Exciting conference adventure

Okay, so I wasn’t expecting a tornado.

I’m currently in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the US for Exploring the Boundaries and Applications of Corpus Linguistics. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the large quad outside the building is full of people clad in red being very excited about an American football game.

Yesterday, however, the sky was black, the light was green and it was pouring with rain. Most of my fellow conference attendees were in the hotel lobby watching the news updates on the storm system when the tornado sirens sounded. I ended up sitting in the laundry room with some distinguished linguists, in the dark because the power had gone, and checking twitter updates because, mysteriously, the wireless internet was still functioning.

There don’t seem to have been any serious injuries and the place seem relatively unscathed, but I think this has to be one of the more unexpected things to have happened to me at a conference!

Anyone got any strange, unusual or bizarre conference stories?

Five (plus two) questions from Sophie

Sophie Duncan at Clamorous Voice thought it would be interesting to bring the five question meme to our academic or otherwise real-life blogs. She describes it as a “creative nonfiction thing…little snapshots of what’s going on with people” and well, how could I refuse an offer like that? So here goes, and if you would like five questions from me, comment and ask!

What would you like to ask Christabel Pankhurst?
I always get a bit nervous about “what would you ask [famous person]?” questions because I’m worried that I’ll be like I am in real life and gaze worriedly at them, realise I have no intelligent question or, indeed, response and blurt out something about paneer. So this takes place in an alternate universe where I a) can time-travel and b) am not totally useless at talking to people and c) am cool.

At first I’d probably try to start off with vaguely academic questions, like her thoughts on direct action and how she’d gauge its success, what her intentions were in founding the WSPU and how these changed over time, her thoughts on the role of male suffragists, how she felt about the portrayal of the suffragist movement in the press and so on. And then I’d probably get increasingly nosy about the intra-suffrage movement tensions, so really, tell me exactly how you feel about the NUWSS, and what really happened with the Pethick-Lawrences, and why did you choose to base the WSPU on a military organisation and whose idea was that and ooh, syphilis and white slavery. And then either ask her about falling out with her sister, Sylvia Pankhurst, or possibly present her with a cuddly syphilis. Either way, it would go magnificently.

Sue Perkins or Sandi Toksvig? [This is probably the most important question I’ll ask anyone, nota bene]
I really admire Sandi Toksvig’s knowledge on such a wide range of subjects, how she’s a ferociously intelligent and respected older female broadcaster, presenter and entertainer when there are so few on TV and radio, and how she’s fought discrimination against her and her family due to her sexuality. On the other hand, Sue Perkins is one of the few comedians who can make me laugh and laugh (I saw Mitchell and Webb live and fell asleep, true story), and while she’s self-deprecating she’s also whip-smart and passionate about the arts. On balance I’d say that Sue Perkins is ahead by a whisker, but that’s due to her commitment to empirical research as demonstrated on The Supersizers go….

What is corpus linguistics?
Very very basically, it involves collecting together machine-readable texts and using a computer program to look for patterns in them. The patterns you look for might be whether a word prefers or avoids other words (collocation), have a certain grammatical function (colligation), are associated with a specific semantic field (semantic preference) or are associated with a set of words or phrases which can reveal (hidden) attitudes (discourse prosody). Some people work with massive corpora, like the Bank of English, and some people work with very small corpora of tens of thousands of words. Some people treat it as a sub-discipline in itself while others treat it as a methodology. As such, there’s a tremendous variation on what corpus linguistics is and it kind of depends on who you ask as to what answer you’ll get.

How and where do you see yourself teaching, in the post-apocalyptic maelstrom of the Higher Ed future?
It’s hard to say. I’m troubled by the attitude that universities are profit-making service providers and students are consumers; I believe it fundamentally changes the relationship between teacher and student. On the other hand, the networks and resources you find in universities are valuable and it’s hard to create them from scratch. The answer is that I’m really not sure; I’d like to do some teaching within the university system, but I’d also like to work with groups outside it – school and college groups, activists, the public and others.

What’re your own newspaper & magazine reading habits?
Being a bit of a cheapskate, it depends if I’m buying them or not. I sometimes buy Diva if I’m faced with a long train journey, but other than that I tend to do most of my reading online. However, if there are magazines or newspapers lying around, I’ll probably read them – National Geographic, New Scientist, the Metro, I’m not particularly fussy. I am also likely to pounce on people’s copies of trashy magazines, especially if they have dodgy real life stories (e.g. I made my mum-in-law out of toast). I probably won’t read the Daily Mail though – I do have some standards.

What’s the best thing about your life right now?
Right now? Possibly the cherry tomatoes, courgette and garlic roasting in the oven that I’m going to make something with for my dinner. It’s a beautiful sunny evening, my window’s open, and I can hear birdsong and collared doves cooing. It’s not the life I thought I was letting myself in for when I first started my PhD at Liverpool, but I’m trying to make the best of it.

What do your mornings look like?
Best avoided.

And now, questions for her!

  • Do you try to get distance from your PhD, and what form does that take?
  • What’s the arts organisation that doesn’t exist, but you really really wish it did?
  • Let’s imagine that you have the chance to go back in time and interact (talk, get drunk with, slap, etc) with any historical figure. They’ll then conveniently bang their head and forget they ever met you. Who would you pick and what would you do with/to them?
  • How has blogging influenced or affected your PhD?
  • What are you most looking forward to?
  • Comment if you’d like some questions from me.

    Press understanding of the black bloc

    On Saturday, over 500,000 people took part in the March for the Alternative. The Guardian live-blogged it (first part, second part) and for the majority, it was a peaceful and diverse march.

    At some point, some protesters seem to have headed to Oxford Street to engage in some direct action, namely occupying Fortnum & Masons (and were duly kettled upon leaving, having been told they’d be free to leave the area), and in a late evening a large group gathered at Trafalgar Square, apparently to rest, catch up, swap news and so on. At this point something happened, and the police responded by kettling them. People’s experiences could be very different depending on where they were and when – one person was baton charged by the police, Laurie Penny was caught in the Trafalgar Square kettle, this young blogger found himself protecting a girl whose arm was broken by the police in the Trafalgar Square kettle and Katie writes about the march and Trafalgar Square and the aftermath as a St John’s Ambulance first aider.

    The reaction from the conservative press was predictable but again, people were anxious to distance themselves from those not participating in the march and engaging in different forms of direct action.

    Johann Hari:

    Shame on the media for focusing on a few idiots from yesterday not the inspiring 500,000, and shame on the idiots for giving them the excuse (source)

    They were Black Block, who are entirely different people (and twats) (source)

    Charlie Brooker:

    Confusing these twats with the hundreds of thousands of actual protesters = mistaking football hooligans for footballers. (source)

    La Sophielle has some interesting stuff to say on the distinction between “good” protesters and “bad” protesters:

    All those news outlets with their talk of “splinter groups”, “mobs”, “maelstroms of violence”, “violent minorities” and “masked thugs” who “hijack” things – and don’t forget the bafflingly recurrent remark that those responsible “used Twitter to coordinate actions and cause trouble” – all these news outlets actually don’t care to differentiate between various expressions of political resistance, whatever they may say to the contrary. Protestors come in ‘nice’ or ‘black’ – full stop. I don’t resent this because I resent UK Uncut being “smeared” or lumped in with the black bloc. I resent this because it means that inane dichotomies (legitimate/illegitimate, nice/nasty, peaceful/violent) are shored up in the name of reporting, which in fact serve nothing at all except sensation. (source)

    Aside from the debate about acceptable and unacceptable forms of protest which is probably as old as protest itself, I find it really interesting how the term “black bloc” is used. I understand it as a tactic (as this FAQ explains): a black bloc is a temporary gathering of people with different ideologies and aims working together for the duration of a march etc. Wearing similar clothes promotes solidarity, is highly visible and hinders identification, particularly by Forward Intelligence Teams. What it is not, however, is an organisation. To my knowledge, there is no black bloc membership list. There is no black bloc committee. It forms on the ground, and dissolves afterwards. The individuals involved might have connections to each other, but the black bloc itself is not the organisation that they belong to.

    As a linguist, what I find interesting are the different ways the black bloc is discussed in this current round of articles. Not so much the evaluative stance, but the concept of the black bloc itself. This term is not being disputed in the press – instead, it seems to be misunderstood and the misunderstanding apparently goes unchallenged. I suspect there’s a power dynamic in that those most likely to participate in a black bloc and understand it are not likely to have a powerful voice in the press; the people writing about the black bloc in the newspapers are unlikely to be the ones with direct experience of it. And so “Black Bloc(k)” seems to become an identity rather than a tactic.

    It makes me wonder how prevalent this is, both diachronically and across domains. Is this a fairly standard feature of mainstream press discourse about the black bloc? Is it something more recent – was the black bloc discussed differently in the 1990s/early 2000s/mid-2000s to now? Is the black bloc understood differently when taking part in different kinds of protest e.g. anti-war, environmental, anti-cuts (even if these issues are often closely connected)? Has the term become more widespread, or used more frequently?

    This is the kind of research that lends itself to corpus research methodologies – focusing on a limited number of terms where a) the term is crucial to identifying the group being discussed and b) the term itself is what’s interesting. There may well be incidences of “protesters dressed in black” and so on, but I’m not convinced that identifies the protesters explicitly enough to know that it’s a black bloc being discussed. Because the black bloc itself is a somewhat nebulous concept – its power lies in its lack of organisation and definition – it becomes a site for projection. Do you want the black bloc to be full of violent hooligans, justifiably angry disenfranchised working class kids, rentamob thugs? Again, this seems more about identity than discussing the black bloc as a tactic.

    If I didn’t have a conference paper to write I’d be creating a custom corpus with WebBootCaT, but the paper must take precedence. The custom corpus will have to wait a couple of weeks.

    Arguments

    A couple of weeks ago I found a link to 7 Stupid Thinking Errors You Probably Make and it reminded me of being introduced to fallacies in AS Critical Thinking. There’s a rigorous, elegant beauty to lists of fallacious arguments – that all these fallacies have been recognised and identified and named and summarised. A taxonomy of bad arguments.

    They’re very useful for PhD researchers. As people who engage with other people’s arguments, it’s extremely useful to be able to identify fallacious thinking – whether it’s someone else’s or your own. Writing a thesis is hard enough without falling into the trap of straw men or post hoc ergo propter hoc.

    Suffrage imagery

    Sometimes I like going into the library and just browsing, skipping the catalogues and directed searches, and just poking about until I find something interesting. Sometimes you find things you didn’t know existed – Rethinking Language and Gender Research: Theory and Practice opened my undergraduate eyes. At other times you find seemingly random things. A couple of months ago I was flicking through a book on “fashioning the body politic” and to my interest, found an article on fashion and the suffragette movement. I photocopied it, thinking it would be an interesting diversion but not really relevant to my thesis, but it’s turning out to be surprisingly useful.

    I’m currently analysing a report of a WSPU procession and having an understanding of suffragette visual signifiers is proving essential. The procession was in honour of Emily Wilding Davison and accompanied her coffin through London to the station, where it was taken to Morpeth and buried. The procession itself is more like a state funeral – colour coordinated dress, music, groups of women marching in formation, banners, a cross-bearer, and young girls dressed in white and carrying laurel wreaths. It’s astonishing in terms of scale and organisation – there’s a sense that every visual element is there for a specific reason and to have a specific effect. One of the aspects I’m interested in is the procession as publicity – this was an opportunity for the WSPU to create a new kind of visual spectacle. Rather than being purely a political demonstration, this procession celebrated the life of a suffragette. The banners read “Fight on and God will give the victory” “Thoughts have gone forth whose power can sleep no more” and “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”, celebrating Davison as a fallen soldier who had given up her life for the cause.

    The WSPU leadership seemed to have been ambivalent about Davison. Her propensity for unpredictable and independent direct action outside the guidance of the leadership seems to have caused tension; for example, she set fire to postboxes before arson became an acceptable tactic and this did not appear to have gone down particularly well. She was knocked down by the King’s horse in the 1913 Derby – it is unclear whether she intended to stop the horse, pin WSPU colours to its bridle or was merely crossing the racecourse after she thought the horses had passed – and died three days later. The inquest recorded her death as “death by misadventure”. What I find interesting is the WSPU reaction to her death. The paper reports no immediate WSPU response, although a day or so later WSPU colours were draped on the screens around her bed. This rather muted response contrasts with the extravagant procession; I’d argue that the WSPU leadership realised the potential for publicity after her death, wanted to capitalise on it, and so brought Davison’s actions under their aegis. The resultant procession involved thousands of sympathisers and the crowds gathered to watch were so thick the police could only keep the way clear for the procession with “utmost difficulty”.

    The procession was rich with symbolism. One of the mistakes I’m trying not to make is interpreting the imagery as a present day reader would; the cultural touchstones are different, and this is illustrated clearly in the use of “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” on the banners. My immediate association with this phrase is the bitterness and outrage of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry – written some four years after this procession and published seven years after it. Today this phrase has connotations that weren’t widely present in 1913. Instead, I’m trying to look at early twentieth century interpretations of colour and flower symbolism, religious and classical allusions, and banners. What does it mean when the WSPU members wear purple, white and black rather than the WSPU colours of purple, white and green? Does it really symbolise the death of hope? This is where the article on fashion in the suffragette movement comes in – not just because it touches on some of the areas I’m interested in, but also because it draws on sources that look really exciting. I badly want to get my hands on Lisa Tickner’s The Spectacle of Women: imagery of the suffrage campaign, 1907-1914.

    Naturally the library doesn’t have it. Am tempted to take up a Cambridge friend’s offer to swap beer for books.

    In India

    I probably should have posted this before I left, but I’m in India visiting family. My thesis has come along too and I can now say that I’ve written a bit of my thesis practically in a nature reserve. Where, incidentally, I saw rhinos, deer, wild boar, elephants and a tiger! The tiger was stunning – all power and sleekness and muscles shifting under the brightest red-gold fur I’ve ever seen.

    My thoughts on eco-tourism are complicated – at what point does it become too indulgent, is it okay to invade habitats with tourism, does it support the kind of human enroachment that threatens these habitats? but on the other hand, tourism helps people see the reserves and wildlife within them as valuable (which has all sorts of effects, including helping locals feel protective towards their nearby reserve and so defend wildlife against poachers), gets the government to protect the reserve because it brings in tourists and their money, and brings in money to fund the reserve, pay rangers and so on. The people running the hotel we stayed with did outreach in local schools during the rainy season when the park is closed and clearly cared about the reserve and those living within it. Without tourism, there’s a risk that the reserves wouldn’t exist, wouldn’t have support from the local community and there would be more exploitation of the reserves – poaching, logging, grazing and so on.

    As valuable as zoos are with their captive breeding programs, reintroducing species back into the wild and conservation work, they were miles away from seeing this tiger easily lope across the road, glowng in the late afternoon sun, and disappearing into the grass and shrubs. For tigers to become extinct in the wild would take something precious from them.

    World Book Day

    Books are awesome, so here are some questions about books and my answers.

    The book I am reading: These questions were written by someone who reads one book at a time, finishing each one before starting the next. I am not that person. I rarely have one book on the go, and am possibly infuriatingly promiscuous.
    The Junior Officers’ Reading Club – Patrick Hennessey
    Rise Up, Women! The Militant Campaign of the Women’s Social and Political Union, 1903-1914 – Andrew Rosen
    Methods for Critical Discourse Analysis – edited by Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer
    Introducing Forensic Linguistics – Janet Cotterill and Malcolm Coulthard

    I recently finished Rivers of London by Ben Aaronvitch and have been dipping into GenderQueer: Voices from Beyond the Sexual Binary edited by Joan Nestle, Riki Wilchins and Clare Howell.

    The book(s) I am writing: My thesis, ahahahaha. Hahaha. Ha.

    The book I love most: But you can’t have one you love most! The others will be upset.

    The last book I received as a gift: Not quite a gift but they’ll probably end up residing with me, but my mother has just lent me Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.

    The last book I gave as a gift: One Day by David Nicholls for my mother. As a family of avid readers, we tend not to give surprise books to each other – it’s impossible to keep up with that many bookshelves. Instead we each get a book allowance at Christmas, agonise for ages over which ones to choose, then get someone else to wrap our chosen books.
    My favourite book-as-a-gift was to an ex – an out-of-print collection of essays called Mornings in the Dark by Graham Greene. I managed to stumble upon a copy in a little second-hand bookshop in Liverpool – a beautiful hardback copy in near perfect condition, almost like it was waiting for me.

    The nearest book on my desk: I’m not at my desk, but somewhere on the kitchen table is an article about purple, green and white colours in fashion during the suffrage campaign (I thought it sounded interesting) and have “Stunning, shimmering, iridescent: Toys as the representation of gendered social actors” by Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard and Theo van Leeuwen open on google books.

    Religion, Youth and Sexuality

    Today I went to the Religion, Youth and Sexuality conference at the University of Nottingham. I’ve been closely involved with a the project but not as a researcher – as a participant. I answered a questionnaire which was followed up with an interview, then they deemed me sufficiently interesting to keep a video diary for a week.

    It was a really interesting opportunity – firstly, as a researcher, it was a valuable experience seeing how other people in a different field and with a different theoretical and methodological background conducted research. Secondly, and somewhat unexpectedly, it was valuable as a participant. I went into the project thinking that I’d do some people a favour – they needed people to fill out their questionnaire and as a researcher, I like helping other people out with their research. Part of this is blatant and unfettered curiosity, part of this is the acknowledgement that research often depends on people willing to fill out questionnaires and one day, I might be soliciting data in that way. Part of my special interest in this project was the chance to get some representation; I do not see people like me represented in papers or magazines or TV, and perhaps my participation would help address that.

    What followed really pushed me into thinking about how I conceptualised religion and sexuality and forced me to examine my beliefs. Sometimes the best way to sort things out in your own head is to talk to someone else; the questions were never intrusive or aggressive but I found myself reexamining things and realising that, for example, no, I didn’t actually have a problem with X but actually Y was a really important issue for me. It made me think through the various inconsistencies and really try to reconcile sometimes very different beliefs and attitudes. I’d grown up keeping these two aspects of my life pretty separate but this was an arena where I could acknowledge these two facets of my identity and how they informed each other, think about the links between them. I wasn’t prepared for how validated this made me feel – not just in terms of acknowledgement and acceptance, but that my daily life was of interest to the research project and worth investigating.

    When I volunteered as a participant, I wasn’t really expecting to gain much from it. Instead I found it an interesting and rewarding experience, so much so that I hope they get the funding to following us up in a few years.

    Activist linguistics

    Activist linguistics, as I see it, does not mean that the researcher skew her or his findings to support one group or one ideology or another. Nor does it mean that a famous linguist use her or his fame to support causes. Rather, an activist linguistics calls for researchers to remain connected to the communities in which they research, returning to those settings to apply the knowledge they have generated for the good of the community and to deepen the research through expansion or focus.

    O’Connor, P. E. (2003). “Activist Sociolinguistics in a Critical Discourse Analysis Perspective”. In G. Weiss and R. Wodak (Eds) Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity. Basingstoke: Paulsgrave Macmillan

    Me, at dawn, holding a placard reading "Save Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences" in International Phonetic AlphabetThis is something I’ve been thinking about.

    In some ways, my PhD research area is a deeply personal thing. It might be about a social movement and people and events a hundred years ago, but it encompasses areas that I care deeply about: gender equality, the theory and practice of protest, marginalised and disenfranchised groups, the interaction between ideology and practical legislative change. The photo is one of the more visible acts of protest I’ve done recently – it was taken on a cold winter’s morning before I went to London to protest about cuts to arts, humanities and social sciences. That experience led me to write this post.

    I worried quite a lot about whether my personal politics would affect my research for the worse. Would it make me too sympathetic, unable to see the flaws in direct action? Would I end up hopelessly over-identifying with the subjects of my research? Would my thesis become a paean to the suffrage movement? Would I, too, end up setting fire to a boathouse? Worrying thoughts indeed.

    But now I’ve started wondering about neutrality. Is actual neutrality even possible? I’m not convinced it is; to me it seems that you can simply not know enough about an issue to have an opinion, or that your apparent neutrality is itself a stance. I’m reminded of debates within feminism where those allegedly objective about it are actually hostile – there are some things it’s hard not to have an opinion about, and if you’ve chosen to distance yourself from an issue you’ve still made a choice about how you’re going to engage with it.

    As I said in my post on direct action, being a protester has given me an insight into the kind of things the suffrage movement encountered. When I wrote that post it was police violence; as I write now, it’s the tensions between different groups and factions who are (roughly) campaigning for the same things.

    As O’Connor suggests, things like this are going to inform one’s research whatever I do and my issue is one of how to allow it to do so, how to acknowledge it and be honest about its influence. There are different ways to engage with one’s activism and individual politics, and it’s clear which she thinks is best. As well as making for better research, I think the researcher also owes something to the community in which they’re embedded. As an undergraduate I was staggered by Jennifer Coates’ admission that she covertly recorded her friends for material. At the time it was an acceptable methodology to make such recordings; now it is most definitely not. I’m not studying NSAFC (if I was I’d tell them!) but that earlier post was still an attempt to apply my research to my community, to give back something – kind of connecting my experience as a researcher with my experience as a protester, and trying to synthesise them in to sort of whole I think O’Connor is talking about.

    As a tangent, I stumbled upon Emily Davison Blues by Grace Petrie a couple of months ago. There’s a research paper in contemporary reimaginings of the suffrage movement, I know it.

    Okay, I was going to go to bed at least an hour ago. Tomorrow brings more narrative theory and newsworthiness, yay?