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

Nottinghamshire Pride

Last year, I wrote about my slightly complicated feelings about Pride. As a result of some rather unpleasant transphobic incidents last year, this year the Pride organising committee offered the trans* group I help run our own tent and a bit of money to start us off. This was tremendously exciting – we’d never had a dedicated trans* area and we were determined to showcase the talented, diverse and creative trans* performers in our community, offer a space to our allies to perform in a friendly place where the complexities of their identities were welcomed, be a visible trans* presence at Pride and, perhaps most importantly, reaching out to people and making them feel a little less alone.

Photo of Ruth of Not Right

Ruth of Not Right. Photo by Eriw Erif

There’s an excellent review of the day by Ruth of Not Right and one of our members has a write-up and some photos on the group site.

Single Bass
El Dia (Sisters of Resistance)
Jase Redfield
Elaine O’Neill
Lashings of Ginger Beer Time
Dr Carmilla
Roz Kaveney
Sally Outen
George Hadden
Nat Titman
Troxin Cherry
Jessie Holder (of Better Strangers Opera)
Not Right

Every single one of them was fantastic, bringing their words and music and loves and lives to the stage. Whether this was furious-but-fun punk, elegantly coiled poetry about the acronyms one must acquaint oneself with as a trans* person, sweetly tender songs about growth and uncertainty, bawdily defiant poetry, eloquent fierceness about femme identity or subversively genderqueer readings of opera, our performers were both affirming and challenging. It was an honour to be able to thank so many amazing people at the end of the day, from the performers to Jess who organised the majority of the day, our stage manager and our fantastic sound guy.

As an activist, I think about spaces. I think about the spaces that I challenge and create, and as I watched and applauded and ran around trying to locate performers I thought about the space that I’d helped open up in Pride. The spaces I am talking about are both physical – like the tent – but also more abstract. Space is also about what is given voice, what is allowed to flourish, the possibilities that can be articulated. Much of my annoyance at last year’s Pride was that it was a gay man, and possibly a lesbian, space. This is important, and I’m not disputing the significance of a space where people can hold hands with their same-sex partners and not feel that tiny prickle of concern even at the best of times – that anyone, anywhere, could suddenly take it upon themselves to vocally – and perhaps physically – object to that simple, unobtrusive affection. Other queer identities were less or not acknowledged however, and I found that really problematic. The LGBTQA community is a huge, diverse community and it’s really important to acknowledge and welcome that diversity. When that diversity is not embraced, it’s not simply an issue of our experiences not being given a voice, as isolating and unwelcoming as that is. A lack of trans* awareness contributed to some really upsetting incidents and the Pride organising committee were keen to avoid that happening this year.

There was something magical about being in a tent and being able to listen and watch people who articulated some of my fears and anxieties and desires. There were trans* people speaking and singing and playing about trans* experiences, and cis performers adapting and selecting their work to speak to us. Not us trying to eke out a trans* interpretation of a song or a poem, but them finding the points where we could understand each other. It was people exploring gender and all that came with it; negotiating the NHS, the harsh realities of genital surgery, the misery and joy we find in our bodies. When we started planning our tent, we were determined to bring a radical queer feminist perspective to Pride – something that we treasured in our communities but which we rarely found represented at Pride. In this tent we were able to do something special, and create a space that was visible and proud and joyful and intersectional and defiant.

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar

Jase Redfield of Mental Gellar. Photo by Eriw Erif.

Obviously things went wrong (technical hitches, delays, transport issues for some of our performers) and I can only thank our performers for being so patient with us. I learnt a lot about managing an event like this, even though the learning curve was so steep it felt more like a ski slope.

I found it an interesting mixture of some of my academic interests and my activist interests. While as an academic I am interested in silences and space, this was an opportunity to put some of the things I’ve been thinking about into practice. Not just thinking about what trans* positive spaces might look like, but trying to actually create one and working out what needs to be done so it is a safe(r) and welcoming space. Theoretically, I want such a space to acknowledge the different and complex ways people identify, encourage exploration of intersectional identities and recognise that there is No One True Way of being trans*. I want this space to provide information and offer solace, to be able to engage with people. What this meant was looking carefully at who we’d invited to perform, having some basic guidelines for behaviour displayed in the tent, making information from a range of different organisations and about different issues available, and ensuring that the people covered in our trans* history information were from a variety of backgrounds and reflected some of the ambiguities of posthumously assigning a trans* identity to a historical figure.

It wasn’t the most academic way to spend a weekend – I’m pretty sure most academics don’t need to hire drumkits the day before an event – but it had impact. Not just in a research sense, although I do hope to work in areas of language and gender identity, but in the way we saw people come in to say hello or out of curiosity or seeking information, and leave feeling affirmed, moved, comforted. A trans* space was political for all the reasons I’ve discussed, but it wasn’t until the day itself that I realised how very personal it would be too.

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.

CDA and me

It’s a busy time in the world of Kat! I finished my marking a couple of weeks ago (horror, despair, consumption of an inadvisable amount of chocolate hobnobs) and since then it’s been trying to beat my thesis into shape. Add to that family illness and a sick pet, and well. I’m sure you can imagine.

One of the things I’ve found most difficult about my thesis is reconciling a data-driven approach with theory. My instinct is to let the data guide me as much as possible rather than approaching the data with the expectation of finding something if I look at a particular, pre-selected word. On a methodological level, I’ve found looking at mutual information really useful because it shows links between words that aren’t necessarily obvious but often worth further investigation. This is especially true of the texts I’m working with. While suffrage-produced texts have been studied closely by lots of people, newspaper reporting and discussion of the suffrage movement isn’t something that’s been researched in depth. I’ve tried to let myself go of assumptions about whether or not they’ll behave like suffrage-produced texts. In some ways, letting go of the conviction that they’d be radically different is harder – every researcher wants to find something completely new, after all! However, as Lesley Hall might say, “it’s always more complicated”.

In my first year I tried to learn as much as possible about early 20th century British history so I could contextualise my data. Instead of looking at it simply as machine-readable data, I can recognise the discourse it draws upon – that of separate spheres for men and women, the effect engaging in public life was thought to have on women, ideas about who should choose a government of Empire. I’ve found evidence of these in the Times texts I work with and it’s been exciting to find these – little moments where things click into place, where the historiography and the data align. Bringing together these two fields has been rewarding and I hope my research is better for it.

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and I, however, are a different story. I’m sure at one point I could do Critical Discourse Analysis – indeed, I got a 75 for a CDA essay as an undergraduate. I like the concepts underlying it – after all, recognising ideologies, examining power relations, questioning assumptions and destabilising cultural hegemony is interesting, not to mention very relevant to my research. However, I’ve realised that one of my problems lies with the nature of the texts I work with. Analysis of news discourse – things like newspapers, TV, radio – seems to rely on some assumptions about how news discourses are organised. For example, one theme that recurs in analysis of (written) news discourse is that news texts are organised by importance rather than chronologically. This means that you can read the headline and first paragraph of a news story and have a pretty good idea of what the news story is about.

Here’s a news text selected at more-or-less random. The headline, “US teen survives spear through brain” and first sentence, “A US teenager’s survival after a spear was shot through his brain is a miracle, doctors say” answer a lot of the “wh- questions”:

Who? A US teenager
What? Survived being shot through the brain with a spear; doctors say it’s a miracle.
Where? In the US

The next sentence, “Yasser Lopez, 16, is recovering after he was accidentally hit with a spear gun by a friend during a Florida fishing trip this month” answers some more of these questions:

When? This month
How? Accidentally hit with a spear gun by a friend.

Most of the key information is contained in the headline and these two sentences – you could read this much in a news in brief article and it would make sense. At the article continues, the information offered becomes more detailed and less “key” to understanding the news story. By the end of the article, we’re getting information about which part of his brain the spear passed through. Obviously this is a pretty basic analysis and looking at moves in news discourse can be much more elaborate.

However, what do you do when even these basic tenets of news discourse – that information is organised in terms of importance rather than chronologically – cannot be relied on? One of the ways early 20th century news texts are different from present day news texts is that they are often organised chronologically. In fact, quite a lot of assumptions about news discourse don’t work when it comes to these texts – after all, this was a period when printing 17,500 word Parliamentary transcripts in the Times was normal.

The style of CDA I’m going with, therefore, is not entirely news discourse analysis. And, having thought about it in the writing of this post, I’m okay with that. That a big chunk of news discourse analysis doesn’t work for me isn’t a failure on my part, but demonstrate that my texts are, once again, doing something different. This is okay, and in fact something interesting to add to my discussion of CDA.

Anyway, at the moment I’m in Leeds for IVACS. Some people are presenting using data from Old Bailey Online which sounds fascinating – historical forensic linguistics and corpus linguistics? Sounds good to me.

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.

Teaching the suffrage campaign

The video I discussed in my last post has got me thinking about wider issues in how and what we teach about the suffrage movement. What is discussed and disseminated about the suffrage movement is a political issue; what we teach, and in doing so deem important enough to pass on, probably says more about us and our priorities than about the suffrage movement.

From the Suffragette, 1909

Passive forms of resistance – for example, the chaining self to railings issue, which as far as I can tell from my data was either systematically underreported to the point of invisibility (unlikely, given news values) or didn’t happen with any frequency – is widely discussed and disseminated today. Forcible feeding is another issue widely discussed now. Part of this is because hunger strikes have a resonance today – as a child growing up in Britain I knew of Bobby Sands, and over the past days I’ve read of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja of Bahrain and the Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan. Emily Wilding Davison’s death is also widely discussed in present day material, despite it not being sanctioned by WSPU leadership and ambiguous as to her intentions – it’s probably among the best known acts of the suffrage campaign. It’s dramatic, but then so was lots of other suffragette direct action – planting a bomb in David Lloyd George’s unfinished house for example.

I’d argue that what these models of resistance have in common is their emphasis on female passivity, injured female bodies and the pain and humiliation suffered by women; as Laura Mayhall says, they’re about the “individual exhibition of women’s bodies in pain”. It’s an image of the woman as martyr, who experiences personal agonies in order to bring about social change. And I think there’s something damaging about that – it teaches children, girls in particular, that the way you protest is through personal suffering. It’s protest turned inward; the depth of your resistance shown through how much pain you are willing to bear. I don’t think that’s a healthy thing to represent as the extent of suffrage protest.

The suffrage movement campaigned through political channels (petitions, deputations, canvassing MPs), peaceful protest (demonstrations, rallies, public speaking, tax resistance), the arts (writing, drama and visual arts) and militant direct action (window breaking, attacking politicians, arson). There were multiple channels of resistance and I think it’s important that these are taught. To me, this says something about how imaginative and diverse protest can be, the many forms it can take and perhaps something of the importance of these many types of campaigning. In these heady times of austerity cuts and the rise of co-ordinated grassroots anti-cuts groups, I think it’s important that we’re aware of the rich history of democratic protest and its potential to effect change – not as single, isolated, dramatic events, but as a narrative of resistance.

References:
Mayhall, L (2003) The Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain, 1860-1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press

The Suffragettes’ Song (Horrible Histories)

Someone I know linked to this video on facebook. While my PhD research focuses on contemporary (meaning 1908-1914) media representations of the suffrage movement, I’m also interested in present day representations – what gets filtered through to us, and through what lenses.

I wrote about one video last month so was curious about this other one. Unfortunately it’s not that great. It’s a shame because I loved Horrible Histories when I was a kid and, at a book signing, forced Terry Deary to sign my whole collection. I should probably apologise for that.

I commented on facebook that there were wild historical inaccuracies and was asked which bit was wrong. I spent the following half hour going through the video second-by-second and offering a detailed critique because I am a humourless pedant. Yes, this cartoon is an accurate reflection of my life. My objections are as follows:

0:02 – 0:09 – the struggle for the vote was not over; women’s voting rights were subject to various economic, property ownership, age and education restrictions. Full equal suffrage was not achieved until the 1928 Equal Franchise Act.
0:10 – the term “suffragette” was originally coined by the Daily Mail as a pejorative. While some suffrage campaigners reclaimed it (mainly those associated with the Women’s Political and Social Union (WSPU)), many others did not and described themselves as suffragists.
0:18 – Millicent Fawcett was a key suffrage campaigner but was not the founder of the suffrage cause. The women are also wearing purple, white and green sashes; these were associated with the WSPU. Fawcett belonged to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), a constitutionalist organisation that had internal clashes with the WSPU.
0:21 – women’s rights had been an issue for a long, long time; see e.g. Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”.
0:38 – there were men in Parliament who supported women’s suffrage, notably Keir Hardie.
0:48 – it’s unclear, but I think the lyrics are “peaceful protest started in 1903”. This coincides with the founding of the WSPU, but the WSPU only began their direct action campaign a couple of years later. Suffrage campaigners had been organising petitions, deputations and lobbying MPs for years decades previous to this.
0:56 – Emmeline Pankhurst was a founder of the WSPU and of a different lineage in suffrage organisations. There was a huge diversity of organisations – well over 50 in the UK – and the Pankhursts’ tactics were not a direct continuation of Fawcett’s. Fawcett continued to lead the NUWSS until 1919.
1:09 – suffragists chaining themselves to railings wasn’t really that common and I believe its significance has been wildly overstated; if you want militant direct action, window-breaking and arson seem far more widely reported.
1:50 – 1:59 – the coroner’s report into Wilding Davison’s death was “death by misadventure”; there is no evidence to suggest she was trying to get herself killed and return train tickets in her pocket suggests the opposite. It’s suggested that she was trying to pin WSPU colours to the King’s horse’s bridle or was trying to cross the racecourse.
2:05 – 2:26 – the WSPU called off their militant campaign and supported the war effort; however, other suffrage organisations took a pacifistic stance and opposed the war.
2:31 – some historians believe that women would have gained the vote earlier had WWI not got in the way
2:38 – for working class women, particularly those from Northern, trade union backgrounds, the vote was merely a small step towards improving their working conditions, living conditions, accessing healthcare, better education and improved welfare. In addition, only a subsection of relatively privileged women could vote. Being able to vote did not improve women’s lives overnight, nor did it end their exploitation.
2:45 – not all women were fighting under the suffragette name! Many identified as suffragists.
2:46 – similarly, some historians believe that women would have got the vote earlier had the WSPU not gone on their massive arson campaign.

I think it is interesting in that it tells us more about our perceptions of the movement, what we think is important to know and to teach, and how we organise history into a neat narrative.

As the newspaper texts I work with make obvious, suffrage campaigners and politicians had no idea which of their actions were going to be historically significant. The texts I was reading last week from June 1910 are excited/angry/hopeful/concerned about the possibilities of the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill; the Bill passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons and was referred to a committee, but before this happened, Parliament was dissolved in preparation for a general election and Bills not passed into law were dropped. At the time, suffrage campaigners thought this Bill was likely to succeed; history tells us it didn’t.

There isn’t a neat narrative as expressed in this video. Instead there were setbacks and surges of activity. The things that suffragist campaigners thought would definitely get them the vote this time ended up being disappointments. Today, people are more likely to have heard of Emily Wilding Davison’s interruption of the Derby – not endorsed by WSPU leadership – that they are of carefully planned events, such as the large demonstration in June 1908. At the start of the campaign in the 1860s, no one could have predicted the direct action tactics that would end up being used by the WSPU between 1909 and 1914, nor could they have predicted WWI or women’s role in the war.

Catchy tune though – I can already tell this is going to get stuck in my brain to pop up at the least opportune of moments.

So let’s sing while we still have time…

On Saturday night I was singing in the University Choir, performing Mahler’s 2nd symphony. There’s a review up by Professor Stephen Mumford in which he notes that “music especially gives us access to the sublime”. As a singer and performer of music I won’t argue with that; there is something especially transcendental about being one voice among many, knowing your part perfectly and combining to create a glorious, complex sound.

However, I’ve also found singing a particularly rewarding experience as a PhD researcher. We were singing in the fifth movement of Mahler’s second symphony which is less than 15 minutes of actual singing, but we still rehearsed for at least two hours a week and sometimes closer to five hours. The intense focus reminded me of an extreme form of close reading, where engagement with the text is all there is and everything else ceases to be. Every rehearsal brought something new; a different nuance to be coaxed out of the text through a diminuendo, a different shade of meaning expressed through a quaver rest.

Singing requires a different kind of concentration – you can’t be distracted or only half pay attention to the words and music you’re singing. It requires all of my focus and attention, yet I find it calls for a different kind of focus and attention than my PhD demands. Ultimately, it’s a communal concentration – I am focused on my score, the person conducting, blending my voice with the other people singing my part, and listening to what the other parts are doing. It’s very different from the often intensely solitary work of my PhD. I also find it gives me permission for switch off from PhD work without feeling guilty or lazy; and in fact, more often than not, I find myself refreshed by the change and ready to get back to work.

As well as a relationship with the rest of the choir, singing also creates a relationship between the singer and the conductor. As part of the choir, I was struck by the sense of connection Jonathan Tilbrook established with us. He’s an expressive conductor with eloquent, fluid gestures – during the performance I was mesmerised by his fluent conducting of the orchestra. Jonathan encourages a suppleness and responsiveness; when he was conducting us, he, quite literally, held the power of an 140-strong choir in his hands and could ask for ppp or fff with one gesture. We were there at his fingertips, our voices ready to soar or quieten to almost a whisper if he asked for it. While obviously you can’t abdicate all responsibility and expect the conductor to indicate every change in dynamic, Jonathan clearly knew what guidance we would find helpful. My worries about a difficult entry melted away as I realised that he would tell us when to come in. Again, this is different from the PhD experience of uncertainty. One of the things I was unconsciously struggling with was the responsibility and pressure of becoming the expert in my area. It was with a feeling of relief that I could relinquish control and trust someone else to guide me for at least a few hours.

I often feel a sense of disconnection from my body for a number of reasons, and this blog isn’t the place to go into detail. As a researcher, I find myself neglecting it – sleep? eat? but I’m too busy! – and resenting its demands. Singing, however, is one of the most physical things I do. Far from being something non-physical, singing is an embodied act. When you sing, your body becomes an exquisitely sensitive, expressive instrument. You support the sound with your diaphragm and abdominal muscles; you produce different sounds through the complex interaction of your vocal cords, the space inside your mouth, your tongue, your soft palate, your lips. As a linguist I knew exactly what the chorusmaster meant when he asked for open vowels, closed vowels, more schwa (and oh, how interestingly different from my experiences singing church Latin!). You have to be relaxed to produce a clear sound; tension will affect your tone. Simultaneously, you have to be aware of your posture; you can’t sing when if you’re hunched up or slouching. It’s a complex balance that requires body awareness. I’m fascinated by how our physical practices shape our bodies and how you can read a history in someone’s skin and muscles. It’s very satisfying to allow something I love so much to shape me, carve me into something that makes me an even better singer. And, in doing so, it challenges the Cartesian dualism that allows me to conceptualise a mind-body split. What singing does is merge the two, gently reproaching me for even thinking of my body as mere transport for my mind.

As well as offering a useful counterpoint for my life as a PhD researcher, this involvement with music also makes me a better teacher. On Friday I was teaching on metaphor. One of the exercises my students had to do was slot different words into some constructions, such as A is the B of C and A is like B to make metaphors. We’d then discuss the target domain (what you’re trying to talk about) and the source domain (the ideas you’re drawing on to talk about it), and discuss the features of the source domain that made the metaphor work. For some reason, my students really liked “music” as a source domain, coming up with things like “patience is the music of love”. When I asked them what made that particular metaphor work, they said things like “music is beautiful” and “music makes me feel happy”. I tried to encourage them to think about other features of music that might disrupt the neatness of the metaphor: that it can be complicated, that looking at a full orchestral score can be overwhelming, that learning to play an instrument often involves frustration and creating some truly awful noises, that making something look effortless and graceful requires hard work. I could explore that metaphor more fully with my students because I do have this musical background, and hopefully enrich their understanding and learning experience.

I’ve never been the kind of person who can relax by watching TV or films. Sometimes the PhD makes reading seem more of a chore than something you do to escape it. But in singing, I find something that is active and engaging enough to be stimulating, yet different enough from work to be relaxing. It’s a delicate balance between it being challenging enough to not get boring and it becoming too much like more work – I’ve never got on well with music exams. But music, and singing in particular, is such an important thing to have in my life and I’m lucky to be in a university community that encourages my involvement.

Data point

I’m intrigued by the things people carry around with them. What they deliberately carry, whether because they choose to or have to. What they carry as a matter of course. What they carry because whatever it is lingers among the crumpled bus tickets and softly fuzzed edges of papers that don’t get taken out. The talismans, the transient work, the things that, to them, are unthinkable to not have on one’s person.

So, the contents of my bag:

Diary
32 gig USB drive
Phone charger
60 teaching evaluation sheets
60 handouts for tomorrow’s seminar on metaphor
1 set of tutor’s notes for the seminar
Reading for the seminar: The Metaphorics of Literary Reading by Peter Stockwell, Life’s a beach and then you try, and metaphor and metonymy from Paul Simpson’s Stylistics
Water bottle
Pad of A4
Cycling gloves
Small towel
Mahler Symphonie Nr. 2, Chorpartitur (Kaplan Foundation Universal Edition)
Slice of malt loaf that I forgot to eat
“An Examination of Suffragette Violence” by C. J. Bearman (published in English Historical Review)
Whipping Girl: A transsexual woman on sexism and the scapegoating of femininity by Julia Serano
Belt
Medication
Woolly hat
Packet of wasabi peas that I also forgot to eat
Poster advertising the Mahler 2 concert
Postcard for a theatre production of Roger McGough’s translation of The Hypochondriac which I saw in 2008? 2009?
2H pencil
HB pencil
Two black biros, both from conferences (Corpus Linguistics in the South and Nottingham TEDx)
Green highlighter
Bike headlight (x1)
Bike rear light (x3)
Various notes – chapter planning, meeting minutes etc
Lipbalm
Cloth bag
Plastic bag used as bike seatcover
Chilli plant
Tube map from 2008
Wallet
Headphones
Keys

I think this offers an interesting summary of my life right now. A month ago it would have included a railcard and an Oyster card; after tomorrow it won’t include the handouts, and after Saturday it won’t include the score. Synchronic rather than diachronic data, one might say.