Archive for April, 2012

Assessment week…

This week has been pretty manic since it was an entire week of assessments for my 2nd and 3rd year undergraduate students. The 2nd year module is Language and Social Identity and the 3rd year one is Varieties of English, and for the past few years, assessment 1 has been the production of a conference-style poster, analysing data the group has collected by themselves through one of the approaches we cover in the module (assessment 2 is the much more prosaic essay-based approach).

There’s at least two responses to the assessment brief when it gets handed out. The first an outrage against group-based assessment. A lot of students dislike group work because it means that other students can coast and get a good grade at the expense of other students’ work. I get around this by having each student write up a regular blog on the weekly meetings they’re supposed to have. I also get them to fill out a self-evaluation form (which can be incredibly revealing about a student’s sense of their strengths and weaknesses). But perhaps the easiest way I get around this is by giving students a mark for the poster element and then a mark for their presentation element. This at least keeps students on their toes that they have to do the work and can’t rely on others to help them get a passing grade. If the presentation is poor, it impacts on their overall mark for the assessment.

The second response is normally one of quiet excitement. I really don’t like prescribing students with a particular set of questions they have to answer and I’ve found that when students are left to their own devices, they can come up with some really fantastic projects that they’re enthusiastic and motivated about. Over the past few years, I’ve had presentations on the language of the Fukushima nuclear accident, on greeting structure in Starbucks, on banter and masculinity and a whole bunch of others, and because students are invested in the projects, they work more conscientiously on them.

It’s a whole bunch of work for the students and marking it is a bunch of work for me because I have to give feedback on the poster and the presentation element, read through the self-evaluation forms for each group member, and read through the blogs for each group member. One saving grace is that we record the presentations for our external examiner, so I can go through the tape and double check a statement a student made, give better feedback on their presentation skills and generally be more transparent about the marks that are awarded.

So that’s what I’ve been doing this week – feedback for eight groups in my 2nd year class and six groups in my 3rd year class. I’ve managed to finish the 2nd year work and I’ve set aside Monday for my 3rd years. Roll on the summer break…

What kind of non-standard assessment do others out there use?

The Social Linguist

How I got into sociolinguistics: A story (part 2)

April 21, 2012 1 comment

So we left the last part of this story when I joined Glasgow Uni after not being allowed to join the RAF. Since the only thing I was really good at in high school was English, I decided that going to university to study English Literature was as good a route as any. My expectation was that I would finish up university and probably become a teacher, and I was ok with that. In September 2000, I joined as a dewy-eyed fresher in one of the most stunning university settings in Scotland (check out pictures if you don’t believe me) and started my undergraduate degree in literature.

Now, in order to be able to graduate with honours in English Literature at Glasgow, students also had to do a year of English Language. But my only experience of language studies at this point had been doing Latin grammar and I wasn’t particularly psyched at doing a whole year of grammar-type work… I remember bitching and moaning to my English teacher about having to do linguistics and he assured me that it would involve a lot more than just amoamasamat type declensions.

Anyway, I girded my loins and signed up for a first year of English Literature, English Language and Scottish Literature (mainly because I didn’t like the look of any of the other modules…), and by about week three of the course I found out that I. Hated. Literature. And I was completely unprepared for it. I don’t quite know what it was, but I hated the navel gazing, the whole I wandered lonely as a cloud schtick that was going on, the self-satisfied smugness of the lecturers, the…. pretentiousness of it all. It all just killed literature stone dead and as the year wore on, I couldn’t buoy myself up to be enthusiastic about it. Don’t get me wrong, I had some interesting conversations, read some great books I would never have read otherwise, and developed some important analytical skills, but it seemed to me that so long as you could argue your point convincingly, your points didn’t need to necessarily have… a point.

But in linguistics, I had a subject that inspired and interested me. I remember one of our first Old English lectures with Professor Jeremy Smith (who is brilliant). He started talking about noun paradigms and things like accusative case, nominative case and so on and I realised that I KNEW WHAT HE WAS TALKING ABOUT. This was the same kind of stuff I had done in Latin and it all made sense. Unfortunately, the only thing I remember of OE noun paradigms now is ‘-um on the end of nouns, dative plural. Dative plural, -um on the end of nouns’. Anybody who did OE lectures with Professor Smith at Glasgow University is bound together by that phrase. The rest of the course, sociolinguistics, phonetics, child language acquisition etc etc were all brilliant, and it made the next choice pretty straightforward.

So after my first year of university, I decided to ditch English Literature and concentrate on Scottish Literature and English Language. But I still had to take one more module, so I took… French, primarily under the pretense that it would help me with my linguistics. But the less said about that part of my degree, the better.

In my third year, my focus was purely on English Language and I took a combination of historical and contemporary modules, including History of English, Sociolinguistics, Grammar, Pragmatics, and Contemporary Scottish Fiction (I still loved Scottish Literature bizarrely enough…). The lightbulb moment where I realised that I wanted to become a lecturer was during my sociolinguistics class. We had been given a topic to present to the rest of the class and I had been given Wallace Lambert’s work on matched guise tests in Canada. I thought that the results were fascinating and put a ton of effort into my presentation, including dressing up in a suit and tie, PowerPoint slides and a handout. The works.

When I had finished the presentation and answered a few questions, I remember walking back to my seat thinking ‘this is what I want to do with myself’, and I think it’s at that point I finally had a path that I wanted to pursue. All I had to do was finish up my degree and then do a post-grad course.

Of course, the future is anything but smooth sailing…

The Social Linguist

Easter ‘break’ shenanigans…

The Easter ‘holidays’ is a great time of the academic year because it means that I get to catch up on all the bits and pieces I’ve been putting off since the start of teaching. With three weeks of no teaching, I’ve been relatively productive, starting and finishing off a major publication about urban masculinities, language and violence (10,000 words in a few weeks is no easy feat…), finishing off a transcript of Mock the Week, catching up on my M.A. students’ dissertation work, and being acting head of department while the actual head of department was on annual leave. I was also able to squeeze in a family wedding, more than a few games of rugby (I was especially impressed by Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup quarter finals), a nice picnic in the park when it was sunny, and some decent exercise as well.

I’ll also be giving a talk to sixth form pupils at Cadbury College this Friday on language and gender and I’ve got no idea how to go about it. I think I’m going to talk about social vs. biological approaches to language and gender (bringing in the Locke stuff I wrote about ages ago) and hopefully that’ll go down pretty well, at least if I can get them to talk about some of the issues first (like, who talks more? Who’s more polite? Why do you think this is? etc etc). I’ve never presented to non-university aged students though, so I don’t really know what to expect. But it’s all good public outreach work.

This is, in many ways, the calm before the storm, and come the start of next week, it’ll be two weeks of teaching, followed by a deluge of marking and assessments, exam boards, external examiner duties, data analysis, writing up, conferences, and other such fun fun fun. I do, at least, have conferences in Brazil and Berlin to look forward to, both places I’ve never been before, and a nice long summer break to get on with writing, but I’ve got to get through the rest of this semester first…

The Social Linguist

Putting Scottish accents in movies: A Brave step?

A few days ago, I was approached by The Sun to comment on the use of the word pish in the new Pixar movie Brave (I’ve no idea if the story made it to press or not…). Anyway, if you’ve missed this, Brave is a fairytale story set in medieval Scotland and most of the voice actors are, quite surprisingly, Scottish. Apparently, however, using Scottish accents in a movie is quite a bold move (going by the fact that Trainspotting was famously subtitled for non-Scots audiences), and there has been a bit of a buzz going around about this. The Guardian, for example, had a bit to say about the use of Scots in the movie, but my favourite quote had to be from the director Mark Andrews who said:

When people speak in a Scottish accent, it comes very specifically out of the mouth

Seriously, where else would you expect it to come out of?? Ok, so I know that sometimes Scots are accused of taking out of their backsides, but that’s besides the point…

I have to say, though, that while it’s great that a whole (American) movie is being done using Scottish accents, I can’t help the niggling feeling that it’s drawing on a romanticised notion of Scotland as the land of strong men and bonny lassies (something I’ve already written about here), and I worry about how far it’s simply going to entrench these views in a new generation of movie-goers. Even from the trailer, there were about half a dozen cultural cliches I saw that made me wince.

But I think that the movie demonstrates just how powerful the social meaning of accents can be. The BBC wrote about this a while ago in an article about fantasy movies using English accents and it’s obvious that Hollywood draws on particular cultural ideologies which are indexed by specific varieties. In a brilliant send up of this, Eddie Izzard did a famous sketch of Darth Vader with an English accent, which shows just how ridiculous Star Wars would have been without James Earl Jones.

-The Social Linguist