing! Year 3 saw me earning good money and earning my degree.

I went to Uni to study Japanese, and I graduated, with a BSc in Japanese! Had I followed the original plan, Japanese & Business Studies (both BA courses) I would have definitely graduated with a BA. By switching to Management Science part way through, and by gaining credits for my Computer Science studies, I ended my time at Uni with more science credits than arts one. Hence I can proudly claim to have a degree in Japanese. And though I rarely use my post nominals, I can now put BSc after my name! In spite of speaking five foreign languages badly with confidence, in my professional work I am still a mathematician and scientist.

Perhaps that’s why I like having a BSc in Japanese!