we are here (even when we’re not)

Last month I spoke at GENOVATE’s international conference on diversity within research and universities. I am not thrilled about the term “diversity” and find a lot of the discourse around it really problematic, but I do think it’s important to talk about the phenomenon it describes. It’s what happens when reading lists are full of dead white men and the images on the slides never show people like you. It’s what happens when you’re never taught by someone who looks a little like you, when your mentors don’t experience the things that you do and cannot advise you on dealing with it, when you look at the entity that is the university and cannot see yourself reflected back. From my own experiences and from what others have discussed with me, there’s a lurch as you realise that you’re less welcome in this space that you thought you were, or that your fears are confirmed and that this place isn’t meant for people like you.

I drew on Nathaniel Adam Tobias C—‘s “Diversity is a dirty word” to trouble and reject easy ideas about diversity. C— argues that there are four key strands to challenge in diversity: the “what”, the “how”, the “who” and the “where”.

  • The “what” is the Syllabus: the choice of topics, resources, examples or case studies
  • The “how” is the Process: the teaching methods and learning activities
  • The “who” are the Participants: the students, the tutors, and the epistemic authorities on the programme
  • The “where” is the Environment: the rooms and buildings, the signs and statues, and the local area, taking into consideration the accessibility of these spaces, both physically and socially

After my talk, someone asked me a question focusing on the “who”: what if you’re teaching, but your students don’t seem to be “diverse” (meaning, I would argue, that they do not appear to deviate from the straight, white, cis, able-bodied student that we might imagine. The word “appear” is important). I said then that I would teach as if such diverse students were in the room: after all, we cannot assume that they’re not. Here is why.

Students are not obliged to out themselves

Not all identities or experiences are immediately visible. I might be able to guess at some of my students’ LGBTQ, disabled, ethnic or religious identities if my students make them visible. Sometimes, these things are made visible to me by and through university systems; namely, information about disability that affects how a student learns and is assessed. Sometimes, my students have revealed things to me: their mental health issues, a physical disability that is not apparent to an onlooker, their gender identity, their sexual assault. I have then tried to be extra careful about how I talk about these things, extra aware of how the class discussion moves and where it goes.

However, I have certainly taught students who didn’t feel the need to tell me. Given that the NUS has identified that 37% of female students have experienced unwanted sexual advances and the gender makeup of the courses I teach, I am confident that I’m teaching a few women who have had such experiences. They shouldn’t have to explicitly tell me so. Their presence in the room, and my sensitivity to these unspoken experiences should not be contingent in knowing that such students are here.

It sounds obvious, but students should never have to out themselves to be taught in a non-hurtful way. I have heard enough horror stories about lecturers making crass jokes about mental health, disability, sexual assault, gender and sexuality that have had to be confronted by a student saying “look, I’m ____ and that’s really inappropriate” – an especially fraught interaction. I’ve had to challenge a colleague who would always joke before IELTS tests: “fill in the box for male or female – it’s the easiest question you’ll face today!”; for some people (including me), that’s not an easy question.

However, the onus shouldn’t be on students to reveal something that they may consider personal and private in order to challenge us. The onus should be on us to make sure that we aren’t excluding some of our students.

Students are not isolated

Students have families, friends, colleagues, communities. I cannot know whether one of my students’ parents uses a wheelchair, whether one of my students’ brother is gay and their parents have been unsupportive, whether one of my students’ housemates recently came out as transgender, whether one of my students’ step-family is Black, whether one of my students’ friends has autism.

Our students do not shed their relationships at the lecture hall’s door. We never, ever teach people as isolated individuals, plucked out of their community. Our students bring with them their loyalty and their friendships, their sometimes desperate concern and their love with them. I think it’s important to recognise that. For example, teaching that is aware of LGBTQ issues and acknowledges heteronormativity in teaching materials can signal to the student with a queer or trans sibling that this space is an expansive, welcoming one. I would rather create spaces that create room than spaces that exclude.

Students have emerging identities

Inclusive teaching means that there’s space for students to change. I wasn’t even a baby gay when I went to university; I was tentatively working out what “bisexual” meant and whether I was one but I was a very uncertain young queer. Turns out that Catholic schools really don’t give you a lot of help if you aren’t totally heteronormative! I ended up discovering things like non-binary identities and queerness and gender performance and gender fluidity from linguistics. I can point to the exact book in which I first found it, and it was a sort of star to steer by.

I try to remember that sometimes, I’m teaching my students’ future selves. Perhaps my class is filled with the opposite of ghosts, shifting glimmers of lives that could be lived. I’m lucky enough to teach in areas that often explicitly involve identity, and I often wonder what seeds I nourish and what lives my students might be leading in ten or twenty or forty years time.

Some of my students may not be queer or trans or disabled now – but who knows what will happen in the future? I would not want to be the lecturer who contributes to these students’ anticipation of hostility. Instead, I imagine spaces without fear; spaces in which students with diverse backgrounds and experiences are not continuously preparing to flinch; spaces that speak to the uncertain and scared and oppressed.

Ultimately, I am interested in creating and expanding spaces. I don’t shy away from tough issues – my research has examined police brutality, nuclear weapons and violent transphobia – and I expect my students to be able to engage with difficult issues too. I just don’t see the point of shutting out students with diverse backgrounds and experiences, and instead aim to create spaces where these students can fully contribute.

Stylistics and grief

[content note: death, especially of loved ones. Descriptions of guts, blood and assorted viscera)

Last term I was teaching a literary linguistics module. Literary linguistics, or Stylistics, basically uses concepts and frameworks drawn from linguistics – so stuff about everything from phonology (sounds) to grammar to lexicology to pragmatics – to make sense of (usually, but not always) literary texts. I went to the Dark Side of linguistics pretty early in my undergraduate career because I adored nerding out over language being used to do stuff and create relationships and manipulate people and summon ideas into being. However, I’ve been an avid reader since I was a small child – I once fell down an entire flight of stairs in an ill-fated attempt to combine reading and walking, and was more cross at losing my place than worried about the potential for injury – and it’s rare that I don’t have at least one book on the go. Stylistics is appealing because it’s very text and evidence based, and ultimately I was on the Dark Side of empiricism before I even got to university.

Teaching Stylistics was also a superb opportunity to immerse myself in something new. Both my PhD supervisor and partner work with corpus approaches to literary texts so I’ve come across a lot of it by osmosis even if I don’t research it myself. It was also a joy to learn alongside my very engaged and interested students. One session introduced students to cloze procedure texts which are basically a way of testing people’s mental associations of words – their internal sense of what words go with which. We might consider these their lexical primings or their internal sense of collocations, and for that reason I like contrasting this approach with corpus linguistics.

One of the poems we used was an extract of W H Auden’s ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ with the following gaps:

He ________ in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the ________ almost deserted.
And snow _________ the public statues;
The _______ sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What _______ we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The _______ ran on through evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the ________quays;
By mourning tongues
The _______ of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and ________;
The provinces of his mind revolted,
The ______ of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the _______,
The current of his feeling failed; he _______ his admirers.

Now he is _______ among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of _______
And be punished under a foreign code of ________.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the _____ of the living

This was a multiple choice cloze procedure text so they had four word options for each slot, they spent some time choosing which word they thought fit best into the gaps, then I showed them the whole poem and we discussed it.

Their choices included things like “An afternoon of nurses and doctors“, “a foreign code of conduct” and “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. They were quite surprised when I showed them the actual poem and the weird, unexpected things it does with words.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) suggests that nurses and should occur with words like doctors, physicians, midwives, patients, orderlies, pharmacists and therapists – people working in medicine or who we may expect to see in a hospital or GP surgery. There are also a few occurrences of other professions, such as teachers and engineers. My students clearly had an internal sense of this collocation and their choice reflected their expectations. However, the poem doesn’t give us what we expect. “An afternoon of nurses and rumours” juxtaposes the concrete noun “nurses” with the abstract noun “rumours”. Reading it is a bit of a jolt, a bit of wrongness.

Again, the “guts of the living” doesn’t give us what we’d expect. The poem is contemplating the afterlife of the poet and where his words live on. We would probably expect this gap to say something about existence beyond the body; perhaps, as my students predicted, “The words of a dead man/ Are modified in the souls of the living”. We expect the missing word to reflect the language of something metaphysical and elevated. Instead, the poem gives us this very earthy noun guts, derived from the Anglo-Saxon guttas.

Gut can be used both metaphorically and literally. Its metaphorical uses describe emotions, particularly bravery and intuition: “they had the guts to put up a sign”, “We just followed our guts” or “he had the nerve and guts and discipline”. When it’s used literally, it’s used to describe a really immediate physicality of intestines and viscera: “The fly and the smell of guts and urine made me want to puke”, “Its guts had been pulled out and strewn across the dirt, no longer wet and glistening”, “these bacteria thrive (or don’t) in our guts” (again, all examples are taken from the Corpus of Contemporary American English). The rest of the poem doesn’t really talk about the actual process of death but instead slightly dodges it; it’s in this line that we are confronted with bodies and physicality and vulnerability.

I think there’s a tension in this poem between our expectations of what to think and feel and say in the event of death, and the sense of bewilderment and confusion and being wrong-footed. We know what we ought to be able to expect: nurses and doctors, codes of conduct, souls. We may try to find solace in that ritual. And yet we feel loss and lost: the rules and knowledge we could predict are no longer there. Someone dear to us is no longer there. The words we expect to come do not come, and something strange and unfamiliar and disconcerting are in their place.

haunting texts

Winchester cathedral graffiti from 1632

Graffiti from 1632 carved into a pillar of Winchester cathedral

Last semester I was teaching a History of English module. With little in the way of previous teaching materials, I had considerable scope to develop my own – and woah, did I have fun with that.

I grew up in a medieval city, its Anglo-Saxon quarters still somewhat in evidence and traces of its inhabitants and their trades and their prejudices echoed still in the street names. The city itself is a palimpsest, post-war layered on Victorian layered on Georgian layered on Tudor layered on medieval layered on Anglo-Saxon and, crouching in alcoves, the city’s old Roman walls. It’s impossible to live there and not let that somehow soak into your bones, just a quiet awareness that your life is one breath against the city’s dreaming stones.

And yet, all of this history is just part of your life. When you grow up playing on castle ruins (destroyed in the English Civil War and never rebuilt) and running around a medieval great hall and there are Roman coins on a table in your primary school because they were dug up in someone’s dad’s field, and you spend your teenage years perched on tombs and ruining tourists’ photos by sprawling messily on the market cross, it’s impossible to be too reverent about the history that surrounds you. As a child, I was enchanted by illuminated manuscripts – and also by the graffiti carved into the cathedral stones. History is real people, real lives – not just stuff to distantly admire.

I hope that this came across in my teaching as I offered them historical context along with linguistics, information about Anglo-Saxon farming methods taught alongside the case system. I wanted them to understand where these texts came from – the fact that manuscripts were heavily used, the physicality of operating a heavy printing press.

Freshly printed Caxton

Freshly printed Caxton

Happily, the university has a massive school of art and one of their specialities is various forms of printing, so off we went to operate a letterpress. Our guide to the process, Naomi Midgley, showed us around the typecase, how to set up a composing stick and had prepared a forme of a text for us to print. Because I couldn’t resist trolling my students a little bit, I chose a extract of Caxton. Then we got to place the forme in the press, ink it, carefully place a sheet of paper over it, place the tympan and frisket over it, roll the coffin into place, pull the bar towards us to lower the platen then push it to raise it, then roll the coffin back out, lift the tympan and frisket and finally lift the sheet of paper to view the new print. It was an important insight into the physical nature of producing a print and what can go wrong as our inexpert hands applied too much ink, not enough ink, applied too much pressre from the platen, not enough pressure, nudged the paper as we lifted it off and smudged the wet ink. It was one thing to read about the process of producing a printed text; quite another to actually do the labour myself. If I could, I would love to apprentice myself to a printer, to learn how to reach into the the typecase without having to look, to assemble formes, to allow the process of operating a press mark my body with ink and callouses and changed musculature.

As a corpus linguist, one of the things I struggle with is the way that materiality is both present and absent in the texts I use. I use large collections of machine-readable texts, stored on my computer or a server and manipulated using a computer program. I don’t go into archives, rarely physically come into contact with my texts. However, they are scanned using Optical Character Recognition and through this, the early twentieth century newspaper texts I use with constantly remind me of their physicality.

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

Newspaper text (left) and the OCRed version (right)

In these texts, flecks of dirt or ink, smudges, imperfections in the paper and so on are interpreted as salient by the OCR program: spots of dirt or ink become full stops or commas or dashes or part of a colon or semi-colon, flecks of ink mean that o acquires a tail and becomes a p or q or b or d, smudges turn a c into an o or an e and so on. In corpus linguistics the text is both isolated from the way it was physically produced, yet the method of production haunts the text, is a ghost (or perhaps a poltergeist) in my analysis. I often had to return to images of the newspaper text to interpret my concordance lines or manually correct texts for detailed analysis.

I don’t have an easy answer or, indeed, a conclusion. Perhaps all I can do is suggest what I had to do so many times when the smudges and blobs became too much: return to the text with human senses.

why I won’t tweet my students’ exam howlers

Another summer marking season, another article in Times Higher Education soliciting student “exam howlers”. This is predictable and wearying and I can’t help but feel that we keep having this exact same conversation about why it’s bad to publicly mock and shame our students. Kirsty Rolfe wrote about talking teaching and making mistakes and I wrote about being someone’s worst student a couple of years ago, but apparently it bears repeating.

There was one respect alone in which Philip was recognized as a man of distinction, though only within the confines of his own Department. He was a superlative examiner of undergraduates: scrupulous, painstaking, stern yet just. No one could award a delicate mark like B+/B+?+ with such confident aim, or justify it with such cogency and conviction.

David Lodge, Changing Places: a tale of two campuses

Like Philip, I try to mark carefully and, being a perfectionist, probably spend far too much time thinking about whether a piece of work should be awarded a 62 or a 64 (let alone a 68 or a 70). Marking can be a joyless task but there’s only one paper that I’ve genuinely been annoyed at marking – one in which the student, in some kind of act of teenage bravado-slash-poor judgement, declared that he wrote the whole thing while hungover and didn’t care. After a week of solid marking, I have to confess that I, in turn, found it difficult to care about this student’s work. But that was a very rare case.

Most of the “exam howlers” seem to be inexpert attempts to apply frameworks and terminology, and while frustrating to see, it’s not something I think should be publicly mocked. I don’t think I have it in me to fault someone for trying – I try to only get irritated when someone truly doesn’t try. And it’s not like the people marking student work have never dropped a stinker themselves. I’ve really liked the #myownexamhowlers hashtag on twitter (storify here).

I don’t remember any specific exam howlers I made – I think I’ve blanked out the entire experience of exams with some degree of success – but a tutor did note that an essay took “a curiously scattergun approach”. I consistently left sweary, abusive messages (e.g. [LOOK UP THE FUCKING DEFINITION YOU FUCKING IDIOT]) to myself in draft chapters I sent to my supervisor (pro tip: use unusual punctuation marks around these to make it easier to use ctrl+f to locate and delete them later). Finally, when I was printing my ~350 page thesis, I dropped the entire thing, hurriedly tried to shove the papers in the right order, failed miserably, and duly presented one of my examiners with a thesis containing a wodge of pages in the wrong order. A true case of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory!

Talking about our own exam (and otherwise) howlers opens up a far more interesting conversation. I don’t want to be an unassailable figure of perfection for my students, doing something they can never hope to aspire to. Instead I want to say that I, too, find some things difficult, have fumbled around trying to use the right terminology, have clumsily applied a framework or model, have missed something glaringly obvious. These days I have the luxury of sending my work to knowledgeable colleagues and friends, and my work will be peer-reviewed before publication. Students, especially those working under closed book exam conditions, don’t have that option.

So let’s think a bit more kindly of our students. How many of us working under those conditions, grappling with complex, unfamiliar terminology and ideas that we’d perhaps encountered for the first time only weeks ago, panicky and underslept and stressed, would turn out polished, publishable work? We’ve had years – decades – to hone our academic thinking and writing. They haven’t. If we can’t be kinder, let us at least be more discreet in our unkindness.

Getting the most out of CorpusMOOC

The second run of Corpus Linguistics: Method, Analysis, Interpretation started a fortnight ago. It’s an eight week massive open online course. The course description says it offers “a practical introduction to the methodology of corpus linguistics for researchers in social sciences and humanities”, but in reality, people on the course come from a huge range of backgrounds – undergraduate students, retired people, teachers, researchers, translators and those who simply are interested in language and want to learn more about it.

I was a course mentor last time, so put together some tips to help you get the most out of the course.

Work at your own pace
The course is developed so there’s something for everyone. There are core readings and exercises each week suitable for beginners; there are also supplementary materials for those who already have some experience with corpus linguistics. I particularly like the “in conversation” videos with leading figures in corpus linguistics – it can be really helpful to see how people actually use corpus linguistics in their research, especially in the first weeks of the course. The course is carefully designed to build on previous weeks and to allow you to progress at your own rate. Lecture videos and transcripts are both downloadable so can be listened to or read at any time – there seems to be an unofficial competition to see who can listen to the lectures in the most unusual place!

There’s a lot of material and it can be daunting, but don’t be put off. You may want to do the core exercises for the first month or so, then return to the optional material from earlier weeks as you gain confidence and experience.

While the course lasts for eight weeks, the course mentors will be around for an additional two weeks to advise and answer questions so there’s no need to worry if you do get a bit behind.

Refer back to previous material
If there’s a section you find particularly helpful, download the video, slides or transcript (or all three!) so you can refer back to it later. It’s always annoying to go “oooh, I found a nice explanation for that” and then never find it again. Which leads to…

Take notes
It’s useful to keep your own notes for the course, whether they are handwritten in a notebook, in a document on your computer or online in a blog. There are pro and cons to each – I personally like handwriting notes as I find it sticks better, but typing notes is often more convenient and it’s (usually!) harder to lose your notes. As budding corpus linguists, keeping your notes in machine readable format also means you are creating something that can be analysed with corpus tools later on.

The Course Reader collects blog posts and tweets from registered users. You can make an account if you want to be able to post your own material to the Course Reader, or just visit the site to see what others have written. The #CorpusMOOC twitter hashtag is often a source of lively debate.

Ask for help
There are a dedicated team of mentors available to answer your questions. We’re all either studying for, or have recently finished, postgraduate degrees in linguistics and use corpus linguistics in our research. We want to make sure that you have a good experience and take something away from the course, so do ask us questions! We’ll be reading and commenting on posts, focusing on that week’s but also looking at previous and upcoming weeks when we have the chance.

Your fellow learners are also a valuable resource and can help you. There are students from a wide range of backgrounds, some of which prove very useful on the MOOC! If you have a problem, it’s worth scrolling down the comment section to see if anyone has had a similar issue and resolved it or got a response. In addition, the course contributors are often present in the weeks that their research is discussed to answer questions and offer insights into their work.

The FutureLearn interface
Each topic has a discussion section where you can leave comments – these work like a classroom and are the spaces the course mentors and contributors monitor. They’re often very active and it can be hard to keep track of current comments and replies to your comments. There’s a handy way to do this…

First, find the yellow and pink box at the top-left of your screen – I’ve circled it in the screenshot above.

This opens a grey sidebar with options to view Activity (the most recent posts), Replies (replies to your posts), To do (the main screen) and a way to check your progress. You need to have clicked “Mark as complete” on the sections you’ve completed otherwise it won’t know what you’ve done.

Finally, have fun! It’s a free course taught by some great academics, it showcases cutting edge research and offers a solid foundation (and more) in corpus linguistics. Whether this course is something that will help your future research or is something you’re doing for fun and to keep your mind sharp, I hope you get something out of it. Ultimately we all signed up because we’re interested in language, we’re curious and we want to learn new things – if this MOOC can fuel that, I think that’s a great outcome.