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Don’t you just wish writing was easy?


I’m sat in a hotel room. In Cheltenham. On a Saturday. Working. Instead of being out there, enjoying my weekend. All because I just got a revise and resubmit (also known as a ‘nice rejection’). I really hate this article now.

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Sociolinguistics in Scotland: Coming to a bookstore near you!

February 14, 2012 4 comments

Last year, I had a great idea of doing an edited volume on sociolinguistic research in Scotland. This idea came to me while I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep, and my brain wouldn’t let me, so I started thinking about research (as you do when you’re an insomniac academic…). Anyway, I realised that it had been a long time since there had been a volume dedicated to research in Scottish speech communities, the last one being The Edinburgh Companion to Scots (2003). This volume was more of an introductory text to Scots and Scottish Standard English, and didn’t really look at sociolinguistic work in much detail.

But since 2003, the field of sociolinguistics in Scotland has come a long way, with researchers working on some really important and ground-breaking work, and I thought that it was a shame that none of this work had been collated in an edited volume. “Aha!” thought I, “I’ll do an edited volume on all the recent sociolinguistic work in Scotland and it’ll be amazing!” So, I started putting together the proposal, thinking about contributors, possible chapter contents, readership, competition, aims and objectives, etc etc etc.

Now writing a book proposal (whether monograph or edited) is a daunting task, because it’s up to you how the book looks, and there’s a lot that you need to include. As my first task, I had to decide who I wanted to be involved in the project and what kind of stuff they would write. You can send out a call for papers, but because the field of Scottish sociolinguistics is relatively small, I decided it would be better just to ask people I knew. Because of this, in order to avoid overlap, I had to decide roughly what the focus of each chapter would be and then get the people to write towards this content.

Once you’ve done this, you then need to get people to submit detailed abstracts of their chapters, along with references, and edit these so they’re all the same style. While this is all happening, you’ve still got to go ahead and work on the proposal. What are the aims of the book? What contribution will the book have to the field? What’s the justification that this book is needed? Who’s going to read it? More importantly, who’s going to buy it? Where will it sell? What other books is in competition with? Who’s contributing? Who are they? What have they done in the past? And so on and so on… My proposal ended up being about 10 pages long, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t much, but once you add in the abstracts for 16 chapters, it starts to become a relatively large undertaking. Publishers usually give you guidelines on what to include in the proposal, and each publisher’s format is slightly different, so you need to make sure you follow it as closely as you can.

Once I felt reasonably comfortable about the package, I submitted the proposal to EUP in April last year. But unfortunately, this is where I made my first mistake. Sometimes, I lack the strength of my convictions, so rather than spend ages and ages collecting abstracts only to find out that the publisher wasn’t interested in the project, I simply included very short abstracts (about 50 words) on what each chapter would cover, along with the main proposal, in order to speed things up and get to a decision quicker. Unsurprisingly, when it went to the reviewers, they both said ‘we need more detail on the content’. This came back to me and since things were looking quite positive, I asked the contributors to submit a detailed abstract which I would then forward to EUP. This took about three months or so to get all of these collated, and then another month or so for the reviewers to go through them again. This was alongside my comments to each of the reviewers’ points, which also took a while to put together.

Things were looking quite good, but then it all started to unravel. I was asked if I would consider removing a few of the chapters because the editorial committee had reservations about them. I suggested that I give this feedback to the authors and ask them to address the issues raised, which was accepted. A month or so later, I submitted the new abstracts which were put in front of the editorial committee, only to be told that EUP wouldn’t be able to take the project forward due to issues with the proposed structure of the volume.

I was (rather understandably, I think) quite shocked by this decision, especially since things had been looking so positive. There were a few e-mails back and forth about whether anything could be done to change their minds, but alas, that door was closed and I had to make a decision: try someone else or give up?

As a tenacious Scotsman, I decided to go again, and I submitted it to Routledge. Thankfully, Routledge were on the ball and gave me a decision within a week: no. Dammit.

Right then, attempt number three, but not before some soul searching. Is this a good idea? How can I convince someone it’s a good idea? What is it missing? Am I just not hitting the right points? Should I get a job in Sainsburys? You get the idea.

But the fire in my mind that this was an idea worth pursuing was too strong, and I decide to put myself through it one last time. Enter Palgrave Macmillan.

I looked through the Palgrave website and found out that woop, they have a series in minority languages and communities. Wait, Scots is a minority language! Oh, and so is Gaelic! Wow, we’re onto a winner here! I look through their instructions and of course, it’s a whole new document to fill out. I dutifully go through it point by point, refining my thinking here and there, trying to think about a wider readership, go through it with a fine toothcomb and submit the proposal along with the detailed abstracts. By now, we’re in December 2011, almost 10 months after I first had the idea…

Palgrave are quick to respond and they’ll let me know how it goes, but at the moment, the commissioning editor is on holiday and it’ll be a while until she’s back. How dare people take holiday time during Christmas!! In January, I get an e-mail asking for reviewers and they’re going to consider it. Right, we’re getting somewhere now.

February, I get an e-mail saying that the reviewers have looked at it and that they’d like me to respond to their comments. The reviews are detailed, meticulous, and very helpful, and I take into account the majority of the recommendations in my response. I then send my comments back to the commissioning editor and wait for the inevitable ‘thanks, but no thanks’.

And now, to the point of this entry…

A week ago yesterday, I received an e-mail from Palgrave saying that they really liked the book and they want to publish it! Huzzah! And yesterday, I received my contract from them, so now, THE BOOK IS ON! It should be finished by March 2013 and hopefully be coming out towards the end of the year, so it’s all very exciting now.

Although it’s been a long, hard, sometimes painful slog which has made me really quite down sometimes, I’m very glad that I stuck with it (if only for validation that it actually was a good idea in the first place!). Rejections can be very difficult to deal with in any situation, and they can certainly make you wonder if you’re in the right job. As an academic, a big part of my job is to get published, and when that doesn’t seem to be going right, it’s hard to pick yourself up and keep on going, but it is, unfortunately, exactly what we have to do. It’s worth it in the long run.

– The Social Linguist

When is an article not an article? When it gets rejected three times…

November 30, 2011 2 comments

First off, apologies for not posting yesterday. I had an attack of a particularly virulent stomach bug that laid me low all day and it was all I could do to lie in bed in a pathetic, shivering, sweaty, stomach-cramping heap. The bedroom and bathroom have now been declared official biohazard zones and I’ve order one of those biohazard suits (you know, the kind the scientists wear in ET) for Rebecca for Christmas, just in case the bug strikes again. I suspect I picked it up over the weekend when Rebecca and I were doing our weekly galavant across the country visiting friends. The people we were visiting (an old work friend Rebecca hadn’t seen in about two years and Rebecca’s brother and his wife) have young kids (all under three), and as such, they have very little understanding of appropriate hygienic behaviour (the kids, not the parents). After spending two days with them coughing, sneezing, spluttering, snottering and generally being all kid-like, I can’t say that I was surprised by the full-frontal assault on my immune system… It seems to have abated now and 40 hours later, I’m able to eat a little bit of toast and some crumpet. So much for my big strike action…

Anyway, moving onto matters more mundane.

A few months ago, you might remember that I was really excited about a paper I was writing on ‘co-opetition‘ (or co-operative competition). I managed to finish it and I submitted it to my first choice journal, Language in Society. Unfortunately, it got rejected because it didn’t fit in with the aims of the journal and was too specific a focus for a journal that was supposed to be about more general issues of, well, language in society. ‘Ok, not a problem’ thought I, ‘I’ll just submit it to another journal’, and so it got sent to Narrative Inquiry. ‘Nay’ said Narrative Inquiry (well, more precisely, Michael Bamberg), ‘it does not fit. Why not submit it to a language and gender journal?’.

After two beat-downs, I was getting quite annoyed by the failure of this paper to get any sort of reception, but I doggedly carried on with it and sent it to Gender and Language, thinking that it would at least get a look in. Alas, at the beginning of November, I got a decision from the editor that said, unsurprisingly, ‘rejected’. But it wasn’t even as though it was a close run thing. In fact, it was unanimously rejected by both reviewers and the editor, all of whom said that there was nothing new in my article to warrant publication. Instead, I was treading ground which had been trod about 20 years ago and the reviewers didn’t think that there was anything innovative or interesting enough in my analysis. A little bit more than disappointed, I managed to force myself to read the reviewers comments, and was surprised to see that it wasn’t the massacring that I expected. The general observation that it was well-written and contained some nice data, but that the focus was all wrong and concentrating on speech style wasn’t appropriate given the amount of work that had been done on this over the past 20 years or so. Instead, they advised me to abandon the idea of ‘co-opetitive’ and concentrate on the discursive construction of masculinity in my data.

Now, what’s really annoying about this is that THIS WAS ALREADY IN THE ARTICLE. But what I hadn’t done was recognise the potential for developing the paper along these lines and build the story of the article around this idea. My blind loyalty to the original idea and analysis meant that I was wholly unwilling to abandon it. Looking back on it, I think that deep down, I knew the idea of ‘co-opetitive’ was wrong. When I read through the article, I kept thinking to myself – ‘I’m pushing this reading of the data too much. How convincing is my analysis? Would someone reading this be convinced by my argument?’ I now know that if I was doing that, it was a good sign that the argument wasn’t especially robust. But when you spend so much time and effort on developing an idea, it’s hard to reject it outright.

To be fair, the first two journals I submitted it to didn’t give me any feedback besides ‘it doesn’t fit’, and Gender and Language was the first article to send it to reviewers. And the feedback from the reviewers has helped me write a brand-new article which I’m actually happy with and I’m not sitting thinking ‘is this analysis convincing?’ (it’s also a case where peer-review shows its strengths in terms of academic development). For me, the lesson I’ve learnt (in very much a The Wonder Years kind of way) is that it’s not a bad thing to recognise (and more importantly, accept) a failure of an idea and be willing to abandon it.

The Social Linguist

Categories: Research, Writing Tags: , ,

Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (and why John Locke is wrong)… (part 3)

November 12, 2011 3 comments

This post is the last installment of my review of John Locke’s recent book Duels and Duets (if you want to catch up on part 1 and part 2)

Before the book even gets into its stride, Locke has already made his mind up about his subject matter: men and women do talk differently. It’s something which isn’t up for debate, and its intellectual veracity is established by the fact ‘we hear [men and women] conversing and may have witnessed failures to connect – or experienced these difficulties in our own relationships’ (Locke 2011: 1). Of course, observation is certainly part of any scientific endeavour, but the part which is (crucially) missing is analysis. Locke starts from the perspective that differences exist because he’s heard men and women talk, but this is purely circumstantial evidence and doesn’t fulfil the rigorous demands set up by sociolinguistic researchers who investigate male and female speech. Moreover, he is very selective of the work he chooses to support his case, ignoring research that, for example, argues that women can be competitive in conversation (Eckert 1993, Guendouzi 2001), or that men can be co-operative and ‘gossip’ (Cameron 1997). He also doesn’t provide much in the way of actual linguistic evidence, preferring instead to let work from other fields form much of his discussion.

For example, Locke draws much of his argument via research conducted in the field of primatology. The idea is that with primates being our closest evolutionary partner, analysis of how apes and chimpanzees behave should offer us more of an insight into how humans behave. With no ‘culture’ to speak of, then any differences between male and female primate behaviour can only arise from biology. This is taken as an evidence of undercutting the impact of culture within human societies: if primates don’t have culture and they behave in this way, then surely the same must apply to humans since they’re our closest neighbour on the evolutionary ladder? Of course, the fact is that humans do have culture and we have a history of culturally-mandated (not biologically-determined) systems of oppression and exclusion (for example, in 1878 the University of London was one of the first universities to allow women were allowed to attend, but the University of Cambridge did not award degrees to female students until 1948). To argue that these systems of exclusion are based on biology is folly at best and wilful ignorance at worst, but that’s exactly what Locke does when he argues that the reason there are more male debaters, politicians and public speakers is because men are genetically and biologically predisposed to duelling-type behaviour which characterises these arenas. Women, on the other hand, do not participate in these kinds of activities because they are more biologically predisposed towards co-operative and facilitative communicative behaviour (re: duetting). Locke argues that such realities have nothing to do with the historical processes of exclusion and marginalisation (cf. cultural issues) of women from these activities, but that it’s all to do with biology.

Lastly, Locke has a particularly homogenous view of men and women (and completely ignores individuals who might not fit into this neat categorisation). All men and women are (more or less) the same, so issues of race, sexuality, age, ethnicity, nationality and so on, don’t impact on linguistic behaviour (they do, but Locke ignores much of the research on such issues). Why should they when human society is derived from the same basic prehistoric blueprint? Ignoring these issues overlooks a whole host of factors which impact on speech behaviour, and as such is a major drawback of Locke’s work.

Duels and Duets has certainly stirred up a not insignificant amount of attention within the media, the general public and the academy, but I would argue that Locke’s conclusions are based on flawed logic and questionable data and is almost wholly ignorant of current theoretical advances in language and gender research. Because his arguments are couched within the science of evolutionary biology, however, many will assume his work to have the intellectual rigour and academic standards which typifies such ‘hard’ sciences. Locke’s work falls short when evaluated against the standards set by linguistics and gender studies and as such cannot be taken seriously as a proper description regarding the basis of male and female speech styles.

Now, this obviously isn’t a comprehensive treatment of Locke’s book, and it would take another book to offer a full critique of his work, but I hope that these last three posts at least offer some background information on how Duels and Duets fits into sociolinguistic research on language and gender, and why we need to be very cautious when a book like this appears on the market.

– The Social Linguist

Some thoughts on Duels and Duets (Part 2)

November 8, 2011 3 comments

Having outlined the theoretical background to language and gender research within sociolinguistics, we can now bring the discussion back to Locke. As I mentioned earlier, Locke’s position is that our communicative behaviour can be irreducibly brought back to biology. This means that we are slaves to biological influences and have little say in the outward expressions of such deep-rooted evolutionary imperatives. Biologism is an approach which argues that the reason men and women talk differently isn’t because of cultural differences (as argued in the dynamic approach above), but rather because of biological differences. The different evolutionary paths taken by our prehistoric ancestors means that the differences are hard-wired and find eventual expression in our modern communicative behaviour. These hard-wired cognitive frameworks are why men argue, debate, compete, show-off and duel, while women co-operate, gossip, chatter, and duet.

Part of the appeal of biologism is that it appears to be based in ‘science’, and science (especially of the evolutionary kind) is often viewed as something more objective and real than the ‘soft’ sciences of the humanities. In particular, modern western society (promulgated in part by the media) is more inclined towards accepting as truth work based on the fields like evolutionary biology than work from (the relatively unknown) fields of linguistics and gender studies. Locke’s research also appeals to the societal tendency to accept findings which appear to support that differences between men and women exist, whether language-based practices or other kinds of behaviour (for example, that men are supposedly better at map reading or women are better at multi-tasking). We have a peculiar affinity with work which supports what we already take as self-evident: that men and women are different. And we’re much more likely to accept this kind of work than work which says there are more similarities between men and women than differences, and work in sociolinguistics has shown that the linguistic behaviour of men and women is far more similar than it is different.

But the problem with the biologism perspective is that it implicitly (and in older accounts, explicitly) attempts to naturalise the superiority of men and the subordination of women. If behaviour can be explained by evolution, then the fact that males are socially dominant in modern day society is something that can’t be challenged: it is the way it is. This account means that the status quo of male/female relations in contemporary society (partly mediated through speech) is natural and accepted, and for people working within language and gender studies, this is a significant issue which can’t be overlooked. Power is a significant part of modern gender relations, and any attempt to naturalise male dominance and female subordination, even under the guise of scientific biologism, needs to be challenged. We get into very dangerous territory when we go down the path of accepting that inequality between the genders as a scientific finding (as Locke does). If we replaced ‘sex’ with ‘race’ and were reading a book about how the communicative (or other behavioural) differences between whites and blacks were based on their different evolutionary paths, there would be an uproar (and quite rightly so). Quite why discussions of sex do not engender the same kind of response is a mystery.

Stay tuned for Part 3 on Saturday!

The Social Linguist

Some comments on Duels and Duets (Part 1)

November 5, 2011 2 comments

A few weeks ago, I made a blog post about John Locke’s new book Duels and Duets, a book which apparently explains why men and women have such different conversational styles. I think that it’s fair to say that the book has provoked a reasonable amount of controversy within the sociolinguistics community, and now that I’ve read the book, I’m in a better position to offer a more nuanced critique of Locke’s work.

For those of you unfamiliar with Duels and Duets, the central premise of Professor Locke’s book is that men and women have contrasting communicative styles due to the ‘differing roles played by the sexes in evolutionary history, the effects of which were transmitted genetically to the modern human brain, which continue to influence our behaviour today’ (Locke 2011: 13, italics in original). From this perspective of biologism, Locke argues that men’s biological disposition towards competition for status and power manifests itself in speech behaviour he terms duelling, while women’s biological disposition towards co-operation and community manifests itself in speech behaviour he terms duetting. Drawing primarily on evidence from case studies in anthropology, sociology, evolutionary biology, and primatology, Locke attempts to deconstruct the differences between male and female speech behaviour down to its essence: biology.

There are, however, numerous shortcomings in Locke’s account which I will attempt to outline here. It is necessary, firstly, to illustrate how Locke’s argument differs from more widely accepted theories on gender and language differences.

The beginnings of language and gender research can be traced back to 1975 with the publication of Robin Lakoff’s Language and Woman’s Place (there are other, earlier, treatments of women’s language, most notably in Otto Jespersen’s chapter ‘The Woman’, in his 1922 volume Language: Its Nature and Development). The main theoretical view at this time was that women’s speech was deficient, although it was only ‘deficient’ insofar that it was being compared to the ‘standard’ of men’s speech. For example, Lakoff argued that women used more hedges (phrases like I think and sort of) because of their relatively powerless status in society at that time. Men, in contrast, did not have to hedge their statements in the same way because they were powerful. So men were viewed as the de facto standard against which women’s speech was evaluated and judged. Lakoff, however, did not base her analysis on any empirical data, but rather on her own intuition and introspection. This led to a raft of studies which adopted a more quantitative approach in order to test Lakoff’s claims that women’s speech and men’s speech was different.

The work which came out of this paradigm not only provided an account of men’s and women’s speech based on data, but it also challenged some of the dominant views of how men and women conversed. For example, Lakoff argued that women used more tag questions (in a sentence like, It’s really hot in here, isn’t it?), but in subsequent studies, such as Dubois and Crouch (1975) and Holmes (1985, also reported in Holmes 1995), researchers found that men used more tag questions. It is important to note, however, that tag questions are not all one and the same, and their functions range from being facilitative (“Nice run, wasn’t it?”), softening (“That’s a bit silly, isn’t it?”) or challenging (“You won’t do that again, will you?”). While the general perception of tag questions is that they’re a marker of doubt and uncertainty, the reality is much more complex.

The view of women’s speech as deficient came under fire from certain researchers who argued that rather than women being deficient, language was actively used by men to maintain their hegemonic position at the top of the social hierarchy (this characterises work by, for example, Dale Spender). This was known as the dominance approach where ‘women as well as men [colluded] in sustaining and perpetuating male dominance and female oppression’ (Coates 2004: 6), and more recently, two approaches have found purchase within language and gender research: the difference approach and the dynamic approach (these terms are from Coates 2004). The difference approach refers to the idea that men and women are socialised within different cultures which consequently leads to different patterns of speech behaviour. It is this approach which attempts to explain male and female ‘miscommunication’, as argued in work by Deborah Tannen and extensively challenged in Deborah Cameron’s book The Myth of Mars and Venus.

The last approach, the dynamic approach, is perhaps the most common approach within current sociolinguistic research (that is, the study of language in society). In this paradigm, gender (the sociocultural expression of biological sex) is something that people do rather than something that people have. In this way, gender is something dynamic, changing and malleable; it is something that we do every time we speak. In this sense, gender is cultural, and the differences between men and women’s speech is conditioned by cultural expectations about what it is to speak like a man and speak like a woman. One benefit of the dynamic approach is that it allows us to examine speakers in context, rather than as a homogenous group of ‘men’ or ‘women’ or ‘other’ (this is also helpful because there are people for whom the cultural designations of ‘man’ or ‘woman’ do not apply).

Locke, however, doesn’t adopt any of these positions, and instead adopts a ‘biologism’ approach to language and gender.

I wanted to take the time to outline the (partial) history of language and gender research because I think it’s important to outline the prevailing trends within current sociolinguistic research on male and female speech so we can better contexualise why Locke’s position is untenable. On Tuesday, I’ll discuss the failings of the book in more detail (so you’ll have a reason to come back!).

– The Social Linguist

Balance

September 17, 2011 Leave a comment

One thing I struggle with, two years post-PhD, is being able to sort out a proper balance in my work. Generally, the things I do as an academic fall under three categories: research, teaching and administration. Under each of these, I have various things I have to do (and probably more I’ve missed):

Research

  • Journal articles
  • Conference presentations (and abstracts)
  • Books (edited and monograph)
  • Developing ideas
  • Reading up in the field
  • Reviewing articles/chapters
Teaching
  • Teaching preparation
  • Marking
  • Actual teaching
  • Professional development
Administration
  • Meetings
  • Departmental responsibilities (1st year tutor)
  • Office hours
  • Emails
  • Phone calls

What normally happens is that I’m able to work on one general category like a demon, but I find it really difficult to be able to shift and swap out in one week or one day between the different things I have to do. So, during the summer, I was able to do a manic amount of writing (edited book proposal, rewrote and submitted an article, wrote up a research bid, did a book abstract, did a conference abstract), but did very little in terms of attending conferences or presenting at conferences (it’s been nearly 2 years since I’ve presented at a sociolinguistics conference, although not two years since I’ve presented at a conference…). This week, I’ve done loads of teaching preparation (in the process becoming very intimate with Moodle), but my research has suffered and I’ve done zero writing. This is likely to continue to be the case since teaching starts next week which will take me up to December, and I’ve got a few deadlines after Christmas I have to meet, so it’s going to be interesting to see if I actually get some writing done during the semester.

Part of the difficulty is that I only feel like I’m actually making progress when I’m able to properly get stuck in to a task. So when I’m only able to write for an hour, I don’t think I get a great deal of productive work done, and when I’m doing teaching preparation, I have to work on it for a couple of hours to feel like I’m making any progress with it. I worry about how effective and efficient it is that in order to make head way in my work, I have to throw myself completely into it.

Now, I’m not sure how far I’m supposed to be a super-star, all-singing, all-dancing, do-everything-and-never-sleep kind of chap, and I think that in general, I’m doing well to meet the various demands required of me as an academic, but sometimes I can’t help but think ‘should I be doing more?’. The fact that it often comes during those times where I have a number of conflicting demands pulling me in various directions which prevent me from getting my teeth stuck in to a task can’t be coincidental, so I suppose I have to try and find ways of dealing with this.

Oh, and right now I’m not able to type as freely as I’d like due to a sore right hand (and those with smutty minds will make of that what they will…). I think I bashed a nerve during my krav maga class a couple of weeks ago and my pinkie and ring finger on my right hand feel really stiff and sore, so typing is more difficult than normal. If anything, this has forced me to stop cracking my knuckles, but I hope that things return to normal sooner rather than later so this semester doesn’t become any more difficult.

The Social Linguist

Categories: Research, Writing Tags: ,