Doing interdisciplinarity

Second in what seems to be an occasional series about interdisciplinarity. All posts can be found under the interdisciplinarity tag

One of the most daunting things about my thesis was that I essentially had to learn a new discipline. I could have treated my corpus of hundred year old newspaper articles like a contemporary corpus – the corpora I’d used until then (the British National Corpus, the Guardian corpus and two corpora I’d assembled myself, one of music reviews and the other of children’s stories) were of my time and cultural context and, while I obviously researched the area, I didn’t have to learn about a different time period.

However, I knew that if I was to do any kind of (critical) discourse analysis with these historical newspaper texts, I had to learn about the historical context they operated in. If I didn’t, I would be incapable of recognising discourses – they simply would not register as significant to my contemporary eyes. I would not understand their significance, or the impact they had. The nuances would be lost on me and my thesis would make for possibly an interesting corpus analysis, but useless for anyone interested in the historical or social aspects.

The trouble was that I hadn’t done any history since GCSE. At that age I was pretty sure that my interests lay in warfare, sickness, medicine, death and social history, and not in kings, queens and the nobility. The prospect of being taught by my history teacher for another two years was not a prospect I was willing to entertain. Despite loving history, I reluctantly chose not to study it at A level. As such, I had a lot to learn.

Be aware of the field(s)

My first task was simply to understand the historiography – who was writing about the suffrage movement and how they positioned themselves within the field. I tried to understand the debates within the field, and how people’s research responded to others’ research. I learnt something of the waves of research about the suffrage movement – the first waves comprising of personal memoirs and scholarship focusing on the WSPU, London-based organisations and leading figures of the movement, and a second wave starting in the 1970s and focusing more on hitherto marginalised figures, experiences, ideologies and organisations. There were also historians seeking to synthesise these various perspectives.

I also sought to understand the wider context of the time period – what was going on in terms of politics, family life, Empire, work, health? What were the assumptions about gender roles and how women were supposed to behave? These were the things that were going to come up in the newspapers and which I had to be acquainted with.

One of the ways I did this was to read – a lot. The other was to go along to undergraduate history lectures. These were useful in supplying context and when it came to the lecture on the suffrage movement, I was delighted that it was all stuff I was newly familiar with. This suggested that I was on the right track.

I am also immensely grateful to Dr Chris Godden and Dr Lesley Hall who were generous with their time and advice and who didn’t laugh at me when I described what I was researching, but were kind enough to give the impression I had something useful to offer.

Allow it to shape your research on a fundamental level

In my case, I’d played it safe and requested Times Digital Archive data from between 1903 and 1920. Choosing dates was always going to be arbitrary; 1903-1920 encompasses the period of time from the formation of the Women’s Social and Political Union to two years after the Representation of the People Act 1918 which gave women the vote. If I wanted a lot more data, I could have asked for 1860 – the decade in which the campaign for women’s suffrage emerged out of other social protest movements – to 1928, the year in which women were granted the franchise on the same terms as men. That was too much to take on for a PhD project, and I had to narrow my focus. I could have simply chosen a five or ten year period – say 1910 to 1915 – but this wouldn’t have made sense in the social context of the time.

My research in history quickly revealed that the outbreak of World War One led to a complete change in the suffrage movement; it forced them to engage with nationalism as revealed and understood through warfare. It was also clear from looking at the initial data that the newspaper’s shift in focus and the amount of news they actually printed changed after 1914. Including the years between 1914 and 1918 would therefore change the scope of the project and that was too much to take on for a PhD project. My research into history also gave me a starting year – 1908, on the cusp of suffrage direct action.

The historical background, therefore, played a crucial role in shaping the project and delineating its boundaries.

It’s not just the icing on the cake

Related to the previous point: I didn’t want the historical analysis to be something I only brought into play in conclusions.

This ties in with a corpus linguistics issue of having to know your data in order to do in-depth work with it. If you handed me a corpus from a culture that I know very little about – let’s say, for sake of argument, Arabic literature – I would probably be able to make some pretty graphs and identify some words which behave in interesting ways and which are perhaps worth further investigation, but because I don’t know the history and the context in which these texts operate, I would be unable to connect these interesting words to things that were happening that would affect the discourses. I wouldn’t know about events, wars, peace treaties, rulers and governments, innovations, philosophies, schools of thought, cultural shifts.

While my work is in (corpus) linguistics – my background is in linguistics, I’m (currently!) based in an English department and my thesis will be examined by linguists – I don’t think I could write a good linguistics thesis using this particular corpus without also writing about history. It’s something I’ve always had in mind when interpreting data – and not just in the sense of “writing about what I’ve observed”. In corpus linguistics, categorising and grouping your data can in itself be a form of interpretation; I found it was vital to understand the historical context in order to come up with meaningful categories. At the moment I’m looking at the news narratives of Emily Wilding Davison’s actions, hospitalisation, death, inquest and funeral procession; these were all reported, sometimes extensively, in the Times. However, a critical discourse analysis approach requires the analyst to be sensitive to what is missing as well as to what is present, and so it is vital for the analyst to be aware of the wider context of the text. This was where an understanding of the historical context is so important. For example, the Times notes that Yates represented Davison’s family at the inquest into her death. A passing comment, perhaps. However, with my knowledge of the suffrage movement, I was able to recognise this man as Thomas Lamartine Yates, husband of one of Davison’s close friends and unofficial WSPU legal advisor. In some ways, this raises more questions than it answers – was he providing his services because of his wife’s association with Davison or does it say something about Davison’s posthumous changing relationship with the WSPU? – but it makes for a richer analysis.

To go with the cake metaphor, I don’t think of my research as a linguistics cake with a tasty history icing. Nor do I think of it as a linguistics and history battenburg cake, nor a linguistics and history marble cake. instead, the two are inseparably mixed.

Be humble

I am not a historian by training. I have undoubtedly made mistakes and been blind to things – interpretations, undercurrents – that a person with 5+ years of intensive study of history behind them would notice. There’s a lot that I don’t know, and if someone asked me to discuss in detail the politics of Empire during this time period or the campaign for equal franchise in the 1920s, I’d struggle. I hope that I’ve been a respectful and sensitive outsider and my work can offer some useful insights to “proper” historians, but I also hope I can accept their inevitable corrections with grace and humility.

Humanities, sciences and interdisciplinarity

First in what seems to be an occasional series about interdisciplinarity. All posts can be found under the interdisciplinarity tag

suffrag* and words statistically associated with it, calculated through Mutual Information (MI)


A couple of weeks ago I read this article about treating humanities like a science and was a bit annoyed about it. In my experience, the big sweeping claims as illustrated in that article tend to be made by a) arts & humanities scholars who’ve suddenly discovered quantitative/computational methods and are terribly excited about it or b) science-y scholars who’ve suddenly discovered arts & humanities and are terribly excited about it. I’ve heard a fair number of papers where the response has been “yes, and how is this relevant?” because while it’s been extremely clever and done something dizzyingly complex with data, it’s either telling arts & humanities people stuff they already know or stuff that they’re not interested in. In my particular discipline people are very aware of the limits of quantitative work and we acknowledge the interpretive work done by the researcher. I do think quantitative methods have a place in arts and humanities, and in this post I’ll discuss some of the strengths of quantitative work.

Firstly, I should say something about my background and where I’m coming from. I’d describe myself as an empirical linguist – I look at language as it’s used rather than try to gain insights through intuition. My background is in corpus linguistics which basically means I use computer programs to look at patterns in large collections of texts. If this sounds suspiciously quantitative then yes…it is. Sometimes I look at which words are statistically likely to occur with other words, or statistically more likely to occur in one (type of) text than another, or trace the frequency of words across different time periods. My thesis chapters tend to have tables and graphs in them. I sometimes talk about p-values and significance.

However, these patterns must be interpreted. Computers can locate these patterns but to interpret them – to understand what they mean for language users – needs a human. As a discourse analyst, I’m interested in the effect different lexical choices have on the people who encounter them. I’m interested in power, in social relationships and in the ways in which identities and groups are constructed through language. A computer would find it difficult to analyse that.

So what can be gained from using corpus linguistics rather than purely qualitative approaches? Paul Baker outlines four ways in which corpus linguistics can be useful: reducing researcher bias, examining the incremental effect of discourse, exploring resistant and changing discourses, and triangulation

reducing researcher bias

Language can be surprising. We have expectations of how language is used that isn’t always borne out by the data. My MA dissertation looked at how male and female children were represented in stories written for children, focusing on how their bodies were used to express things about them. So, for example, I looked at his eyes and her eyes and what words were found around them. What I was expecting was that boys would be presented as active, tough and independent and girls would be presented as more emotional and gentler. What I found was that a) his eyes was much more frequent in the data than her eyes and b) that male characters expressed much more emotions than female characters. Part of this was because there was so much more opportunity to do so because of the higher frequency of his eyes, but the range of emotions – sorrow, joy, compassion – was really interesting and not what I was expecting from the research literature I’d read.

We also have cognitive biases about how we process information and what we notice in a text. We seek evidence that confirms our hypotheses and disregard evidence that doesn’t. We tend to notice things that are extraordinary, original and/or startling rather than things that are common or expected. If we select a number of texts for close, detailed analysis, we might be tempted to choose texts because they support our hypothesis. A corpus helps get around these problems by raising issues of representation and balance of its contents.

examining the incremental effect of discourse

Michael Stubbs, in one of my favourite linguistic metaphors, compares each example of language use to the day’s weather. On its own, whether it rains or shines on any particular day isn’t that significant. However, when we look at lots of days – at months, years, decades or centuries worth of data – we start finding patterns and trends. We stop talking about weather and instead start thinking in terms of climate.

Language is a bit like this. On its own, a particular word use or way of phrasing something may seem insignificant. However, language has a cumulative force. If a particular linguistic construction is used lots of times, it begins to “provide familiar and conventional representations of people and events, by filtering and crystallizing ideas, and by providing pre-fabricated means by which ideas can be easily conveyed and grasped” – through this repetition and reproduction, a discourse can become dominant and “particular definitions and classifications acquire, by repetition, an aura of common sense, and come to seem natural and comprehensive rather than partial and selective” (Stubbs 1996). A corpus can both reveal wider discourses and show unusual or infrequent discourses – both of which may not be identified if a limited number of texts are analysed.

exploring resistant and changing discourses

Discourses are not fixed; they can be challenged and changed. Again, corpora can help locate places where this is happening. A study using a corpus may reveal evidence of the frequency of a feature or provide more information of its pattern of use – for example, linking it to a particular genre, social group, age range, national or ethnic group, political stance or a small and restricted social network. A changing discourse can be examined by using a diachronic corpus or corpora containing texts from different time periods and comparing frequencies or contexts; for example, where a particular pattern is first found then where and how it spreads, if a word has changed semantically, has become more widespread, is used by different groups or has acquired a metaphorical usage.

triangulation

Finally, triangulation. Alan Bryman has a good introduction to this (.pdf) but it basically means using two or more approaches to investigate a research question, then seeing how closely your finds using each approach support each other. I tend to use methodological triangulation and use both quantitative and qualitative approaches. As well as supporting each other, using more than one method allows for greater flexibility in research. I like being able to get a sense of how widespread a pattern is across lots of texts but I also like being able to focus very closely on a handful of texts and analyse them in detail. It’s a bit like using the zoom lens on a camera – different things come into view or focus, but they’re part of the same landscape.

I find quantitative methods fascinating for the different perspective they offer. My background in corpus linguistics has also trained me to think about issues like data sampling, choosing texts to analyse and cherry-picking evidence. It’s taught me to think critically about what and how and why people search for in a text, and it’s made me methodologically rigorous. At the same time, dealing with so much data has made me very sensitive to language and how it’s used in different contexts. I think the author of that article might find some of the work in corpus stylistics fascinating – this is what my supervisor is working on, and having worked a bit with her corpus it’s easy to see how much qualitative literary analysis goes into it.

Returning to the article, I think this raises wider questions of how we approach interdisciplinarity, how we locate and approach research questions in fields not our own, and how we relate to colleagues in these other fields who are experts. If we are to engage in interdisciplinary research, then we are bound to be working in unfamiliar areas. We are going to encounter research methods and ways of thinking that are unfamiliar to us. The ways we approach things will have to be explained – why should a humanities scholar care about “a bunch of trends and statistics and frequencies”? How do we make these relevant to their interests and show them that these can both answer interesting questions and open up new avenues of research? Simultaneously, how do we gently make someone aware that they’ve just dipped a toe in our field and that there’s still much to learn?

This is something that I’ve had to learn. I’m not a historian by background or training, but my area of research deals with historical issues. I’ve had to more or less teach myself early 20th century British history; I did this through extensive reading, gatecrashing undergraduate lectures and talking to historians. In a future blog post I’ll discuss this further so if you have any questions, let me know and I’ll do my best to answer.

References:
Baker, P. (2006). Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum.
Stubbs, M. (1996). Text and Corpus Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell

Open Access

Today the government announced that publicly funded scientific research should be publicly available for free. In principle, I think moving to an open access system is a good thing. However, like many others, I have reservations about the type of OA the Finch report recommends. Mark Carrigan has an extensive round-up of coverage and reaction and has a set of slides giving a good overview of the situation.

As Steven Harnad of LSE writes,

There are two ways for authors to make their research OA. One way is to publish it in an OA journal, which makes it free online. This is called “Gold OA.” There are currently about 25,000 peer-reviewed journals, across all disciplines, worldwide. Most of them (about 90 per cent) are not Gold. Some Gold OA journals (mostly overseas national journals) cover their publication costs from subscriptions or subsidies, but the international Gold OA journals charge the author an often sizeable fee (£1000 or more).

The other way for authors to make their research OA is to publish it in the suitable journal of their choice, but to self-archive their peer-reviewed final draft in their institutional OA repository to make it free online for those who lack subscription access to the publisher’s version of record. This is called “Green OA.”

As Beverly Gibbs writes, the high cost of Article Processing Fees places a structural barrier for early career researchers trying to get their work published. Martin Eve asks whether “publisher boycotts [will] offer up at least one generation of early-career researchers to the sacrificial slaughter so that the cycle can either be broken or, more likely, continue once more”. And Mark Carrigan wonders about the researchers who can’t pay.

As someone working in Arts and Humanities, I’m worried that the way we do research and publish means I’ll find it harder to get Article Processing Fees funded. Unlike other disciplines, we’re less likely to work in groups with a big name attracting the funding and I’m curious as to how this will affect early stage researchers trying to publish single authored work. If there is only limited money in the pot, then as a lowly PhD researcher I’m not sure how I’m meant to compete with far more experienced and higher ranking academics.

However, I am glad that academia is finally having this discussion. I’ve been interested in creative commons, copyleft and open access for about a decade now, and the current model of academic publishing has been a constant source of frustration. One of the things that shocked me when entering university as an undergraduate was how locked academic publishing is – it seemed years behind the open licensing I’d encountered online and it was an unpleasant surprise to suddenly come up against such restrictions.

The practice of accessing journals on behalf of friends in other institutions who don’t subscribe to that journal seems pretty pervasive, and I wonder just how widespread this is. It suggests that while publishers try their hardest to restrict access, academics are willing to find ways around these restrictions. In light of this, I wonder how much loyalty academics feel towards the current publishing model, particularly PhD researchers and early career researchers who have grown up with filesharing, peer-to-peer networks and alternative licensing systems.

While Gold OA seems problematic, I don’t think the wider issue of open access to research will – or, indeed, can – go away.

Postgraduate labour

Partly for my own reference, but also because it might be of interest to others.

postgraduateworker.wordpress.com

My first paid work was when I was 15/16. It was in a boarding kennels and cattery, and mainly involved picking up a lot of animal shit. I was paid approximately £2.50 an hour; however, I was in no position to bargain as there were kids from the village who would do it all for free because it was working with cute fluffy animals. Perhaps they thought it was the Blue Cross rather than a business. I was of the opinion that as it was a profit-making business, I was not going to allow my badly paid labour to contribute to their profits and I wasn’t going to pressured into working for even less – or no – pay.

I’m reminded of these early lessons in workplace economics when it comes to postgraduate labour. As early career researchers, we are preparing to enter a fiercely competitive struggle for a limited number of jobs. Having teaching experience is incredibly important; there’s the fear that others will have done more than you, have more teaching experience than you. There are usually more postgraduates hoping for teaching work than there are places for postgraduate tutors; if you turn it down because of poor pay or lack of support then no one will miss you – there are tens of others who won’t complain and, indeed, will work for even less. We often work in the same department as that will examine us. We may work on a module our supervisor convenes. We may benefit from a scholarship that has (unspecified amounts of) teaching attached to it. If we’re offered teaching work, there’s pressure to take it.

Working for low pay means that many postgraduates simply can’t afford to teach, thus affecting their long-term job prospects. We may be used, unwillingly or unwittingly, to avoid employing full-time staff. Postgraduate teaching work is situated within different, competing pressures and interests. It can be a really complex situation, and all too often there aren’t formal structures for support and representation. Students have the Students’ Union; non-postgraduate staff have their unions. We seem to be positioned awkwardly inbetween the two.

For the most part, I’ve found my experience as a postgraduate tutor rewarding and I hope it will stand me in good stead. However, I’m also aware of my sometimes precarious position, even though my department does a lot of things right. Other postgraduate tutors have it much worse; I’ve been horrified by some of the things my friends in other universities have reported.

It’s important that the complexities of our workplace conditions are scrutinised. I’m not sure if the Postgraduate Workers’ Association’s list of things postgraduate workers should be entitled to are achievable (holiday pay? sick pay? I don’t know whether to laugh or weep) but I hope this is a step towards doing that.

Queer-positive teaching

Me painting a placard

Photo by Laura Dunn

Last Thursday was IDAHO/IDAHoT/IDAHoBiT – International Day Against Homophobia. IDAHO started as a day to commemorate the World Health Organisation’s decision to remove homosexuality from its list of mental disorders; it is now a campaign calling for the international decriminalisation of homosexuality and to combat homophobia, biphobia and transphobia (hence the different acronyms). I spent the day with Warwick Pride, first on the panel for a Trans* Q+A and then listening to speakers from Movement for Justice.

Meanwhile, Helen Finch was discussing how we, as academics and tutors, can “foster a queer-positive environment at work” and in research. I’m a tutor – but I’ve also been a Trans* Welfare Officer, am involved with LGBT activism, been involved with LGBT student groups and the NUS LGBT campaign and yes, almost ten years ago, was that rather anxious student feeling very invisible and very alone.

As Paul Baker observes, LGBTQA students face additional pressures at university and are at increased risk of dropping out. As someone who’s been involved in LGBT student welfare from within the student union and has responded to more than a few concerns about homophobia, transphobia and biphobia in teaching environments, I was determined to bring this awareness to my teaching. I’ve written about a few key points that I find helpful to remember.

– Assume nothing. Never assume that everyone in your seminar room, lecture hall or lab is straight, cisgendered, or, for want of a better term, sexual. It’s easy to assume you aren’t teaching any LGBTQA students just because they don’t conform to what you expect an LGBTQA student to look like, but I assure you, they are there. LGBTQA students have families and friends, and you might be teaching them too.

– Avoid heteronormativity. Heteronormativity aligns biological sex (itself a problematic concept), sexuality, gender identity, and gender roles into one rather messy whole. It’s a constant and pervasive thing – you probably encounter it every day in advertising, in magazines and newspapers, on the TV and even in things like dress codes and casual conversation with strangers. Heteronormativity isn’t just harmful to LGBTQA people; Meg Barker wrote about it in a blog post and outlines the damage it causes to people inside and outside it. If you can, challenge these norms – but at the very least, don’t support them.
Things you can do include not assuming that all your female students are interested in male partners and all your male students are interested in female partners. Things like jokey comments along the lines of “typical man”, “that’s something a woman would say” or heteronormative assumptions about women all liking shoes and men all liking sports seem harmless, but can be alienating for students who don’t conform to those ideas. If possible, (gently) challenge these if they come from your students. If your examples involve people and relationships, don’t base them all around heterosexuality. I was checking a book (Paul Baker and Sibonile Ellece’s Key Terms in Discourse Analysis) for a definition and saw that the example was “Carol kissed Mary”. The concept it was illustrating – that of semantic role – could just as easily been illustrated by “Dan kissed Mary”. But if “Dan kissed Mary” is acceptable, why shouldn’t “Carol kissed Mary” be acceptable? It’s a small thing, but seeing their identity and relationships reflected in teaching material can be really important for LGBTQA students.

– Avoid cisnormativity – the assumption that everyone’s gender identity corresponds to that which they were assigned at birth, or, indeed, which is on their university records. As one of my many jobs, I work as an IELTS invigilator. Exam candidates have to shade in a box for whether they are male or female, and one of the invigilators I work with used to comment, every time, that “this should be the easiest question of the day” for them. For some people, it’s not an easy question – they may not be out as trans, they may not be able to change their legal gender, or, in the case of non-binary gendered, genderqueer and agendered people, there may not be a legal gender for them to change to. While the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) have revised the way gender will be recorded in their new gender and sex categories for student records within Higher Education, it’s still important to remember that students may ask you to call them by a different name or use different pronouns than those in their student records. To me, it also means bringing an awareness of the fluidity and diversity of gender to my teaching and so acknowledging that these are complicated things.

– Acknowledge queer scholarship – probably one more relevant for arts, humanities and social sciences although I’d love to hear if/how scientists, mathematicians, engineers and others do this. Helen suggested “contextualis[ing] sexuality and gender as discursively formed and historically understood” in literature studies; there’s some interesting discussions in bioarchaeology about “gay” cavemen; there are debates in history about whether various historical figures were gay (and what we mean by “gay”), such as Christabel Pankhurst. One of the seminars I taught this term was on language and gender, and I tried to lead my students from thinking about “women’s language” to thinking about where men and women learn language, then to looking at short extracts from anonymised conversations and guessing what genders the speakers were, then to thinking about the way power was enacted and negotiated in these exchanges and how this affected what gender the speakers were read as. In my case, there’s a rich vein of queer linguistics that informed my teaching and judging from the conversations during the seminar, the students seemed to find it an exciting and challenging way to think about gender.

There’s lots of other issues involved in this; one of the things Helen touched on was whether to out yourself when teaching. In my case, my decision to go to a couple of student LGBT events – I’m still a research student after all – meant that if any of my students were there, they would have seen me. I made a deliberate decision not to go to any drinking student LGBT events, partly because I don’t have time for hangovers but also because I want my students to have fun, do some silly and/or inadvisable things if they so desire, and enjoy their first year at university without worrying about being seen by their tutor. I’d probably feel a bit conflicted if I saw one of them get kicked out of the NG1 toilets or something!

I’m still pretty new at teaching though, so if you’ve got any advice or comments I’d be really interested in hearing them.

The magic AAB

I was interested to read Peter Scott’s critique of the “government’s decision to allow universities to recruit as many AAB students as they like, while sharply constraining the overall number of students”

To quote his article:

There are two fundamental objections to this policy – one educational and the second ethical. The first is that universities have always chosen students according to their future potential, not past performance. Of course, A-level grades are important evidence of potential. But they should never be treated as decisive evidence, even in an age of mass higher education when computer-generated offers are almost inevitable.

To rely on A-level grades alone is, in effect, further to privilege the already privileged, to give disproportionate rewards to those whose way in life has been smooth. The correlation between school performance and social advantage is too plain to deny. For years universities have attempted, feebly perhaps, to level the playing field by making differential offers. Now, on the fiat of David Willetts, they are no longer so free to do so.

[…]

The ethical objection to the government’s AAB apartheid takes me back to Popper on the Viennese streets 80 years ago. The arguments for widening participation, and for (genuinely) fair access, are usually seen as rooted in ideology of the kind that Popper disapproved of (“social engineering” is the standard put-down). That is only partly true, although unlike Popper I would not disavow collective action to secure social justice. The argument is also about individuals. First, is it fair to offer students an enticement, in the shape of a generous bursary or an attractive fee waiver, in the expectation that they will get AABs, only to withdraw it if they slip a grade (and since when have A-level examiners been infallible?).

But it goes deeper still. The vice-chancellor who swept the “tail” into oblivion from that restaurant table, and the vice-chancellors now struggling to “manage” their AAB entrants, are behaving in the same way as the zealots of right and left who battled in the streets. They are putting an idea, an abstraction, a policy construct, before the lives of real people who are born, live, love and are bound to die.

As Scott observes, these aren’t abstract decisions, made as if we were all so many players of the Sims and presiding over our tiny virtual kingdoms. Instead, these are decision that affect people’s lives – decisions that can make a huge difference to someone’s life and future.

And, indeed, I was one of those people. I don’t have great A-levels, courtesy of the kind of sixth-form experience that screams “mitigating circumstances”. I ended up doing an extra year at a sixth-form college just so I had a set of A-levels that wouldn’t get me instantly rejected from anywhere I applied. On the basis of my A-levels alone, I would be one of those students on restricted intake. However, my sixth-form college were able to give me excellent references and the University of Liverpool, having met me, took a chance on me. Three years later I graduated with a First in English Language and Literature. Eighteen months after that I graduated with an MA in Corpus Linguistics. And now, ten years after doing my first set of A-levels, I find myself writing up my doctoral thesis, presenting at international conferences and teaching. I’d like to think that despite my poor performance at A-level, I’ve not done too badly in academia.

A-levels are just one way to predict someone’s future performance, but they don’t necessarily map onto academic ability. They’re a crude index at best – and at worst, fail to distinguish the students who will thrive in a university environment from those that won’t. Ultimately, it’s in universities’ interests to attract the students who will flourish in the academic setting they offer, and fetishising A-levels above other ways of evaluating potential students does not necessarily do that.

Idealism

A year and a month ago I was sleeping inside a university occupation. The temperatures were subzero, there was snow lying on the ground outside, and the heating and electricity in the hall we were occupying had mysteriously suffered faults. At the time, it was sometimes hard to gauge the support we had – we certainly had support from all kinds of people both within and outside the community. However, there were also people who regarded us with a certain detachedness, as if we were overreacting in ridiculous fashion.

And so I found this recent report on growing anger about higher education reforms interesting, particularly the following:

There have been three responses […] The third is to regard the government’s reforms as heralding the death of the university as a public and liberal institution. Key academic values are under attack, whether scholarship in the humanities or curiosity-driven science. So are key social values such as widening participation.

[…]

It is the third response that seems to be gathering force. No longer confined to the “usual suspects” such as the National Union of Students and the University and College Union, it is gradually becoming established as the dominant response among the academic rank-and-file and high-profile public intellectuals. Not so long ago, the much-despised “chattering classes” shared the politicians’ low opinion of universities; now they are rallying to their defence.

However, as well as defending our universities’ existence, there’s also an opportunity to ask what we want our universities to be. Jennifer Jones and Martin Eve discuss this as “angry young academics” who want universities to be more than just consumerism. Mark has recently been posting material about the neoliberal university and I’ve found it really thought provoking.

As a young academic in the arts and humanities, I am aware of what we lose because of this neoliberal model of the university, particularly when it comes to funding young researchers. The important and fascinating PhD theses not written because the applicant couldn’t get funding. The scientists who can’t work on non-commercial projects because there isn’t money to support that. The ways projects that don’t have an immediately obvious economic benefit are devalued. The scrabbling about for limited amounts of funding which means that interesting and valuable ideas never get explored. Collaboration across departments or institutions that doesn’t happen because it’s difficult to work out who should be funding it.

And more and more, I’m led to question whether I want to fight for this system. I want to work in a university that is visionary and creative, rigorous and challenging, nurturing and supportive. The university I want to work in values research regardless of its economic usefulness, and values curiosity and exploration. The university I want to work on is aware of power and privilege, is critical and reflexive. Perhaps it’s the stage I’m at in my PhD (the despair, wailing and general hideousness stage), but at the moment I’m doubtful this happens on a university level.

I’m probably hopelessly idealistic about this. I am glad, though, that there are the beginnings of a debate about whom universities should serve, and I hope it does led to a change.

Some blog love

I’ve been ridiculously busy lately (teaching! training! seeing Jen Gupta perform as part of Manchester Science Festival and London Bright Club! linguistics reading group! oh yeah, that thesis thing I’m writing! trying to get my boiler fixed!) so not really had time to think of interesting posts, so here’s a few links to blogs I read:

BAD REPBad Reputation is a collective of writers on a “feminist pop culture adventure”. In the interests of transparency I should declare that they have plied me with cake, but I’d like them anyway because they’re incisive, intelligent and pretty awesome. I particularly like their series of Revolting Women because it contains not one, not two, but THREE posts about the suffrage movement: the Ju-Jutsuffragettes, Dora Thewlis, Teenage Working Class Suffragette and Joan of Arc, Rosie the Riveter, and the Feminist Protest Icon. They also write about films, comics, music and computer games in an interesting, thought-provoking and entertaining way. I actually LOLed at Markgraf’s illustrated review of The Three Musketeers and don’t feel the cinematic experience can begin to compare their final analogy involving pick-and-mix and “an enraged muskrat”.

Robert Lawson is a sociolinguist and brave soul who’s blogged about John Locke’s Duels and Duets in detail – part 1, part 2 and part 3. I’m reading this book for the reading group, mainly because I’m intrigued as to how a book on language and gender manages to cite Deborah Tannen but not Deborah Cameron. In the first chapter Locke cites John Gray’s Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, Deborah Tannen’s You just don’t understand, a baffling amount of primate research, and an anecdote from Larry Summers. I almost did the drinking game but I think I’d have to have my stomach pumped. Anyway, you can read Robert’s excellent, informative posts on this book and so avoid reading the primary source. Even if it does mean missing out on the primate research.

Lashings of Ginger BeerLashings of Ginger Beer are a queer feminist burlesque collective who combine “songs, dancing, stand-up and sketches, luxe Victoriana drag with thigh-high fetish-boots, upbeat musical theatre optimism with 21st-century political rage”. Have a couple of videos: Acceptable, skewering Gok Wan, television makeovers, unrealistic gendered beauty ideals and the expense and effort of maintaining this beauty; Dead Girlfriend which comments on TV portrayals of queer relationships and the way the characters involved are punished. The Lashings of Ginger Beer blog posts about events and does link roundups, but also features posts by members of the collective. I was particularly struck by this post examining the different effects of performing with different dancers – it’s a really thoughtful analysis and highlights the experience of the performers.

I was lucky to meet Jennifer Jones when we were both facilitators at Research Practices 2.0. Her reflections on that event are interesting, and have also shaped how she’ll facilitate social media workshops in the future; there are loads of ideas there about questioning the usual classroom hierarchy and enabling a flexible, responsive, collaborative way of learning. Jennifer’s research focuses on the Olympics and offers a much needed critical view on the ideology of the Olympics, which she explored in a recent talk at Tent City Uni. She’s also a very cool lady and it’s a joy to talk to her, whether that be over crappy university coffee, mugs of tea in an occupation or, indeed, over a pint.

Research Practices 2.0

I, along with some fellow PhD researchers and social media nerds, will be running workshops at this event. We’re currently in the process of designing the introductory workshops and, because we practise what we preach, we’re collaborating though a shared google doc. Places are filling up fast, so if you would like to attend, please book your place as soon as possible.

Research Practices 2.0

Social and Participatory Media in Academic Life

Saturday 29th October 2011 9.30am-4.00pm

Business School South, Jubilee Campus, University of Nottingham

This one-day event will be an opportunity for you to come and experience a variety of discussions on the use of social media in research.

Social media (such as blogs, social networks and Twitter) provide new opportunities for researchers to source information, network, collaborate and disseminate their research. The effective use of social and participatory media (web 2.0) is increasingly seen as a key requirement in 21st Century academic practice. This free one-day event will provide an informal and interactive environment to learn about social media. It is an opportunity to share experiences and good practices, and develop informed and critical approaches to adopting and using social media in your studies/research.

This event has been organised for researchers by researchers. We welcome all PhD students and research staff, including those from outside the University of Nottingham.

Places are strictly limited and will be offered on a first come, first served basis, so please book early to avoid disappointment.

For more information please contact: Ms Emily Buchnea, ahxeb@nottingham.ac.uk

Corpus Linguistics 2011

I admit that I was feeling rather grumpy before CL2011. Extracting my data had proved tricky, I worried that the stuff I was working on wasn’t ready to present and I was feeling somewhat anti-social.

However, I ended up having a rather good conference. Part of it is just that corpus linguists tend to be nice people – as one first-time attendee noted to me, people were constructive and helpful when commenting on people’s presentations. This is not always the case – these things can turn into an academic pissing contest – and she was pleasantly surprised. As Costas noted, it can feel a bit like a family reunion (the good kind, I hope). It was nice to catch up with friends, meet new people and extract others from the hilariously awkward situations they managed to create for themselves. I have a story about a red devil tattoo now.

The organisation was impeccable. This was the first conference I’ve been to that was in a dedicated conference centre rather than in a university. I’ve got to say, the food was much better than I’m used to at these things. I won’t name names, but some of us were rather enamoured with the little moussey-cakey things at lunch. The only problem seemed to be with workshop venues – there weren’t computing facilities so attendees were asked to bring their own laptops, but the room assigned to one workshop wasn’t suitable for an active, hands-on workshop.
The conference scheduling was thoughtfully done and I presented in the same session as others working on newspaper discourse including Anna Marchi. It was interesting both for us and for the audience – we could make links between each others’ papers and also had the chance to talk afterwards.

I do wonder why corpus linguists haven’t really embraced twitter though. There was a presentation on it (which I livetweeted) but we weren’t told about hashtags, organised a tweetup or similar. Having seen something of how my astrophysicist sister uses twitter at her conferences I think we’re missing out – it looks like a good way of engaging with presentations and finding other conference attendees. Next time eh?