East London Suffragette Festival

East London Suffragette Festival banner

I’m delighted to confirm that I will be speaking on the Hidden Histories panel as part of the East London Suffragette Festival.

The event runs between 10am – 5pm on Saturday 9th August; the panel starts at 11:45am. It’s free and is at Toynbee Hall, London – a place seeped in the radical history of the East End and where many notable suffrage campaigners spoke.

The Hidden Histories panel will be discussing who gets left out of the history books, how history is shaped by what is recorded and who records it, how a multiplicity of narratives are boiled down into stereotypes, and why it is important to uncover these hidden histories.

I’m really excited about speaking because this ties in incredibly well with my research on newspaper discourses of the suffrage movement; it was striking how differently The Times was talking about the suffrage movement to how campaigners themselves saw both the campaign and themselves. I argue that the multiplicity of suffrage identities, aims and experiences were conflated into narratives about suffrage disturbance, outrage, violence and disorder. This extended to blurring the distinction between constitutionalist and militant approaches – a distinction that suffrage campaigners saw as very important and which they frequently wrote and spoke about.

However, there is one place in the newspaper where suffrage campaigners’ voices are heard: in the letters to the editor. In my forthcoming book, I analyse this section of the newspaper separately – and find that the areas of concern are very different. Discussion of suffrage direct action framed in terms of disorder and violence appear much less frequently – instead, there is concern for prisoners, discussion of leadership and clever, witty refutations of stereotypes of suffrage campaigners.

I believe that the media representation of the suffrage movement is not so different to the media representation of other protest movements. Having been involved with various social justice, feminist, race and queer activism(s) for over a decade, I am aware of the ways that even peaceful direct action can be reported as disturbingly, frighteningly violent. Like the suffrage campaigners, we have debates about the forms our protests should take, how to create understanding and sympathy from those who don’t know much about us, how to include people in our movement, how to protect ourselves from violence, intimidation and burnout, how to create and maintain sustainable, compassionate activism.

Uncovering these so-called hidden histories (hidden to whom?) helps us challenge dominant narratives, locate diversity in campaigns and, ultimately, recognise historical campaigners as people not so very different from ourselves. In researching the suffrage movement, I also discovered a history – and a legacy – of activism.

To “wage a war against all women”: Elliot Rodger, girls, women and corpus linguistics

Content warning: explicit discussion of misogyny, violence against women and racism.

This is a working paper currently being developed for publication – comments and feedback are very welcome!

Wordcloud of Elliot Rodger's manifesto

Wordcloud of Elliot Rodger’s manifesto

Like many people, I was shocked at the Isla Vista shootings. In an effort to understand what happened, I read – a lot. There is a collection of links about Elliot Rodger, rape culture and misogyny at the end of this post.

I then downloaded Elliot Rodger’s manifesto and approached it with corpus linguistic techniques. I first calculated keywords, then go on to examine girl, girls and wom?n in more detail.

This table shows the top 25 keywords when compared with the British National Corpus (BNC). A keyword occurs more frequently than we’d expect; in corpus linguistics, we work this out by comparing how often it occurs in a reference corpus (in this case, the BNC) with how often it occurs in the corpus we’re interested in. Words that are more key are more frequent in the target corpus than we’d expect from looking at the reference corpus.

N Word Frequency Keyness
1 I 5,926 13,752.69
2 my 2,501 9,101.61
3 me 1,544 4,546.97
4 didn’t 303 4,137.62
5 was 2,668 2,141.77
6 father’s 144 1,966.18
7 mother’s 105 1,433.64
8 girls 292 1,406.19
9 life 523 1,349.66
10 soumaya 97 1,324.40
11 couldn’t 96 1,310.74
12 I’ve 84 1,146.89
13 wasn’t 83 1,133.24
14 mother 292 935.53
15 would 841 862.82
16 isla 71 820.35
17 santa 115 794.72
18 house 359 754.95
19 father 236 702.35
20 topanga 52 700.05
21 vista 71 685.43
22 myself 192 672.68
23 barbara 105 648.11
24 friends 196 624.09
25 retribution 72 619.44

I’ve used the BNC because it’s a large general corpus that contains both speech and writing and which is balanced across different text types and genres. If I used a different reference corpus it would show me different things which may or may not be useful. Comparing Rodger’s manifesto with other manifestos written by ideologically-motivated murderers might be interesting, as would comparing the manifesto to other texts written by misogynists. However, the BNC does a decent job of highlighting both the individual characteristics of Rodger’s manifesto and a more general discourse of misogyny.

We have placenames like isla, vista, santa, topanga and barbara; words indicating family members and social relationships like mother’s, father’s, mother, father, Soumaya and friends; modal verbs like didn’t, was, couldn’t, wasn’t and would; and lots of first person pronouns like I, my, me, I’ve and myself. Finally, we have retribution, the name Elliot Rodger gave to the day of his attack. When we think about what kind of writing this is – a manifesto in which Rodger outlined his personal history, explained the worldview that led him to such an act of violence, and detailed his plans – this is unsurprising.

Girls shows up as the 8th most key term, while girl is only the 48th most key. I’m going to look at both, starting with girl. A girl can be pretty (14 occurrences), beautiful (11 occurrences), white (9 occurrences) or blonde (9 occurrences) but the bigram no girl appears 12 times and the trigram not one girl appears three times. Notably, a girl is something that happens or belongs to other people:

N	Concordance
1	ngle party because anyone would admit a beautiful girl into it, to make passionate love to her in my
2	gine how heavenly it would be to have a beautiful girl by my side. It is such a shameful tragedy. I 
3	and I walk in all alone. A man having a beautiful girl by his side shows the world that he is worth 
4	home. Why does he deserve the love of a beautiful girl, and not me? Why do girls hate me so? Questio
5	r to me if he walks into a store with a beautiful girl on his arm and I walk in all alone. A man hav
6	 the experience of holding hands with a beautiful girl and walking on a moonlit beach, I could never
7	lking back to my room in triumph with a beautiful girl on my arm, but instead I stumbled back to my 
8	watch another boy experience it, with a beautiful girl who should be mine, was a living hell. I cons
9	around in all of that excitement with a beautiful girl on my arm, to attend every single party becau
10	worth something, because obviously that beautiful girl sees some sort of worth in him. If a man is a
11	 look. I soon found out the name of the beautiful girl in my math class. Her name was Brittany Story

With the exception of line 11, the beautiful girl exists as a symbol of status and is usually found on her male partner’s arm or by his side. This is reflected in the cluster with a beautiful girl which makes up 5 of the 11 occurrences of beautiful girl. There doesn’t appear to be evidence of her agency, let alone her personality or individuality. Instead, she is rather like a bespoke suit or pair of expensive cufflinks. When Rodgers asked “[w]hy does he deserve the love of a beautiful girl, and not me?” it is without asking how he would love someone back.

We also find that a girl occurs 37 times and the girl occurs 11 times. Interestingly, the girl predominantly appears because Rodger noted that she is with someone else. The next set of concordance lines are longer so you can see that more clearly.

N	Concordance
1	    the man looked to be in his late 20's or early 30's, and the girl he was walking with looked like a supermodel. I assumed he w
2	 aside, trying to act cocky and arrogant to both the boy and the girl. My drunken state got the better of me, and I almost fell ov
3	rse towered over her. They were both wearing beach gear, and the girl was in her bikini, showing off to everyone her sensual, erec
4	cular young couple that stood out from the rest only because the girl looked absolutely perfect. She was tall, blonde, and sexy. S
5	I never admitted it to anyone. To be teased and ridiculed by the girl I had a crush on wounded me deeply. The world that I grew up
6	ed like an obnoxious punk; he was tall and wore baggy pants. The girl was a pretty blonde! They looked like they were in the throe
7	en more angry is that Spencer gave me a smug look when I saw the girl, even though she was ugly. He had the nerve to feel like he 
8       rginity when he was only thirteen! In addition, he said that the girl he lost his virginity to was a blonde white girl! I was so e
9	  end place his hand on the girl's ass, and when he did this the girl looked at him and smiled with delight. That guy was in heave
10	so shocked and outraged that I waited outside his room until the girl left, so I could get a glimpse of how she looked. To my reli
11	d of girl who was always meant to be my girlfriend. This was the girl that I was meant to go through college in Santa Barbara with

Rodger focused on appearances, especially perceived disparities in attractiveness between women and the men they were with. We also see evidence of adjectives like blonde and white. While it is important to read Rodger’s actions in context of his misogyny, it is also important to acknowledge the role of race. The girls that Rodger focused on are tall, pretty, blonde and white; brown only appears in the context of martial arts (brown belt, 2 occurrences) and black in the context of skin colour (7 occurrences, all describing boys/men), a black carpet (5 occurrences), clothing (2 occurrences) and Rodger’s own black hair (3 occurrences). Dark is largely used metaphorically, and the only woman described as having dark hair is his father’s girlfriend (“I saw a woman with dark hair and fair skin standing in the kitchen, and she introduced herself as Soumaya”). Brunette only appears once and is used to describe his sister’s boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend (“My sister even showed me a picture of one of his ex-girlfriends, a pretty brunette white girl”). Brunettes doesn’t appear at all. His stepmother, Soumaya, and his sister’s boyfriend are both people he resented, saw as an intrusion into his life, and who highlighted his lack of sexual experience compared to other members of his family.

It is also very clear from the data which women Rodger found attractive, that he conflated race and attractiveness, that the women he was most attracted to are also unambiguously white, and that he was deeply angered by ugly/black men having sex with beautiful/white women:

“How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself”

“If this is actually true, if this ugly black filth was able to have sex with a blonde white girl at the age of thirteen while I’ve had to suffer virginity all my life, then this just proves how ridiculous the female gender is. They would give themselves to this filthy scum, but they reject ME? The injustice!”

Girls shows similar patterns: beautiful girls (23 occurrences), because girls (6 occurrences), blonde girls (11 occurrences), from girls (6 occurrences), hot girls (8 occurrences), no girls (4 occurrences), of girls (19 occurrences), pretty girls (15 occurrences), the girls (36 occurrences) and young girls (4 occurrences). Clusters show that more than one adjective can be used: beautiful blonde girls appears six times. Again, it is very very clear which women Rodger found attractive, and it’s also clear that he placed enormous emphasis on physical attractiveness. One gets the sense that Rodger constantly judged and assessed women based on their appearance – he wanted attention from the “hot”, status-conferring girls, and there is little evidence in these sets of collocates of girls who do not conform to his ideas of beauty.

So let’s have a closer look at the girls. We find the following make up 15 occurrences of the 36: all the girls (3 occurrences), all of the girls (6 occurrences), most of the girls (1 occurrence), none of the girls (1 occurrence), some of the girls (1 occurrence), one of the girls (2 occurrences) and two of the girls (1 occurrence). As the following quotes show, these occurrences continue to demonstrate Rodger’s belief that girls are a mark of a man’s status, power and prestige.

“They then had the audacity to tell me that they lost their virginity long ago, bragging about all the girls they had slept with”

“He will become a popular kid who gets all the girls. Girls will love him. He will become one of my enemies”

“All of those popular boys must be punished for enjoying heavenly lives and having sex with all the girls while I had to suffer in lonely virginity”

As the following concordance lines demonstrate, Rodger discussed girls as a monolithic entity. They all dress alike, his friends pursue all of them, they all flock to the same boys – and, crucially, they all view him with disdain. This is highlighted in the case of none of the girls: Rodger complained that “[t]hey all started socializing right next to me, and none of the girls paid any attention to me”. Again, there is a strange lack of personality or individuality ascribed to these women.

1	in the faces of all the people who looked down on me, and all of the girls who thought of me as unworthy. I mused that once I beco
2	 and her sexy bare stomach showed as her shirt hung down. All of the girls were scantily clad. Rage boiled inside me as I watched 
3	e alpha male now, bitches? I thought to myself, regarding all of the girls who've looked down on me in the past. I quickly admir
4	aller than me. I had to suffer watching Julian sweet-talk all of the girls. He acted so confidently, and the way the pretty girl l
5	s confident and sure of myself as possible, thinking that all of the girls I passed were attracted to my appearance. They should b
6	re obnoxious jerks, and yet somehow it was these boys who all of the girls flocked to. This showed me that the world was a brutal

Something different happens when Rodger described one, two or some of the girls. In these cases, Rodger noted his sexual attraction to them, the things they do that sexually provoke him (importantly, this can be as innocuous as doing a handstand while messing around with your mates – if you are a “beautiful blonde girl”, then simply existing is a sexually provocative act for Rodger) and their interactions with other men.

N	Concordance
1	owed them for a few minutes. They just laughed at me, and one of the girls kissed the boy on the lips. I'm assuming she was his 
2	ooked like they were having so much fun playing together. One of the girls did a handstand in the grass, and her sexy bare stomach
3	 so much loneliness and humiliation. I was introduced to some of the girls he had sex with in the past, and they were all pretty.
4	lock of pretty girls with them. One of them sat down with two of the girls, putting his leg up on another chair with a cocky smirk

Reading the concordance lines, there is a strikingly lack of attempts by Rodger to engage with them. I found just one: “One time, as I was walking across the huge bridge that connected the two campuses, I passed by a girl I thought was pretty and said “Hi” as we neared each other. She kept on walking and didn’t even have the grace to respond to me. How dare she! That foul bitch”. Instead, girls are remote, distant – a monolithic entity that constantly rejected and humiliated Rodger yet to which he remained sexually attracted to. To Rodger, the actions of one reflect on them all; the rejection from some girls is a rejection from all girls.

If girl and girls are constantly described in terms of their sexual attractiveness and callousness, with Rodger caught between rage, self-pity and arousal, then wom?n is where his hatred of women is really displayed. Here, the ? in wom?n is a single character wildcard that means that results for both woman and women are included. There are 86 occurrences of wom?n in all.

Unlike girl and girls, there are only a few references to appearance. There are 4 occurrences of beautiful wom?n, 1 occurrence of beautiful model wom?n and 1 occurrence of gorgeous wom?n…and that’s it. There are a couple of references to nationality: German wom?n (2 occurrences) and French wom?n (1 occurrence), and one to race: African American woman.

Interestingly, there are two occurrences of love women, but as the quotes show, this love comes with conditions:

“All I had ever wanted was to love women, but their behavior has only earned my hatred. I want to have sex with them, and make them feel good, but they would be disgusted at the prospect. They have no sexual attraction towards me. It is such an injustice, and I vehemently questioned why things had to be this way. Why do women behave like vicious, stupid, cruel animals who take delight in my suffering and starvation? Why do they have a perverted sexual attraction for the most brutish of men instead of gentlemen of intelligence?”

“All I ever wanted was to love women, and in turn to be loved by them back. Their behavior towards me has only earned my hatred, and rightfully so! I am the true victim in all of this. I am the good guy”

While Rodger claimed to want to “love women”, this is quickly turned into further justification for his sense of victimisation and his rage. It’s difficult to imagine being able to love someone you can describe as “vicious, stupid, cruel animals”. As seen in girl and girls, Rodger focused on the men he perceived all women as being attracted to – “the most brutish of men” – and clearly positioned himself as superior, again reflecting the hierarchies he constructed and his belief that those further up the hierarchy deserved sex.

Most of the collocates of wom?n are fairly low frequency with the exception of all women and of women. Low frequency collocates include strike against women (1 occurrence), war against women (2 occurrences), degenerate women (1 occurrence), naked women (1 occurrence) and punishing women (1 occurrence). A clear semantic preference for physical violence emerges with mention ofwar against, strike against and punishing, with a second semantic preference for sexual judgement. Women are described as wicked and degenerate and naked occurs in the context of a porn video by which Rodger is simultaneously aroused and repulsed (“human beings doing such weird and unspeakable things with each other revolted me”).

Concordance lines for all women are below.

N	Concordance
1	ly abolish sex, women themselves would have to be abolished. All women must be quarantined like the plague they are, so that they 
2	 the popular young people who never accepted me, and against all women for rejecting me and starving me of love and sex. At this p
3	I will arm myself with deadly weapons and wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to. And I will slaughter the
4	  rve. If I can't have it, I will destroy it. I will destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them all suffer 
5	something to fantasize about as I burned with hatred towards all women for rejecting me throughout the years. This whole viewpoint
6	r boyfriend only increased my already boiling hatred towards all women. I could not leave my apartment without seeing at least a f
7	 who deprived me of love and sex. My hatred and rage towards all women festered inside me like a plague. Their very existence is t

As these concordance lines show, women are again conflated into a single entity, one that is responsible for provoking Rodger into such violent acts. He railed against “all women for rejecting me and starving me of love and sex” and threatened to “destroy all women because I can never have them” and “wage a war against all women and the men they are attracted to”. Of the seven concordance lines above, three reinstate his “hatred” or “hatred and rage” directed at all women.

However, Rodger firmly believed that women had brought it on themselves and were responsible for their own destruction. There are 11 occurrences of of women

1	ous men. I have observed this all my life. The most beautiful of women choose to mate with the most brutal of men, instead of magn
2	rience it all alone, while other men get to enjoy the company of women. I had nothing left to live for but revenge. Women must be 
3	y teenage years were completely denied to me by the cruelness of women. The only way I could make up for it was if I could have an
4	 I was ready and capable of fighting back against the cruelty of women. Back when I was a weak and timid boy at Taft High School, 
5	ows just how bleak and cruel the world is due of the evilness of women. I tried to show it to my parents, to give them some sort d
6	 the best. If a man grows up without knowing of the existence of women, there will be no desire for sex. Sexuality will completely
7	  ng with all of the injustices I've had to face at the hands of women and society. I came up with a name for this after I saw all
8	r, condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women because they don't fancy me, because their sexual attract
9	  he rejection and mistreatment I've experienced at the hands of women, I knew that becoming wealthy was the only way I could beco
10	what women are attracted to, and many of them share my hatred of women, though unlike me they would be too cowardly to act on it. 
11	  irls hate me so much?" in which I ask the entire population of women the question I've wanted to ask them for so many years. W

Women are positioned as cruel and evil, but also powerful; Rodger railed against the injustices (1 occurrence), rejection (2 occurrences), humiliation (1 occurrence) and mistreatment (1 occurrence) he felt he experienced at the hands of women.

So what were girls and women to Elliot Rodger? The evidence from his manifesto seems to indicate that Rodger was deeply conflicted about them. They were simultaneously: beautiful, hot bestowers of status on their male companions and the yardstick by which a man could measure his worth; fickle, callous creatures who snubbed him; cruel, evil and deliberately withholding the love and sex which Rodger felt was his right; wholly vicious and deserving of hatred and destruction. In Rodger’s manifesto, women are not individuals, but are completely united in their rejection of him.

There’s obviously a lot more in the paper I’m developing for publication, but I hope that this post offers a an insight into how looking at just four terms can be very revealing.

Further reading:
Elliot Rodgers
What a close read of the Isla Vista shooter’s horrific manifesto, “My Twisted World,” says about his values—and ours
“Gay or Asian?” Race, Masculinity, and the UCSB Shooting
On Continuing to Live In the Same World that Made Elliot Rodger (and Many Like Him)

Rape culture
A Gentleman’s Guide to Rape Culture
Fat Girl PhD: The things we tell our girls
Girl On The Net: On whether you have a right to sex
Slut-shamed to death for saying yes to sex, murdered for saying no

Misogyny
Storify: Yes, All Men
Elliot Rodger’s California shooting spree: further proof that misogyny kills
Let’s call the Isla Vista killings what they were: misogynist extremism
A Look Inside the ‘Men’s Rights’ Movement That Helped Fuel California Alleged Killer Elliot Rodger
Elliot Rodger was a misogynist – but is that all he was?
Elliot Rodger’s fatal menace: How toxic male entitlement devalues women’s and men’s lives
Lessons From a Day Spent With the UCSB Shooter’s Awful Friends
‘PUAhate’ and ‘ForeverAlone': inside Elliot Rodger’s online life
Your Princess Is in Another Castle: Misogyny, Entitlement, and Nerds
On the Geek Guys’ Elliot Rodger Think Pieces
#YesAllWomen: how Twitter reacted to the shootings in California
Why It’s So Hard for Men to See Misogyny: Men were surprised by #YesAllWomen because men don’t see what women experience

Representation of the British Suffrage Movement

Representation of the British Suffrage MovementYou have no idea how long I’ve been sitting on this, but last week I sent off the manuscript so I’m pretty confident it’s going to happen!

Representation of the British Suffrage Movement will be published by Bloomsbury in early 2015 as part of the Corpus and Discourse series. It goes without saying that I’m very pleased to be bringing suffragists, suffragettes, direct action, Deleuze and Guattari, issues of newsworthiness, and arson to the world in time for the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918.

(not) writing in public

It’s been very quiet on the blog and there’s a reason for that. I thought I’d write about the reasons behind it.

At the moment I’m juggling several things – an early career researcher’s portfolio, if you will. There are numerous things that I’m involved with, some short term and one longer term, all focused on my area and which will hopefully open doors in the future. However, none of them are things I’m happy to talk about yet – or indeed discuss in detail with anyone but a few close friends and my immediate family. In some cases this is due to the sensitive nature of the project, in others it’s due to the wishes of other people on the project, in others still it’s because things aren’t fully confirmed and I’m loath to count my chickens before they hatch, in yet another yet it’s because it’s still a tentative thing and I’m not sure how closely I want to connect it with my academic identity.

If I were a cleverer writer I’d be able to write carefully, giving you enough to make me seem busy and exciting while withholding juicy details of the stuff I want to keep close to my chest. But I am not that writer, and my current situation is such that none of the things I’m involved in suitable for public consumption (or at least, not yet).

It’s all making me wonder about the nature of blogging and writing in public, and what this means for the early career researcher. Is blogging about our work always an unqualified good thing? What are the disadvantages? What does it mean to get a reputation as someone who thinks and writes in public? Can such a reputation have a detrimental effect – can it mean that you’re less likely to be trusted with classified data and with sensitive research?

It also makes me wonder about the nature of power expressed in these concerns: basically, who gets to research and/or write in public without repercussions? If I were a more senior researcher – had more clout, had the security of a permanent job – how would that change what I felt able to write about here?

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

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.

7 February 1918

My supervisor and I shared a moment of somewhat nerdy joy today. Her current research focus is Charles Dickens and today marks the bicentury of his birth. However, this February marks 94 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed and I was pleased to see that today the Guardian published the article about the Act from its archives.

As the news report notes, the Act did not extend to franchise to all women, and not on the same terms as men; men could vote from the age of 21 and without property restrictions, but women had different restrictions in place. From the introduction to the Act:

As regards the Parliamentary franchise for women, the Act confers this only on women who have attained the age of 30. In constituencies other than university constituencies there are two alternative qualifications which are as follows :

(1) the woman must be entitled to be registered as a local government elector in respect of the occupation of a dwelling-house (irrespective of value) or of land or premises (other than a dwelling-house) of a yearly value of not leas than 5/. ; or

(2) she must be the wife of a man who is entitled to be so registered.

The university franchise is conferred on all women of the requisite age who have obtained a degree, or, at Oxford or Cambridge, have passed the final examination and kept the necessary residence.

So women had to be over 30 and either have a degree (not easy to come by for a woman then) or own, rent or be married to someone who owned or rented property in order to vote. It wasn’t equal franchise but this Act did pave the way for the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928, which gave women and men equal voting rights.

The Guardian article is rather lovely in its optimism and I can’t resist sharing this section:

We may mourn for what we had hoped for and have not got, but that need not prevent us from rejoicing at the gains which have been won. The adoption of women’s suffrage is the signal victory of an electoral struggle stretching over two generations and represents the greatest triumph in our day of a generous good sense. It is much more than political victory. Measured by purely political results, it may prove to be of less effect than either its friends or its opponents anticipated, though in certain directions, and particularly on all that concerns the position and interests of women before the law and in the State, it is bound to tell, and in time to tell heavily. But beyond that it will modify the whole attitude and outlook of women in society. It will in a real sense bring spiritual as well as political emancipation. Women will realise themselves a little differently and will be differently regarded by others. We are a political people, and the recognition of political equality is the first step to the recognition of equality in every other field where nature has not set up her own barriers.

Of course it’s a product of its time and there’s stuff in there that’s dated by 21st century standards, but it’s amazingly progressive compared to some of the stuff it was contemporary to.

Idealism

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

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

Issues in trans language

Earlier this month I, along with two other committee members, spoke to Nottingham Lesbian and Gay Switchboard about the trans social and support group we run. One of the things that came up was the complexity of trans terminology. As someone with some knowledge of the community, as someone who is, in a small way, a trans activist, and as someone with a linguistic background I’m intrigued by the words we use and the way we try to create our stories of flux and change out of these words. Words have immense power in this community; often simply knowing the word for something is an act of empowerment, a realisation that there are others like you and there is a place for you in the world. Words can summon identities into being; words can make manifest inchoate feelings of difference and not fitting in. Words are brilliant.

However, I’ve not read a great deal on linguistics and trans issues. I have an interest in language and gender but all too often I find there’s a disconnect between the linguistic research and what I know as an activist. For example, while reading Benwell and Stokoe’s 2006 Discourse and Identity I came across the following:

The speakers are all ‘women’. They are relatively ‘young’, though not ‘teenagers’. They are ‘white’. The presenters’ accents sound ‘upper middle class’. Jane sounds ‘educated’ and ‘middle class’. We presume they are all ‘English’, and we know Jane is ‘heterosexual’ – she has a male partner.

While Benwell and Stokoe do go on to note that “[e]ach of these categories can be further unpacked”, they don’t make any comment about the fairly major assumption they make about Jane’s sexuality. In the activist communities I belong to, someone assuming that a person is heterosexual just because they have a male partner would immediately be questioned about the basis of their assumption. Jane’s last partner could have been a woman. Jane might identify as queer for political reasons. Jane might be polyamorous and have partners of different genders, Jane might be married to a man and monogamous but also attracted to women. As an academic, I have to admit that coming across this assumption in the book’s introduction made me wonder what other assumptions about identity were being made in the book – how far can I trust their analyses of identity if they can make such a basic assumption?

As someone who uses critical discourse analysis in their research, identifying the context of language use is important to understanding it. There are some issues informing the way trans identities are conceptualised within the trans community – the background knowledge and understanding that makes some words acceptable and some unacceptable or unthinkable.

One of the things that I find most striking is the awareness of queer theory; I’ve had much more interesting and informed discussions about gender and queerness at trans socials than I have at research seminars. However, this awareness of gender binaries, gender fluidity, gender performativity, and the power to reshape, reinterpret and individualise gender inevitably comes into conflict with the idea of having an innate sense of one’s “real” gender. Conceptualising gender and gender identity – where it comes from, how it is formed, whether it is innate or realised through performance – is not a theoretical exercise but has profound implications for trans people. If gender is simply realised through performance, then what about bodies and the desire to change our bodies?

However, gender identity itself is problematic. Some people identify as non-gendered – they do not feel they have a gender identity and framing the discourse in these terms is inaccurate, discriminatory and erases their experience.

There is tension between the trans community and the medical profession. People who seek to change their bodies, either through hormones or surgery, usually have to do this through the medical establishment. While there are ways to acquire hormones without medical supervision, this has risks and, at least in my experience, is not recommended (although obviously this differs according to access to appropriate medical care etc). The medical profession, therefore, also act as gatekeepers and control access to care – in the UK, an individual seeking hormones or surgery on the NHS has to go through a Gender Identity Clinic where a panel decides whether they’re suitable for treatment. Not everyone is deemed suitable, and people identifying as genderqueer or non-binary gendered have had particular difficulty in getting approved (although new WPATH guidelines should change this).

However, this brings in the issue of who gets to decide what “trans” is and, indeed, how it should be defined.
Not everyone who identifies as trans wants to medically transition, not all want to transition between binary genders and not all identify in such a way as to make transition straightforward or, indeed, necessary. I’ve heard Nat of Practical Androgyny discuss the terms transsexual, transgender, trans and trans* and how they’re in a constant process of resisting the medicalisation of trans identities, trying to be as inclusive as possible and creating space for ‘new’ identities to exist. Zagria identifies five meanings of transgender and discusses them in the linked essay.

Language itself can also be problematic. The variety of English I use – British English – doesn’t have a gender neutral singular pronoun. This post outlines some alternatives but they aren’t widely known or accepted outside the queer community – as an undergraduate, I got told off for using ze/zir in an essay about gendered language.

This post highlights some problematic language within trans communities. As the author explains

The stories of our bodies, our experiences, and our identities have traditionally been told from a perspective of assumed cissexual superiority. Increasingly, trans people want to be able to speak to one another or to cis people in our own words–words that reflect our lived experiences and empower us as trans people. That means developing a new, trans-positive vocabulary. It also means re-examining the words we use (and the words cis people use for us), tossing out words and phrases that don’t pass muster, and replacing them with better ones.

There are some obviously problematic terms – calling someone a genetic female or XX boy doesn’t really work when you realise how prevalent intersex conditions are; these terms conflate the genotype with the phenotype, but without genetic testing it’s impossible to know what one’s genotype actually is. Less obvious is the problematic use of terms like female-bodied to describe someone female-assigned at birth – some people within the trans community would argue that a female body is a body belonging to someone who identifies as female. These terms seem to wax and wane in their popularity – female assigned at birth/FAAB, assigned female at birth/AFAB, male assigned at birth/MAAB and assigned male at birth/AMAB are terms that I’ve noticed relatively recently.

So, what might a study of trans language look like?

As a linguist, I’d be inclined to break this into three main categories: the umbrella terms used to describe the diversity of trans identities; the terms used to describe identities; the terms used to describe trans bodies.

There have been surveys on trans language, but as a corpus linguist I’m interested in naturally occurring language – while data elicted through surveys can be interesting and useful for identifying words that might be of interest, ultimately I’m more interested in how these words are actually used. Which are common terms? Are certain words used more frequently in different parts of the community? Do these words have different meanings within the community? When do words start being used and how do they spread out? What’s the effect of the internet (particularly user-created material) on language? Do people use language differently if they’re seeking medical involvement or as that progresses? Happily, there are quite a few trans-related sites, forums, tumblrs etc so there is suitable data out there to include in a corpus.

One of the things I’m interested in is fine-grained use of data. My corpus made up of Times Digital Archive texts allows me to split up the data by year and, using some php, by type of article (Letters to the Editor, for example). There are loads of interesting ways to split up the trans data I’d hope to collect and to an extent it depends on what I’m trying to find out. For the questions I outlined above, it would be good to be able to split the corpus by year the text was produced, site it came from from, and some details about the writer – their age, how they identify, the variety of English they use, possibly some information about any medical involvement they’ve had or are seeking (if applicable).

Sadly this has to go on the back burner for now because of my thesis, but at some point I’d love to do more research into this. To me, trans language highlights the explicit negotiation of language in a community. New terms are coined, defined and disputed. It also is a place where queer and gender theory and practice collide in a way that has incredibly important, real-life implications – these are not the debates of the ivory tower, but affect how people lead their lives and indeed, what sort of lives they are able to lead.

Research Practices 2.0

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

Research Practices 2.0

Social and Participatory Media in Academic Life

Saturday 29th October 2011 9.30am-4.00pm

Business School South, Jubilee Campus, University of Nottingham

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

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

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

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

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