Monday, November 29, 2010

In defence of macgyvering

I had my annual review the other day. It contained the usual moments of supreme politeness, justification, paperwork and so on. And then smack-bang in the middle of it, I found myself defining the word "macgyvering".

The context is thus: Nobody* has analysed what I'm analysing (music notation within academic texts). What people have analysed (images, layout, movies, sound, music as auditory experience, gesture, mathematical notation) isn't quite like what I'm analysing. So in order to construct an analytical framework, I have to adjust, tweek or cobble together a framework based on those created by people who already have their PhDs, rather than making one up myself. On a good day, I call this macgyvering a framework. On a bad day, it's more like frankenstein's monster.

In the middle of talking about timeframes with the review panel, I commented that the framework I hoped to use wasn't quite right and it took me longer to macgyver a new framework than I had expected, and I still might adopt a new one. The Postgrad Coordinator asked about the word macgyver - I explained it, I confirmed that yes, it was based on a tv show and in the end I was told not to use it in my thesis.

What is macgyvering for those of you who don't know? Well, the Urban Dictionary defines it as "To tinker, using items not normally used for this purpose." It originated from a tv show, MacGyver, in which the protagonist, MacGyver, played by Richard Dean Anderson, would use everyday items he found to get himself out of dangerous situations just in time. And so a toilet roll, a bit of duct tape and a palm leaf became a fully functioning helicopter, able to fly him and whoever needed rescuing away from the bad guys. Think a cross between Indiana Jones and Scrap Heap Challenge. Who am I kidding? You're unlikely to be familiar with those two but not MacGyver.

But I was thinking about it after, and I think that to macgyver is more than to 'use items not normally used for this purpose' - it is to create something which is more than the sum of its parts. The fun thing about the tv show was that it could be wildly improbable and unscientific**. Mythbusters has busted some of the macgyverisms used in the show.

So if I frankenstein an analytical framework, I cut up other frameworks into pieces and join them together, and create something ugly which doesn't quite work like the original and leads to mobs with pitchforks and flaming torches trying to destroy it.

But if I macgyver a framework, I create a beautiful thing which works impossibly well.

At the end of the day, though, I won't use the word in my thesis, though I hope the final product is nonetheless beautifully macgyvered. But I won't promise that it won't appear in any presentations I give.

*As far as I've been able to find so far. If you know of any research into it - from a musical or linguistic perspective - please tell me!

**I have to admit that my memories on this front are a bit hazy, but then I was only little when this was on tv.


  1. I really enjoyed this comment! What, in more detail, is your work on? I am a linguist, you see, but my girlfriend is a musician who would be interested in what you are doing...could be fun common ground!! :)

  2. I'll write you a more decent reply next week as I need to pack for a conference, but for now check the first blogs. There aren't many so it should be easy to find.

    And to anyone thinking of telling me about the typo in the web address, I KNOW. I noticed straight away but couldn't change it and didn't have time to repost it.

  3. Haha, I am wondering how, or if, your PG coordinator was able to keep a straight face when telling you not to use that term :) I used to love MacGyver!


  4. Min - Yes straight face. I don't think he really got it.

    Further to my comment about the typo, it turns out that the spelling differences between the title and the web address merely mimic the UK/US spelling differences. But I'm in Australia so it's still debatably a typo.