Activist academia, academic activism

This is my contribution to a roundtable discussion on trans and non-binary activism at Sexual Cultures 2: Activism meets academia. My co-panellists were Ruth Pearce, Jade Fernandez and Dr Jay Stewart and the facilitator was Dr Meg John Barker.

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Today I’m basically going to argue that academia and activism inform and enrich each other. There are commonalities between the two: both engage with the world around us, both describe it and seek to understand it. Both ask – and respond – to difficult questions. However, there are also differences: activism explicitly seeks change whereas not all academic work does so. Activism can also take many different forms, and there are different barriers to enter it[1].

Both my academic research and activism are interested in people – how they form the identities they have, how they communicate these and make them legible, how they understand themselves, how they challenge the societies they live in.

My academic work has focused on the newspaper representation of the suffrage movement and, more recently, how trans people are represented in the media. Representation is crucial to changing perceptions of minority and/or disadvantaged groups – it is how people who may never meet us and interact with us learn about us. As my research on the suffrage movement shows, mainstream media representation can over simplify complex issues and debates, conflate identities, and focus on things like property damage to the exclusion of decades of non-violent direct action – all of these are pretty damaging to already disadvantaged groups. We can see this focus on accurate media representation in trans activism through projects like Trans Media Watch and All About Trans. I’ve also found myself contributing to discussions on Black and Minority Ethnic LGBTQ elders and have had difficult experiences at conferences when my intersectional identity means I am seen as the subject of someone else’s research rather than a researcher in my own right.

Academic work allows us to gather, interpret and analyse data. In my field of corpus linguistics, we talk a lot about rigour – can these results be replicated? are they statistically valid? how can I be sure that the things I find are actually there and not simply a case of overextrapolation? These things are necessary to talk about in activism too – how do I know there is a problem? is it systematic? who does it affect? how does it affect them? This is especially important in a context of funding cuts and pressure on services. I’m sure that I am not the only person to have been asked whether there is a demonstrated need for services that support trans, and especially nonbinary, people. There’s a vicious cycle at work where we don’t know exactly how many trans people or nonbinary people there are because surveys rarely ask the right questions to get decent answers, so it’s hard to get changes made that will help us and increase our visibility, so it’s harder for trans and nonbinary people to make their identities clear and be counted.

Nat Titman notes that “Reliable figures show that at least 0.4% of the UK population defines as nonbinary when given a 3-way choice in terms of female, male or another description” before going on to observe that “If gender is asked in terms of frequency of feeling like a man, a women, both or neither then there is evidence that more than a third of everyone may experience gender in a way that defies binary categories”. Nat argues that “If you wish to measure the numbers of people who don’t fit within binary classifications of female/male or man/woman then your choice of question will have a huge effect on the results […] Asking for ‘Other’ in the context of ‘Female’ and ‘Male’ is likely to reduce the number of people identifying outside of the binary to the lowest possible figure, those who feel strongly enough to reject classification with binary ‘sex’ as well as the man/woman binary”.

As Nat makes clear, there is a need for more research in this area – and designing the kind of surveys that can be sensitive to this kind of information is something that academics and activists can work on together.

On a more personal note, my undergraduate essays were possibly an extremely awkward and nerdy coming out process. My first introduction to gender as more complicated than a binary and ideas about gender as a repertoire of behaviours didn’t come from message boards, IRC channels or people I knew, but from an edited collection of linguistic articles. The first time I used gender neutral pronouns was in an essay analysing the linguistic interaction between my student radio co-presenter and me. These concepts blew my mind and started giving me words to describe myself and my experiences. Academia, perhaps weirdly, helped me find my way into activism.

I also believe that activism can enhance academic work. As I’ve alluded to previously, activism can help us ask questions – without the efforts of nonbinary activists like Nat, we wouldn’t have nearly as good an idea about how many nonbinary people there are in the UK and wouldn’t be so aware of the urgent need for more rigorous research in this area.

Some of the academic work I most respect has been from academics bringing their lived experiences and their own activism into their research. As an MA student, one of my formative books was Paul Baker’s Public Discourses of Gay Men. As corpus linguists, Paul and I examine large amounts of text to find patterns in them. These patterns don’t have to be grammatical, but can reflect cultural ideas – and to recognise that they’re present in the first place, let alone analyse them, you have to be familiar with the culture that produced the text. What so struck me about Paul’s work was the way he uses his experience as a gay man to research from within. He does not shed his identity as a gay man in order to pursue an impossible notion of objectivity – instead, it is his very subjectivity that makes it such an illuminating piece of work.

Finally, I believe that activism can help us become more compassionate academics – more open and aware of others’ experiences, more ready to accept others’ realities. Patricia O’Connor argues this when she says “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”

I wrote a chunk of my PhD in a university occupation. As an activist, I think I offer a much greater understanding of the frustration when peaceful direct action – petitions, meetings, lobbying – doesn’t get you anywhere. The women I studied for my PhD had campaigned peacefully for over 30 years before developing militant tactics! I got a better sense of the courage it took to take part in protests when it might lead to violence against you. I hope that this is reflected in my writing. It’s easy to judge people or campaigns for not making the same decisions as you would, but my activist experience highlighted what a difficult context suffrage campaigners worked in and the sometimes impossible decisions we have to make.

I’m still developing my new project on trans media representation, but I aim to be the kind of researcher Patricia talks about – connected to the community and using what I find for its good. I want my work to stand up to scrutiny from both activists and academic researchers. As I hope I’ve shown, I believe academia and activism can combine to create something better than their parts.

[1] I expanded on this in the discussion: there are huge barriers to activism in the form of finances, access to transport, access to childcare, education, dis/ability, having an already marginalised identity and more – I’d love to discuss this further in the comments.

References:

Baker, P. (2005). Public Discourses of Gay Men. London: Routledge.
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
Titman, N. (2014, 16 December). “How many people in the United Kingdom are nonbinary?”. Retrieved from http://practicalandrogyny.com/2014/12/16/how-many-people-in-the-uk-are-nonbinary/

Where are our elders?

[content warning: discussion of homo-, bi- and transphobia, racism, domestic abuse and suicide. I’ve tried to keep these fairly non-explicit; the reports I link to go into more detail]

This is a write up of a short talk I gave at the final conference of the ESRC seminar series ‘Minding the Knowledge Gaps: older lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans lives’. The organising team and I have been having an involved discussion since my first post and they were kind enough to invite me to speak as part of the summaries of previous events.

In this talk I discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer (LGBTQ) identities, Black and minority ethnic (BME) identities and ageing identities. I ask what it means to live at the centre of these overlapping identities and look at how we can extrapolate some issues from what we know about overlaps of age and LGBTQ identities, age and BME identities, and LGBTQ and BME identities. However, this is by no means a perfect solution because it misses that complex intersections bring their own unique issues – there is effectively a known unknown about the experiences of older LGBTQ people from BME backgrounds, and I want to highlight that.

Intersectionality

Very basically, intersectionality is the concept that we have multiple identities and that these identities overlap and inform each other.

age, BME and LGBTQ venn diagram

Here’s a diagram to show these intersections a bit more clearly.There are three coloured circles: a blue circle representing people’s LGBTQ identities, a red circle representing people’s identities as older people and elders, and a yellow circle representing people’s BME identities.

Overlaps of age, LGBTQ and BME identities

When these identities overlap, they create something new. The purple overlap shows the interaction of ageing and LGBTQ identities, the green overlap shows the interaction of LGBTQ and BME identities and the orange overlap shows the interaction of ageing and BME identities. At the very centre is a space where all three factors interact: age, LGBTQ and BME.

We don’t know much about the people who occupy this really complex space. Roshan das Nair talks about “levels and layers of invisibility” and of each factor – age, sexuality and race – all contributing to invisibility. However, intersections change the experience of “being” – of accessing care, of forming relationships with other people, of moving through and understanding (and being understood by) the world. As this seminar series has strikingly shown, being an older LGBTQ person is not the same as being an older heterosexual and cisgender person. And being an older LGBT person from a BME background is not the same as being an older LGBT person from a white background

LGBTQ and BME

While there is a paucity of information on the unique issues faced by older LGBTQ BME people, there is research on ageing LGBTQ people as showcased in this seminar series, on BME LGBTQ people, and on ageing BME people.

Two current projects highlight some of the issues for people who are both BME and from sexual and gender minorities. A Public Health England report on the health and wellbeing of BME men who have sex with men highlighted that:

  • Black men who have sex with men are 15 times more likely to have HIV than general population
  • a third of Asian men and mixed ethnicity men have experienced domestic abuse since the age of 16 compared to one in five of white gay and bisexual men
  • significantly higher rates of suicide, self-harm and mental illness

A recent focus group held by the Race Equality Foundation on the experience of being black and minority ethnic and trans* highlighted that people experienced:

  • religious communities overlapped with ethnic communities, and losing one often meant losing the other
  • racism in LGBT communities and homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in ethnic communities
  • cultural assumptions and racism when accessing healthcare

The last point had particular repercussions for Black and minority ethnic trans people seeking to access hormonal and/or surgical interventions for gender dysphoria through Gender Identity Clinics (GICs). Respondents to the Trans Mental Health Survey often found it difficult to access treatment through GICs, with one respondent describing it as “a paternalistic gatekeeping exercise where psychiatrists exercise inappropriate levels of control over the lives and choices of patients”. Another described clinics as having “very rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity”. This affects Black and minority ethnic people if genders in their culture do not map onto gendered expectations in white UK culture. BME trans people also encountered assumptions about family (for example, what does “being out to your family” look like if you have a huge extended family or if “kinship” doesn’t neatly map onto “family”?), assumptions about transphobia in their families, and poor understanding of non-binary genders.

Age and BME

Research on older BME people tended to show that people were affected by health issues occurring at different times (e.g. diabetes and high blood pressure). Black and minority ethnic people may have complex issues around mental health and accessing services. Some communities may stigmatise mental health issues. African and Caribbean men are “under-represented as users of enabling services and over-represented in the population of patients who are admitted to, compulsorily detained in, and treated by mental health services”. As this report on older South Asian communities in Bradford discusses, how families live together is changing. However, there is still an expectation that the extended family will care for elders; this role often falls to younger women in the family. This study also reported that South Asian communities often found accessing care difficult for a huge range of reasons – cultural differences, a lack of cultural competency in service provision, language difficulties, attitudes of staff, differing expectations by both service users and service providers, location of services, gender roles within the family and the role of different children and siblings.

It is also important to recognise the diversity of BME experiences. There are some BME communities that have been settled in the UK for decades, if not centuries. There are South Asian people who migrated to the UK as young adults in the 1970s and who are now reaching retirement age. There are older people who accompanied their family members. There are more recent immigrants. There are people who live with the trauma of fleeing their home and seeking asylum. The term “Black and ethnic minority” itself covers a huge range of people from all over the world, all with different experiences.

Extrapolations

As I wrote earlier, there are going to be known unknowns – without talking to people, we cannot know about the unique, unexpected issues created when identities intersect. However, I think that the research on LGBTQ and BME communities, the research on older LGBTQ people, and the research on older BME people can hint at some issues.

Older LGBTQ people report different kinship structures, the existence of chosen families and possible lack of children. I wonder how this works for older BME LGBTQ people whose cultures may strongly support care of elders within the extended family (and who dislike the idea of care homes or care workers coming into their homes) but who may be estranged from their family and don’t have children.

I can imagine that there are really complex issues around mental health in communities that are more likely to experience mental health issues but who may also have negative experiences of accessing services or who may feel shame about doing so.

Older BME LGBTQ people may have complex histories of violence. As Public Health England reports, gay and bisexual men from BME backgrounds are more like to have experienced domestic abuse. Other BME LGBTQ people may have sought asylum due to violence in their home countries. What might their care needs be?

I wonder about older BME LGBTQ people continuing to face racism in LGBTQ spaces and homo-, bi- and transphobia in BME spaces as they age and these spaces change. This seminar series has discussed older LGBTQ people’s fears about prejudice in care homes; older BME LGBTQ people in care homes may fear a double whammy of prejudice.

Where are our elders?

I argue that there is an absence of older, LGBTQ BME voices in research about older LGBTQ people’s experiences. As researchers, we don’t know much about the issues faced by those in this intersection – as I’ve shown above, we can guess some of them. However, the nature of intersectionality means that there are some issues that will be unique to this group and that we cannot predict.

This is not to say that older BME LGBTQ people do not exist – rather, that we have to do better at reaching out to these communities. I suspect that research into the experiences of older BME LGBTQ people has to be carried out by people from BME LGBTQ backgrounds. My experience of younger BME LGBTQ spaces is that community members are fiercely protective of the tiny spaces they are able to carve out for themselves and they do not want to be observed as a “learning experience” for White straight cis people. It is crucial to recognise that, and crucial to be able to respect how rare and precious these spaces are.

This absence of visible older, LGBTQ BME voices also has implications for younger BME LGBTQ people. Out of the many trans people I know, I can only think of three who are BME and over the age of 40. 40 should not be considered old – and yet. A US study reveals that the attempted suicide rate for multiracial transgender people is 33 times higher than for the general population. Andre Lorde’s litany, “we were never meant to survive”, has a heartbreaking resonance.

As a younger Asian queer person, I want to meet my elders. I want to know that it’s possible to be an older BME LGBTQ person. I want to be able to see some of the possibilities, to see that there are people living lives that are true to their identities. I want to listen to their rich histories and hard-won wisdom. I want to know that we can survive.

Our elders are so important, and their lack of visibility is so sorely felt.

Reflecting on a year and a half of Conference Bingo

I went to a conference 18 months ago where nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong. I stayed with the excellent Heather Froehlich afterwards, and as we talked about our crappy conference adventures we noted that a lot of these things were not isolated events.

Conference Bingo mingles the humorous with a sharper edge. A good proportion of the items are there out of affection – I’ve certainly been both the starstruck postgraduate and the postgraduate frantically working (sometimes at the same time). I think (and hope) that most of these items provoke a chuckle of wry recognition as we recognise ourselves in them. Some of the squares are there because Heather and I find these things funny or ridiculous. I personally love witnessing “clash of the academic alpha males” because I can start an internal David Attenborough style narration to accompany them (“and here, two silverback males find themselves in unexpected confrontation…”). You will find me in the middle of any unseemly jostling for a power socket. Weird things happen to me at conferences. Here are a few of them: the time I ended up in a motel laundry room, with several prominent academics, in the dark, because there was a tornado outside. The accidental lock-in. The time I had to persuade an academic that stroking a very angry looking man’s tattoo in the pub would be a Very Bad Idea and then having to persuade the very angry looking man not to punch the academic. The time a rabbit died on me.

However, some of the bingo items have an edge to them, a recognition that conferences are not always safe or accessible spaces for everyone. We have items critiquing gendered interactions, poor accessibility for attendees with disabilities, and issues faced by international attendees. I hope we get a nod of recognition from people with those experiences, and hope that they feel their experiences are acknowledged and recognised. I believe, passionately, that we have our places in academia and just as much right as anyone else to be there. If we cannot get into the venue and/or find ourselves planning which sessions to attend based on our harasser’s movements and/or are left anxious and miserable and isolated, that is not our fault.

We also hope to make people who don’t share those experiences more aware of them through simply noticing that they’re an issue. Food not clearly labelled as vegan/vegetarian or with common allergens? Slides that prompt a “sorry if you can’t see this at the back”? Okay, it may not affect you but it’s a box to tick off! We hope that, through humour, we’re quietly raising awareness of some of these issues. I hope that some of these items will make you think about the implications for other people. Last minute programme changes are probably frustrating for most of us, but can (for example) mean that those with fatigue issues or who use mobility devices have to suddenly replan how – and, indeed, if – they can get from different parts of the building/campus.

Those of us who experience these things may not be in a position to criticise them. As early career researchers who, between us, are female, queer, non-white, and non-binary gendered, neither Heather or I are necessarily in a position to kick up a fuss. There are many people in similar positions: young, female, queer, Black, disabled, transgender, and/or without tenure or a permanent job, people who don’t have institutional might behind them and who fear ostracisation if they complain.

from http://calmingmanatee.com

from http://calmingmanatee.com

Speaking from my own experience, I’ve had to ask trusted friends to keep an eye on me and swoop in if “my” lecherous academic manages to get me on my own. I should probably complain to someone, but it’s hard to make complaints against widely respected senior members of your field when there can be repercussions against you for complaining. Dorothy Kim writes that part of the problem is that this isn’t seen as something the entire community should be aware of, but it’s framed as an issue between individuals: individual harassers, individual complaints. I hope that in some tiny way, Conference Bingo might contribute to that community awareness.

Maybe you’ll use Conference Bingo as a checklist of things to not do in your talks or at the conferences you organise. I suspect it’s helped me become a better presenter. I no longer tell people that I’ve only just finished my slides (even if I have) and I have a much better idea of how much I can cover in 20 minutes so I’m not racing through the last few slides. I know it’s been immensely helpful for me when organising academic events – make it easy to access wifi! spell people’s names correctly on their nametag! people WILL remember your event for all the wrong reasons if your provide terrible coffee!

However, one of my favourite things is when people suggest things and I get to think about them. As an example, Liz C’s comment of “Social evening inexplicably at opposite end of the city” – I suspect most people would probably find that annoying. But what happens if you have an anxiety issue that means that navigating a different city’s public transport is daunting at best, terrifying at worst? What if you can’t afford to take a taxi? What if you’re sleeping on a friend’s sofa because you can’t afford hotel accommodation and going to the other end of the city means you’ll be back unreasonably late? What if you use mobility aids or have an assistance dog and aren’t sure if the city’s public transport or taxis will cater for you? This has been especially helpful when I don’t share those needs, and, I hope, makes my involvement in academia a bit more thoughtful, a bit more welcoming, a bit kinder. Maybe Conference Bingo will inspire you, too, to dig deeper.

Either way, I love that Conference Bingo resonates with so many people from so many disciplines. I love hearing suggestions. I love that it’s gone a bit viral. I genuinely love it when people tweet me (@mixosaurus) to tell me they’re playing or have got a full house so please let me know!

Conference bingo v2

Some nine months ago Heather Froehlich and I came up with an in-joke by the name of conference bingo. The original was put together in about 15 minutes in Word to the accompaniment of much laughter and the response was greater than either of us could have anticipated.

I strongly suspect that Conference Bingo is the mostly widely read thing that I’ve ever produced and it is a source of eternal regret that it isn’t REFable.

You gleefully shared your own items for the bingo card, whether it was terrible food, acts of passive-aggression, poor formatting or ill-judged displays of academic egotism. The card I had grew beyond all reason and we began thinking of how to make conference bingo bigger, better and more reflective of academic conferences.

Appropriately enough, this was coded during a conference coffee break by Andrew Hardie, and so it is our great pleasure to announce:

The Conference Bingo Card Generator

Also, I am currently in a talk where the presenter is talking about collocations, yoghurt and death.

Trans seminars

I’m going to be speaking at ‘Trans’ in Popular Representation at the University of Warwick on Thursday. It promises to be a really interesting event and I’m excited to be presenting alongside such cool people! I’ll be talking about the media representation of Lucy Meadows, and focusing on pronouns in particular. It’s something new for me and very much a pilot study of the “is there something worth investigating here?” kind. Anyway, here’s a brief summary of what I’ll be talking about.

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Response and responsibility: mainstream media and Lucy Meadows

In March 2013, Lucy Meadows was found dead at her home. Meadows, a primary school teacher, was transitioning from male to female; the school announced her decision to return to work after the Christmas break as Miss Meadows. This was reported in the local press and quickly picked up by the national press. Her death prompted discussions of responsible media reporting, press freedom and the contributions of trans* people to society.

I collected two corpora of newspaper articles: one of articles mentioning Lucy Meadows and a larger one of general news articles. These corpora are used to identify keywords – words that occur more frequently in the Lucy Meadows texts than might be expected from examining the collection of general news texts. The female pronouns she and her emerged as key; in this paper I look at these more closely using approaches drawn from corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis (Baker 2006; Baker et al 2008).

References
Baker, P. (2006). Using Corpora in Discourse Analysis. London: Continuum.
Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C., Khosravinik, M., Krzyzanowski, M., McEnery, T., & Wodak, R. (2008). “A useful methodological synergy? Combining critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics to examine discourses of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK press”. Discourse and Society, 19(3), 273.
Scott, M. (2012). WordSmith Tools version 6. Liverpool: Lexical Analysis Software.

Conference bingo

Another conference season draws to a close. Heather Froehlich and I have been discussing a conference I recently attended and this is the result:

Conference bingo card

Play along!

Let us know how you get on! Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

Addendum: We forgot to mention food! I once spent three days miserably eating dried fruit and nuts at a conference because I’d brought that along as a snack, little realising that there would be no vegetarian option. Consider yourself winning if this happens to you, if such a thing can ever be described as “winning”.

Also, if your conference experience involves a dying rabbit and having to wash said rabbit’s blood off your hands, at that point you can reasonably be allowed to give up and just drink everything in sight.

Corpus Linguistics 2013

Ah, the biannual Corpus Linguistics conference…the biggest date in the Corpus Linguistics calendar, the event that Tony McEnery described as more of a bacchanal than a conference.

This is one of my favourite academic conferences – it was the first one I went to as a wee MA student and I’ve been to every one since. Luckily it’s biannual or my wallet would be a thinner, sadder thing. I’ve done a lot of growing up at this series of conferences – first conference I attended, first conference I was a student helper for, first conference I got funding for, first conference I’m presenting at post-viva – and it feels a bit like home turf for me.

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

It was wonderful to catch up with friends and to meet new people. One of the conference helpers, Robbie Love, wrote a great post on his experiences at CL2013 and I’m delighted that he found it such a friendly place.

I was presenting on my PhD research, this time trying to give an overview of how the three approaches I used in my thesis fit together: corpus linguistics, three approaches from critical discourse analysis and, underpinning all of this, an awareness of the social, political and cultural context in which the suffrage movement operated. I only had a limited amount of time to present so decided to show elements of the corpus linguistic analysis and some of the work I did on Emily Wilding Davison using Theo van Leeuwen’s taxonomy of social actors. However, I argued that without an awareness of the historical context, any analysis of these texts would be lacking.

I’ve uploaded the slides so have a look if you’re interested.

One of the cool things about big conferences is that you assemble your own experience. It reminds me a bit of big music festivals with headliners/plenaries most people make an effort to see, then dozens of interesting people and projects. That up-and-coming person you’ve been advised to see, that fascinating project you’ve seen an announcement about, that person that you’ll see because you know they’re a fantastic presenter, that thing you’ll go to because it sounds controversial and you suspect the response will be good, the friend you’ll go and watch for moral support, the person you used to work with back in the day and want to find out what they’re doing now, the one that you’ve never heard of but looks intriguing… Talking to someone else, I realised that it was almost as if we were at two different conferences! It was, once again, fascinating to see how many things corpus linguistics can be used to investigate.

Some of my highlights were:
Michael Hoey giving a characteristically energetic opening plenary
An intense discussion of p-values following Jonathan Culpeper and Jane Demmen‘s talk
Paul Baker‘s beautifully neat demonstration of triangulated methods
Claire Hardaker on trolling (she refused to give the site name of one place, referring to it only as the “internet hate machine” – naturally I knew exactly where she meant)
Alison Sealey on the People, Products, Pets, Pests project
An incredibly lively morning presentation from Laurence Anthony on AntConc
A whole team from Lancaster represented by Paul Rayson on the Metaphor in End of Life Care methodology
Sylvia Jaworska on representing the Other in tourism

Over the course of the conference we also drank a bar dry and drank 180 bottles of wine at the gala dinner, so good work everyone.

And, because Michael P-S claims it’s not a conference without me lurking on my laptop somewhere…

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photo by Michael Pace-Sigge

Photos by Michael Pace-Sigge can be found here.

Corpus Linguistics 2011

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

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

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

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

“To the Editor of the Times…”

Apologies for the silence. I am trying to write a conference paper for, um, Thursday and my data is stubbornly refusing to organise itself into categories. In a way I’m quite pleased – I’m now working with two corpora and it’s interesting that they show this difference. One is the Suffrage corpus that I’ve been using until now, created by identifying all the articles in the Times Digital Archive containing suffrag* and pulling them out. The asterisk is a wildcard which means that I don’t need to specify an ending – because it’s got that wildcard in it, the search term will find suffrage, suffragism, suffragette, suffragettes, suffragist, suffragists and so on. It will also identify Suffragan, an ecclesiastical term and one that has nothing to do with the suffrage movement. So the script has an exception in it for that term.

The other corpus is composed of Letters to the Editor – the LttE corpus. This sounds very staid and genteel but actually contained heated exchanges between different factions of the suffrage movement, the Women’s Anti-Suffrage League, various anti-suffragist men and anyone else who felt compelled to stick their oar in. At times it reads more like a blogging flamewar! This corpus was extracted using suffrag* as a search term to get letters mentioning suffrage etc; to get the letters I looked at the header of each text. The header contains information like the file name, the date it was published in the Times, the title of the article and, crucially, what it’s classified as – News, Editorials, Leaders or, indeed, Letters to the Editor. So this time the script looked for suffrag* and Letters to the Editor in the header.

Both corpora are divided by year and month, so I have a folder for 1908, 1909, 1910 etc and within those, sub-folders for each month. So if I wanted to, I could compare texts from April 1909 to April 1910, or June 1913 to December 1913, or the first six months of 1911 to the first six months of 1912. I like organising corpora in a way that allows this flexibility.

In Chapter Four, I investigated Mutual Information (MI) for suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes in each year in the Suffrage corpus, then categorised the words it came up with. Mutual Information is a measure of how closely words are linked together. So, suffragist and banana aren’t linked at all, but as I found, suffragist and violence are linked. I then came up with categories for these words – direct action, gender, politics, law & prison and so on, and compared these categories across the different years.

I’ve now done the same for the LttE. What’s interesting is that there is not much overlap between the words associated with suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes in the LttE corpus and the words associated with suffragist, suffragists, suffragette and suffragettes in the Suffrage corpus. Part of this is to do with the different functions of the texts; rather than reporting news, the Letters to the Editor try to argue, advocate and persuade. However, there are also words like inferior, educated and employed in the LttE data – words that seem to be more about the attributes of women or suffragist campaigners. This just doesn’t seem to be a feature in the Suffrage data.

Also interestingly, the categorise I came up with don’t work for this corpus. While direct action was a prominent category for the Suffrage corpus, I don’t think I can find a single term in the LttE MI data. Not even things like demonstration which is pretty innocuous as far as direct action goes.

So what’s going on here? At least part of it is due to the different functions of news reports and what are essentially open letters. But I think there’s also a difference in who was writing the letters. Letters to the Editor offered both suffrage campaigners and anti-suffrage campaigners an opportunity to represent their views themselves, rather than being represented by or mediated through a reporter, editor and others engaged in the the production of a news report. I don’t think it’s that strange that the language they use and avoid is different.