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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

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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

University involvement in A-level content


This story caught me a little bit surprised this morning, even though I did actually contribute to the consultation exercise a few months back where university lecturers were asked about their views on the preparedness of 1st years students starting university. After a few years in the job, I think that I’ve got a reasonable understanding of how well equipped students are when they start a degree course, and unfortunately, I was almost unanimous in stating that A-levels did not prepare students adequately enough for the demands of university on a whole host of factors, including working independently, motivation, critical thinking, communication skills, and so on. I understand that A-level examinations are now more result-drive than they ever have been, but if A-levels are meant to be a stepping stone to higher academic achievement, then they’re not doing their job effectively.

Students, even those who did well at A-level, come to university lacking a range of vital skills and as such are unable to write effectively, communicate complex ideas or concepts, use IT equipment etc etc. Moreover, they need a good amount of guidance on the material, the importance of secondary reading and the importance of critical thought. The knock-on effect of this is low levels of student satisfaction, engagement or attainment, none of which are especially desirable for the students or the lecturers who teach them. Students will have a range of abilities in these skills, but my own feeling is that A-levels are not doing enough to help students know what is expected of them once they get to university. Universities, however, shouldn’t be the place where we’re telling students how to use a comma or how to add page numbers to a document. And this is something which is common across universities across the UK, including Russell Group and ‘research intensive’ universities. Few universities are immune.

So what is the solution? Well, I think that the exercise I linked to is a great first step. If we want students to be prepared when they come to university, then schools and colleges need to know what it is we’re looking for in a new 1st year student. Moreover, they also need to know the kind of material we cover and let them know what the jump up will be at undergraduate level. Of course, I wouldn’t expect universities to set the curriculum at A-level, nor to set exam questions, but there has to be a better link between the two levels of education and both have to have some understanding of expectations and abilities, otherwise the only people who will be let down by the system will be the students.

The Social Linguist

It’s been one of those weeks…


This week was the last week of teaching before the Easter break, and true to form, it simultaneously felt like it was never going to end and went by in a flash… But it also seemed to be the week of ‘bad news’, namely:

  1. My dodgy knee prevented me from doing BMF.
  2. On Friday, I found out that the power steering pump in my car was on its way out.
  3. (Saving the best for last), I got locked out of my flat on Saturday.

Because it was such a busy week, I ended up missing my Tuesday update, which kind of sucked, and I had all the best intentions of posting on Saturday until I went to the market and left my keys in the flat. This normally wouldn’t have been a problem, but Rebecca went out to see a friend and I ended up waiting in a local cafe for four hours waiting until she got back. The conversation kind of went like this:

  1. Me: Hey, are you still at home?
  2. Rebecca: Um, no, I left about 10 minutes ago…
  3. Me: Oh, no worries. When do you think you’ll be home?
  4. Rebecca: Maybe a couple of hours?
  5. Me: Ah right, because I’ve left my keys and I can’t get in…
  6. Rebecca: Oh no! You’re joking?? Do you want me to come home?
  7. Me: No it’s fine, I’ll just hole myself up in a cafe somewhere and over-dose on caffeine and muffins.

So that was my Saturday afternoon wasted in a cafe reading The Independent for about three hours and doing Suduko (which I had to borrow a pen from the cafe for). I was lucky I still had some money left over from the market otherwise I would have been wandering around Birmingham with my reusable Tesco bags looking more than a little bit vagrant-y. So that’s why the blog is being updated on a Sunday.

This week also marked a week since TEDxBrum went ahead and I should probably take a little bit of time to comment on the day. I suppose the first thing to say is that the organising team did a great job in pulling it all together and in such a short space of time as well. It really was testament to how far a good idea goes to making a day a success and the way the organisers were able to galvanise community support for the day was great to see.

In terms of the speakers, there was a good variety of ideas presented and many of the talks were engaging and interesting. The vast majority of them dealt with issues of direct relevance to Birmingham (how to feed it in the future, the development of pioneering medical procedures, etc etc), and (I think) most of the speakers were from Birmingham and the Black Country. All presented in a passionate and motivated way and got the heart of their subject matter quickly and efficiently. The audience, similarly, hailed mostly from Birmingham (one chap came all the way up from Bristol to attend because he had grown up in Birmingham and wanted to see what kind of changes had happened in the city) and the people that I spoke to were community-minded and wanted to contribute to making Birmingham better.

For me, the biggest bug-bear was that it was a shame speakers only got about 10 – 12 minutes per slot to give their talk and I got the impression that just as they were getting to the interesting points, they had to finish up. The second thing I didn’t particularly agree with was that there was no Q&A session, and even though there were a good number of long breaks (like, 45 minutes long), with everyone clamouring to speak to the presenters, there wasn’t space for in-depth discussion or debate. These are, unfortunately, enshrined in the TED manifesto, so the organisers couldn’t go against these edicts, even if they wanted to. It’s all about protecting the brand, see?

So, some good connections were made, I got to meet some interesting people, hear some interesting talks, I got a free chocolate bar and pen, and the day was lovely and sunny as well, so the pros outweighed the cons in the end. Oh, just one more thing; check out this twitter analysis by @AndyPrike who datamined all the live tweets that came out of TEDxBrum. I love data visualisation and this is a stellar example of how it can be used.

– The Social Linguist