Ok, so I know it’s been ages since I last posted, something which is particularly embarrassing given the fact that my last post mentioned that I would be updating more regularly. And that hasn’t happened. Ugh. Part of the reason for this is because I’ve been settling back into my life in Birmingham after my Fulbright life in Pittsburgh came to an end, and to be totally honest, I’m still kind of finding my feet. It’s amazing how despite living in a city for years, even a short time away can make everything seem so new again. I mean, I spent nearly 10 years in Glasgow and now when I visit there, I hardly recognise the place, and the same happened a wee bit with coming back to Brum.
But after a few months back, things are slowly coming together. I’m back teaching, I’m back sitting in meetings, I’m back driving back and forth to work, and I’m gradually getting to grips with this UK life, but I think it’ll take another few months before I can honestly say things are back to the way they were before I left. What’s a bit worrisome is that I still find myself pining for Pittsburgh, about the places and people I met there, and while I had that a bit with Tucson, it’s more pronounced this time. I’m sure it will pass, but being melancholy about it certainly won’t help!
In other news, there’s been quite a lot happening in the world of sociolinguistics recently. For example, we had Lindsay Johns banging on about the power of the spoken word and how we should all be speaking Standard English. We had the banning of slang words in a high school in south London. There was the story about declining literacy rates in the UK and the slump in foreign language learning at university level. Oh, and there was also the story that ‘huh’ might be a linguistic universal. All of this, and more, continues to show how language is still very much front and centre on the national and international stage, although bizarrely, there’s not much in the way of input of actual linguists… That’s probably a story for another post, particularly as it relates to my own research on social media and the reporting of sociolinguistic research (I gave a talk about this at the recent Language in the Media conference in London).
Lastly, I’m happy to announce that I’ve had a flurry of things getting published recently, including an article on TH-fronting in Glasgow, which will be in English World-Wide and my own chapter on what ethnography can tell us about sociolinguistic variation over time, which will be in my edited volume Sociolinguistics in Scotland (and you can now buy it on Amazon!). Both of these pieces of work have been a wee while in the making, so as you can imagine, I’m pretty chuffed to have them done and dusted (especially the edited volume!). /blatentselfpromotion (!)
So yeah, I’ll try try try to start updating this more regularly, especially because it is quite good fun and it’s something a bit different from the usual academic-y kind of writing that I have to do. If only I could use some of my blog posts as REF outputs…
- The Social Linguist
A few weeks ago, Iain (Menzies) Banks passed away at the age of 59 after succumbing to gall bladder cancer, having only been diagnosed with it in March of this year. A man of tremendous intelligence and wit, Banks’ ‘mainstream’ fiction writing was an insightful combination of social commentary and dark humour, from the weird and wonderful The Wasp Factory to the grizzly and disturbing Complicity, while his ‘sci-fi’ fiction (written under the moniker ‘Iain M Banks’) ran the gamut from inter-stellar espionage in Consider Phlebas to mind-uploading and virtual hells in Surface Detail.
It’s difficult to put into words exactly what Banks and his work meant to me, but I’ll try. I came across Banks’ writing fairly late on. His first book, The Wasp Factory, was published in 1984 (I was two at the time), so I never read anything until I was in my late-teens. In quick succession, I read Canal Dreams, The Wasp Factory and Espedair Street, all borrowed from a friend of mine. I thought they were funny, interesting and quirky books, but it wasn’t until I was at university when I was ‘forced’ to read The Bridge for my undergraduate class in Scottish Literature. And that was the book that changed it all for me. It’s one of those books that you get a little bit more out of it every time you read it, and it’s probably my favourite of all of Banks’ books.
Written in three ‘arcs’, The Bridge follows 1) an unnamed protagonist who wakes up on a mysterious bridge, 2) an love-struck engineer and 3) a Barbarian who speaks in a broad Glaswegian accent. So as not to waste your experience of reading this book for the first time, I won’t say much more about the plot, but suffice to say, as soon as I finished it, I went straight back to the start and went through it again. It was The Bridge that opened up the canon of Scottish Literature to me as an impressionable undergraduate, and Banks acquired another fan for life. And over the years, I developed a wee routine where I would buy a Banks book every time I flew abroad, and up there in the confines of my cattle-class seat, I would have hours to sit undisturbed, engrossed in the worlds Banks built. Banks’ books will always be linked to the various trips I’ve taken, with the people I met, and the places I visited. They set the scene for a new set of experiences, a primer that I was heading off to explore something different.
I avoided his sci-fi fiction for the longest time, but eventually, I ran out of his mainstream fiction and my hand was forced. So at the airport in Glasgow on the way to Pittsburgh last year, I bought Consider Phlebas. And from then on, I have chewed my way through almost every single Iain M Banks I could get my hands on, too impatient to wait until my next far-flung plane journey.
I had the pleasure of meeting him (and shaking his hand!) a couple of years ago at the Glasgow Aye Write festival, where he signed a few of his books I brought along. I also asked a question during the Q&A session, but I’ll be damned if I can remember what it was… Maybe something about why games were so important in his work? All I remember is being in awe of the man who had filled my days and nights with unimaginable worlds and whose work had variously made me feel thrilled, annoyed, sick, happy, sad, angry, curious, inspired, and confused.
Of course, I am desperately sad that he has gone, but my main feeling is one of thankfulness. Thankful that someone had his gift, thankful that he decided to write, thankful that he wrote such wonderful books, and thankful that his work moved me so much that not a day goes by where I don’t think of at least something written by him. The world is a far better place for having had Banks on it, and I doubt we will see someone of his ilk again.
So here’s to Sun-Earther Iain El-Bonko Banks of North Queensferry. You are missed.
- The Social Linguist
Over the past few months, I’ve got quite into both Scrabble and Spell Tower. I got into the first because when Rebecca and I moved to Pittsburgh, we didn’t (and still don’t) have an active television, so in our desperation to fill our evenings with something other than spending money eating at Pittsburgh’s variety of restaurants, we decided that we’d play Scrabble, one of the few boardgames that was in the house we’d moved to. Roll on several months later, we’re still playing it, albeit upgraded slightly to the iPad version.
Now, one of the great things about the iPad version is that it has a built-in dictionary, along with a cheat-sheet of all the legal two word letters as well. It was once we figured that the two letter words were the key to success (there’s a nice story about this here) that we saw our scores ratchet up into the 300+ range (on the iPad, we usually play together against the computer). 300+ isn’t amazing, but still, it’s better than the ~200 we were getting playing on the regular hardcopy of the game (although it’s nowhere near the almost unbelievable 830 points scored in this game...). Normally the computer will play words that have us scratching our heads asking ‘is that really a word?’, but there are a couple of the two letter words which also make us go ‘huh?’. Words like AA, ZA, UT, PE and so on, but they’re all legitimate words and if you can get something like XU or XI on a triple letter word square, you can quite easily rack up around about 50 points. Weirdly, though, you can’t play DA (colloquial for ‘father’, but also a heavy Burmese knife, apparently) in the US edition of Scrabble, but it’s acceptable in the UK version.
A few months after playing hardcopy Scrabble, it started to get a bit stale, so I downloaded the game Spell Tower for the iPad. Spell Tower is slightly different to Scrabble in that instead of placing tiles on the board, you trace a line across letters on the board, and once you make a word, the letters around it are deleted. A minimum of three letters is required to make a word, and the longer the word, the more points scored (my personal best is INSULATORS for 940 points, but it’s not at all transparent how the words are scored).
So in the screenshot above, the word created is SERPENTINE, and that then deletes all the letters in pink around the line. In Spell Tower, there’s a few different modes, with the two main ones being 1) to score the highest number of points from a full board and 2) to stop the board from filling up (kind of like a tetris for words). Both are good fun, but the more I played it, the more I realised that the underlying dictionary is very different to that of Scrabble. For example, the following words are all acceptable words in Spell Tower, but not for Scrabble: SLOOMED, FIEST, TINTY, and TILERY. Conversely, almost none of the plural two letter Scrabble words are accepted in Spell Tower, so you can’t have AAS, ZAS, QIS, or KIS. I’m not sure why it’s been designed in this way, since words like BET, ADD, SIT and so on are all fine, but at least with Scrabble you have an official dictionary, which isn’t the case with Spell Tower. This kind of put me off Spell Tower a bit, because it eventually became a game of trial and error to see what words worked and which didn’t, and in a game where you can actually lose, that got quite annoying. And in Scrabble, you can play things like the following (EVICTION for 194) and feel quite smart and smug for having spotted it (credit to Rebecca for playing this word, not me!).
- The Social Linguist
So, I eventually managed to finish off the edited volume I’ve been working on for over two years now, and with that, I can rest easy that my REF return is all done. It was a real relief to send the final version off, and all that’s left is the proofs and the cover-art, although I’m sure that I’ll find out even more horrors are in store for me when I get to that stage! In any event, it’s been a massively beneficial experience for me and I’ve learnt loads about managing expectations, dealing with peer reviewers, trying to tie all the chapters together, structure, content, word limits etc etc, but I still have this nagging feeling at the back of my head of ‘was it worth it?’. Now, this mainly comes about because edited volumes are, for better or worse, not as highly regarded as that peak of academic achievement, the all-glorious journal article. This is primarily because a) chapters are (usually) solicited by the editor rather than submitted by authors, b) the peer-review process tends to be somewhat less rigorous than that for journals and c) chapters for edited volumes tend not to be rejected regardless of peer-review comments (the line of thinking is, I suppose, that if the editor solicited the chapter, then it should be accepted).
With all the above in mind, then, you’d think that no right minded academic would think about doing an edited volume, especially an academic at the early part of their career (like me!). I mean, I spent over two years working on this, time which might have been better spent doing peer-reviewed articles (which I did during that time anyway), or working more on the book. But of course, edited volumes come out all the time, usually done by well-known and established academics, so they can’t be *that* bad of an investment?
I think there’s two sides to this really. The first is that yes, you probably shouldn’t invest too much time doing an edited volume at the beginning of your career. The time spent between soliciting chapters (or doing a call for papers), sorting out and deciding which chapters to accept, sending out rejection letters to those you didn’t want, preparing the proposal for consideration by a publisher, doing the response to the reviewers, having the proposal rejected anyway, doing the proposal all over again, liaising with contributors to keep them up to date with what’s happening, eventually having the proposal accepted, setting out deadlines for authors, finding peer-reviewers to read chapters, liaising with reviewers and authors, reading and commenting on all the chapters, writing your own chapter, finding someone to do the foreword, reading peer-reviewer comments and deciding what the authors need to address, writing your own chapter, re-reading re-submissions, re-doing *more* comments, finishing your own chapter, finding a map for the book, getting copy-right permissions to use the map, cross-checking all the bibliography entries, proof-reading everything, doing the introduction, finding a reviewer for the introduction, dealing with their comments, re-doing the introduction, paginating everything, doing the pre-publication checklist, writing the table of contents, the table of figures *and* the table of tables (all with the right page numbers), finding out that you missed a page number out and having to the that all over again, deciding that you don’t like the order of the chapters and having to change pagination again, doing contributor biographies, writing the catalog description (50 words), the website description (150 words) and the blurb (200 words), getting contributor agreements, sending all the paperwork to the publisher, and deciding that you just don’t have enough time to do the index so you’re going to outsource it to a professional indexer (fully recommend this btw), I could have written another two journal articles on top of the ones I *did* write while doing all of the above.
At this stage of my career, more publications is always a good thing, but the other side of it is that I have gained an incredible number of skills I otherwise wouldn’t have had I decided not to do the edited volume. Not least among these was learning to co-ordinate a group of highly-skilled academic researchers from around the world in producing a fairly substantial piece of work which will (hopefully!) be a major contribution to work on sociolinguistics in Scotland.
I would say, though, that doing an edited volume wouldn’t be high priority on my ‘to-do’ list post-PhD, and I’d always recommend targeting peer-review publications first and foremost. But once you’ve got a few of them under your belt, I think that there are worse ways to spend your time in academia than doing an edited volume (although I’d probably advise against this if if you’re on a US-based tenure-track position, since journal articles will likely count for far more in your tenure bid than edited volumes would. My guess is that’s why most edited volumes in the US come from already-tenured professors, whereas in the UK, early career researchers publish edited volumes as well as journal articles).
So yeah; edited volumes – more work than I realised, but worth it.
- The Social Linguist
Ok, so I should confess that I haven’t been dedicating nearly as much time to the blog as I should be, although I’m hoping that normal service will resume shortly. I haven’t been posting for a few reasons, mainly to do with getting the edited volume out of the way and making a start on the book. The edited volume is now, however, almost completed, and I’ll only have the book to focus on for the remainder of my time in Pittsburgh (less than five months left to go… I’m sad already). So yeah, I hope to be posting on a more regular schedule within the next few weeks!
- The Social Linguist
The Fulbright Programme is all about cultural exchange; it’s about sharing stories and experiences across borders; it’s about learning new things; it’s about immersing yourself in a different country. Now, we tend to think about things like politics, movies, music, lifestyle, food and so on as being some of the main ‘culture’ things that can be shared and talked about. For example, in the US, I still don’t understand why cheese comes in such small packets, and in the UK, I’d love it if more bars had a US-style ‘tab’ culture as a matter of course, and my life is more enriched knowing about these kinds of things.
But one thing which kind of flew under my radar as a ‘cultural exchange moment’ was… sport. Now, I enjoy American sports, particularly football and baseball. With lots of breaks in the games, you don’t have to concentrate too hard for the whole game, there’s lots of opportunities for chat and banter, and when something does happen, it’s normally pretty exciting. But I also enjoy British sports, primarily rugby, my ultimate game of choice, a game I have been in love with for about seven years ago now (but oh how I wish I had got into it earlier in life!).
It just so happened that last weekend was the start of the Six Nations, that special (delusional?) time of the year where Scottish rugby fans get all optimistic that *this year* will be the year our team’s fortune turns around and we’ll become a world-beating rugby force. And what better way to share British sporting culture with America than inviting some friends down to the pub to watch the opening game of Scotland vs. England? Alas, although another abject 80 minutes of rugby action on Saturday afternoon put paid to any thoughts of Scotland winning this year’s Six Nations Championship, it was great to show what makes the Six Nations such an enduring spectacle, with the anthems and the flags and singing and the passion displayed both on and off the pitch (field).
But my weekend of sporting exchange wasn’t all one-way, and Saturday’s rugby game was followed on Sunday by an excellent night’s entertainment at a Super Bowl XXII party, and for the first time, I really got to see why football holds such a sway over the American public. The size of the show, the entertainment, the drama, the social aspect, the rivalries, the sub-plots; all of it combined to produce a brilliant game, and one which although totally different to the Six Nations, was just as compelling and entertaining.
Now, if only we could get Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty to do a half-time show during the Six Nations games….- The Social Linguist
So I’ve now embarked on the whole ‘writing a book’ malarkey, and I have to say, it’s been a bit of a rough transition from article writing to book writing. When I was doing my PhD, finishing the thesis was the big aim, and since you usually have three years in which to complete it, a whole thesis doesn’t seem like too big an effort. Once I was done with my thesis and started writing articles for publication, the jump down from writing 100,000 words for one piece of work to only having to write ~10,000 words was fantastic! The great thing about a journal article is the sense of progress. You start with a blank piece of paper, and (hopefully!) within a few months, you’ll have at least a first draft to work with. Progress is very noticeable with a journal article and that sense of achievement keeps you going on and plugging away at it. Moreover, you know that, generally speaking, you’ll be able to draw a line under it after a few months.
But with the book, I’m back to the long, drawn out process of thinking about my research over the course of 100,000 words, rather than a short, punchy 10,000 words. And unlike writing a journal article, there’s less of a sense of progress, especially when I’ve planned to write nine chapters. Keeping positive when I know that there’s another 90,000 words to go (or eight chapters, depending on how you look at it) is tough, and despite having already written that much for my thesis, girding my loins for a marathon rather than a sprint is, thus far, proving to be a bigger challenge than I had originally thought.
I suppose part of the solution is to break it down into manageable chunks, and to forget that each chapter is working towards the book as a whole (since that can be dealt with during the re-write part). So instead of seeing it as one big book, seeing it as a bunch of quite detailed journal articles. That way, there’s more of a sense of achievement once each chapter is ticked off. And I think that seeing any long piece of writing (a thesis, a book, an edited volume etc) as one long slog is probably self-defeating. Chunking it up and breaking it down into smaller bits and pieces keeps you focused on short-term goals and targets and makes you feel as though you’re actually getting through the work.
But I’ll be able to better comment on that once the book is done.
- The Social Linguist