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It’s been a long year…


And it’s only February! I know that I usually start these posts with ‘I can’t believe it’s been so long since I last posted’, but genuinely, I can’t believe I last posted in October last year! Part of this is still to do with the fact that I’m struggling to find a balance between teaching, admin, research and finding time to blog.

And it’s not like there’s not been interesting stuff to discuss, from the article on New York English, to a new blog I found (Lexical Valley), stuff on pronoun usage on Google, gender neutrality in children’s books, linguistic discrimination in the trial about Trayvon Martin’s shooting, Danny Dyer and Game of Thrones and loads more besides. So there’s been loads of stuff going on that would have been interesting to have spent a bit more time on, so over the next few months I hope to go back to some of these stories and have a bit of a think about what they tell us about language.

But alas, my focus has been primarily on course directing, marking, doing my external examiner duties, wedding planning (!), a bit of writing and assorted other work-related responsibilities. One of the things that is coming to an end (ok, in the next 10 months) is the impact volume that I’m working on with Dave Sayers (Sheffield Hallam). We even have our own entry in the Routledge catalogue, so it’s all systems go as far as that’s concerned. All the chapters are in (I finished my chapter last Sunday), the introduction is still to be finished, and then it’s just the wee bits and pieces of indexing etc that’ll be left to do around about June or so. I’m really looking forward to this coming out, and it’ll be the end of a long process going back to 2012. These projects take far too long to do, and that’s one of the things that I talk about in my chapter!

Anyway, I had a quick 30 minutes tonight to get this post done. Apologies it’s not exactly high on quality content, but I kind of guilt tripped myself into writing something down!

The Social Linguist

Using twitter in class

October 4, 2014 4 comments

Yesterday I started my 3rd year language and gender module. It’s a module I enjoy teaching, but this year I’m adding to my workload and making (being forced to make?) big changes to the content and structure of the module, mainly because of the recent Moodle roll-over which broke almost all of my content from last year… It also dawned on me that I hadn’t really changed much of the content since inheriting the module nearly five years ago, and since I really didn’t want to teach another class on Helene Cixous and Donna Haraway, I had to roll up my sleeves and get stuck in with new lecture notes and seminar activities….

Beyond the changes I’m implementing to my teaching material, one of the big things that I’m trialling this year is using Twitter so that my students can hashtag (yes, it’s a verb now) interesting L&G material and share it with one another. This was inspired by a teaching talk I went to over the summer by Gary Wood, who teaches a module on syntax at Sheffield Uni. One of the things Gary does with his class is to set up a twitter account where students can ask questions, share materials, discuss ideas and so on, and by adopting this particular strategy, he has seen the pass rate for syntax climb up into the 90%, not to say anything about increasing student engagement.

Being a big user of twitter (and social media more generally) in my research and ‘outreach’ activities, it was a surprise to me that I hadn’t thought of using twitter in my teaching. I suppose part of it was the worry of it being too gimmicky and that my students wouldn’t take it up. But seeing I use it at conferences, for public communication and so on, it seems a bit daft to think that it wouldn’t be good enough for my students. So yesterday I set up a hashtag, started tweeting about a few things and had a couple of students follow me on my twitter handle. It’s far too early to tell whether there’s an impact on student enjoyment/engagement, and that will come out at the end of the module, but it’s an interesting experiment.

I also tentatively brought up the idea that students can tweet during classes… I’m not sure if that was a great idea, but the cat’s out the bag now….

The Social Linguist

Time flies!


As the end of summer fast approaches, it’s a nice time to take stock of just how quickly this year has gone and what I’ve done in academic year 2013/14. Right now, I’ve been back in the UK for more than a year, I’ve been engaged for eight months, it’s been more than four months since my knee surgery, it’s been about six weeks from us moving into our first house, and it’s been about two weeks since I started my latest health kick and trying to get back to BMF.

And despite the fact that this year has been full of lots of stuff, I’ve managed to carve out some time for writing, which has included a big step towards finishing the Mock the Week paper I’ve been working on with a colleague for about the past three years (!) and my chapter for the impact volume is nearing the stage where I can send it out for review. I’ve also done a few conferences, a couple of reviews and some other bits and pieces, so all in all, 2013/14 has been relatively productive, with a variety of highs and lows.

But probably one of the academic highlights of this past 12 months has to be the Sociolinguistics Summer School, held for the first time outside of the UK in the sunny environs of UCD in Dublin. The Sociolinguistics Summer School has been running since 2009 and was first held at the University of Edinburgh. Since then, it’s been held in 2010 (Edinburgh), 2011 (Glasgow), 2012 (Newcastle) and 2014 (Dublin). I was lucky enough to go along to the one in either 2009 or 2010 (I forget which…), the one in Glasgow in 2011 and then the most recent one in Dublin, and it’s wonderful to see it grow from strength to strength. What was really crazy for me was attending in 2009/10 as a recently-completed PhD student and then being invited in 2014 as one of the plenary speakers (my first major plenary session as well). If someone had said in 2009/10 that I’d be back giving a plenary talk, I’d have thought you mental, but it happened! Alongside Daniel Ezra Johnson, Helen Kelly-Holmes and Diarmait Mac Giolla Chriost, I was certainly in esteemed company, although it’s debatable how much I felt I belonged there!

For those of you who haven’t been to a Summer School, it generally follows the pattern of a plenary talk in the morning, followed by a two-hour workshop for students (led by the plenary speaker), then lunch, then student presentations. Oh, and then the pub. I ran out of time a bit during my presentation and had to rush through the last 10/15 minutes, and it certainly made me realise I have to think through some of the issues a bit more before I commit them to paper, and my workshop session seemed to get people talking, so generally speaking, I think I can count the whole day as a success.

But what’s really great about the Summer School is that it’s a wonderful venue for postgraduate students to meet and discuss their work in a relatively low-pressure and supportive environment. There’s less worry about being asked that really horrible question from a member of the audience and people seem to be more open to discussing the trials and tribulations of the research process and working on research problem. It was also good to see the depth and breadth of work postgraduate students are undertaking, from the increase of Irish language provision in Northern Ireland to the coverage of the horse meat scandal of last year. I’m always impressed by the confidence and poise demonstrated by postgraduate researchers (qualities I most certainly didn’t possess as a postgrad!), and the presentations I saw this year were no exception.

I also have to say a brief word about the organising team, who I thought did a brilliant job in putting together such a great event. Having organised the Birmingham Cityscapes symposium a few years back, I know how difficult it is to head up an academic event; it really is like herding cats. But Jennifer, Chloe, John and Hema put so much time and effort into making the event a success, and even though I told them this countless times during the week (probably at my most ebullient following a couple pints of Guinness…), it’s worthwhile repeating!

The Social Linguist

P.S. The last I knew, no-one had volunteered to organise Summer School 6, so if you’re keen on hosting the event at your institution, get in touch with the committee from UCD and they’ll point you in the right direction of how to go about it.

Life in Pittsburgh and the random car ride…

October 16, 2012 2 comments

Although I’ve done a fair amount of travelling in the States, Pittsburgh was a town I’d never visited before. I’d been to Philadelphia and other part of the Eastern seaboard, but Pittsburgh had never really registered on my list of places to visit in America. I’m not sure why this is, but I think that it’s got a lot to do with the fact that it’s not a ‘tourist town’ in the way that NYC or Boston or Philadelphia are. Now, that’s not to say that there’s nothing to do in Pittsburgh, far from it, but rather, it doesn’t market itself as a city for tourists to visit. As such, it seems more representative of ‘real’ America, rather than the kind of package-deal America you might get at Disneyland or something. And for me, the former is far more interesting and attractive a proposition than the latter.

Anyway, suffice to say that I had absolutely no preconceptions about what life would be like over here, and what I’ve seen thus far has been pleasantly surprising. Perhaps one of the most surprising things to happen to me since, well, almost ever (?), was one of the first social interactions we had in Pittsburgh. We arrived in Pittsburgh on the 12th September and on the 13th, we decided to scout around some of the local neighbourhoods to get an idea of where things were, important orientating points and so on. So we knew where we were starting from and where we had gone, we headed to Giant Eagle to buy a street map. Unfortunately, Giant Eagle didn’t have any, but during the conversation with one of the members of staff, one of the women in front of us in the queue mentioned that we should try either the nearby gas station or Barnes and Noble. We thanked her and she left the store. As we came out of Giant Eagle, we saw her standing near the entrance on her phone, and as we walked past her, she stopped us and said that she was speakeing to her mechanic who was just around the corner to see if he had a map we could borrow. Again, we thanked her and said that we were going to get the bus to the Barnes and Noble at the Waterfront to buy one instead. What happened next literally made my jaw drop…

Her: ‘Barnes and Noble? The one down at the Waterfront? No worries. Jump in the car and I’ll take you guys there.’
Me: ‘What? No no no, don’t worry about it, we’ll just take the bus!’
Her: ‘It’s fine, I’m headed that way, so it’s not a big deal.’

So despite having never met us before, she was willing to give two perfect strangers a helping hand and make their day a little bit easier. We jumped in the car and she drove us to Barnes and Noble. Just to be extra awesome, as we were driving there, she phoned the store to see if they had any Pittsburgh street maps for sale (they did, thankfully!). After some nice chat about the city and what we were doing in Pittsburgh, we arrived at the shopping centre and she dropped us off right at the door. After us tripping over ourselves trying to thank her, she wished us a pleasant stay and drove off. Even four weeks later, I’m still kind of stunned that even in a big city, people can still be caring and helpful and kind to complete strangers and be willing to go out of their way, if only a little bit, to help someone out. This might be a minor story, but I really can’t imagine that happening in London or Birmingham or NYC or Chicago. Maybe out in the sticks where things are a little bit harder to get to, but in a city, you kind of feel as though you’re left to your own devices for the most part.

So to the woman who drove us to Barnes and Noble, thank you for the lift! You made our day.

– The Social Linguist

Robert Lawson: Academic, lecturer, Fulbright scholar


After 10 long long months of waiting to get the go-ahead to publicise this, I’m pleased to be able to share that I am now the Fulbright Scottish Studies Scholar! This announcement is the culmination of nearly 18 months of blood, sweat and tears, with application deadlines, interview stress, visa worries, and a whole host of other unmentionables. Yesterday, I returned from a three-day orientation in London where our status as Fulbrighters was confirmed and we were told that we could share the news with all and sundry. I’ve wanted to blog about this for ages but because there were so many steps where we could fall down and the award be retracted (for various reasons, including not being approved by the Washington D.C. Fulbright Board, not getting approved for a visa, etc etc), we were told to hold fast and announce it once all the paperwork was signed off.

So, from September 2012, I’ll be heading off to the exotic climes of the University of Pittsburgh, PA where I’ll be working on turning the thesis into a book (or as I’m calling it, thesis 2.0), and the edited volume on sociolinguistics in Scotland. And brilliantly, UoP is where Scott Kiesling (my external examiner for my thesis) works, so I’ll be able to pick his brains about issues to do with language and masculinity, which is very exciting.

I have plans to write up a bunch of stuff over the next year or so, including application and interview process, what to expect at orientation, visa issues, culture shock, the book writing process, and the Fulbright experience more generally, some of which I wasn’t able to find out about elsewhere on the internet. I’ll try and keep a focus on the ‘sociolinguistics’ side of the blog, but there will also be a fair smattering of other stuff going in as well.

While what I’m about to say is normally reserved for the acknowledgements page, I’d just like to take this opportunity to publicly thank a few people who helped out with putting together the application form, preparing for the interview and generally keeping me on the straight and narrow as I went through the Fulbright process.

First off, Professor Fiona Robertson helped out with reading a draft of my application and offered some important guidance on writing for a non-specialised audience. This made me refine my thoughts and work on how to communicate my ideas to people outside sociolinguistics, and her guidance definitely helped me get past the first round.

Second, Mel Moore was key in helping me put together the teaching side of my application. He also did a bunch of mock interviews with me (and was very professional in doing so!), read my application more times than he probably would have liked to, and generally cajoled, encouraged and motivated me to keep on going. The application was definitely stronger for his input and I am immeasurably grateful for both his help and his friendship.

I don’t think that words will suffice to thank the last person on this list, my girlfriend, Rebecca Hering. From persuading me to apply in the first place, to being by my side every step of the way, to patiently listening to me go through (for the umpteenth time) my mock interview answers, to keeping me smiling when I thought that my chances were hopeless, she has been an inspiration and a constant source of love and support. This award is as much hers as it is mine.

– The Social Linguist

External examining


External examining is one of those things that you don’t really get told much about when you’re doing your PhD. I knew that it happened, but because I didn’t sit on module/exam boards when I was at Glasgow, I had no idea really what external examiners did. So my first encounter with an external examiner at BCU was a nerve-wracking affair. Even though I had gone through the PG (Cert) in H.E. and had been a graduate tutorial assistant during my PhD, teaching was still a new thing for me, especially convening whole modules. Being my natural, pessimistic self, I expected to get pummeled on almost every aspect of my teaching, from assessment strategy to marking standards. Thankfully, it was fine, and I realised that getting frank and honest feedback about your modules is not only important to see what works and what doesn’t, but it’s also important to maintain and improve the standard of teaching students get.

I had only had one full year of experience with the whole external examiner process (albeit on the other side of the fence/table), so you can imagine my surprise when my Head of Department asked me if I would be interested in externalling for the Department of English at Worcester University. Since I had by this point figured out that external examining is a pretty important part of professional development, I accepted the invitation, even though I had only a limited idea what I was letting myself in for.

After a morning of orientation at Worcester University and a chance to meet some members of the department, I was thrown in at the deep end. The department was going through a period of restructuring and had plans to offer more core modules for the English Language and Linguistics route way. As such, they wanted my input on the modules they currently had as part of the course and to feedback on modules that would be introduced over the next few years. Having gone through an English Language degree at Glasgow Uni, I had a sense of what needed to be in and what didn’t, so I didn’t feel too overwhelmed by it all and was able to give some good feedback on their proposed plans, rather than just sitting and nodding during meetings.

While that was perhaps the main issues I’ve been involved in during my time at Worcester, there was also the more regular aspects of looking at assessed work from students. Here, my main role was ensuring that marking standards were being upheld and that things like marking criteria, assessment strategy and so on were all appropriate for the level. I got to see work from modules that I didn’t teach, like Multi-lingualism and Language and Power, and it was a great opportunity to familiarise myself with a wider range of undergraduate language modules.

What’s great about externalling is that you not only get to see how other departments structure their courses, but you also get a chance to think critically about teaching and learning strategies, helping develop your own teaching practice. You also get a chance to engage with more of the peer-review side of teaching, rather than just the marking and feedback side of it, something which I also think is really important in terms of professional development.

Anyway, today was my last board with Worcester University (hence the post), and I’ll be sad to say goodbye. It’s been a really great experience and I’ve learnt loads, much of which will stand me in good stead for (hopefully) future external examining gigs at other institutions. It’s just a shame that the whole process is learn-by-doing!

The Social Linguist

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