Proposal to add Dizzee and Brand to new A-Level English Lit and Lang

Today, the OCR exam board announced some changes to the English Language and Literature A-level qualification, changes which have caused a bit of stir in media-land, including the Telegraph and the Guardian (nb. the articles themselves are relatively balanced, but it’s in the comments that things get feisty). The main change is to include a wider variety of texts in the curriculum; so texts by writers such as Blake, Dickinson, Orwell and Shakspeare will be studied alongside texts by writers and performers like Russell Brand, Dizzee Rascal, and Allie Brosh.

Of course, it’s important to say that these are simply proposals at the moment and they haven’t been agreed upon, so there might be further changes down the line. Nonetheless, these proposed changes have ignited a debate about the ‘value’ of Russell Brand’s testimony at a recent Commons home affairs select committee on drug addiction, Dizzee Rascal’s appearance on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, and Allie Brosh’s imaginative rendering of her life escapades in her blog, Hyperbole and a Half.

Some people ‘on the inside’ (that is, working in the Department for Education) have criticised the proposals, arguing that “This is exactly the kind of dumbing down we are trying to get rid of. They must be having a laugh if they think A-levels in Dizzee Rascal and Russell Brand are going to be let through”. Others, however, have praised these changes to the curriculum, pointing out that “The new A-level will introduce new approaches and scope for more creative writing, while offering teachers and students the flexibility to explore an extremely broad variety of styles, methodologies and genres”.

I think that it’s worthwhile exploring in more depth some of these positions, primarily because they represent two ideologically diametric stances, but for the moment, I just want to focus on what I think these changes actually entail.

The first thing to say is that the qualification is a qualification in English Language and Literature. That means that students primarily develop skills in English language and linguistics, and then apply these skills to a range of texts. Now, some of these texts will be the canonical classics like Shakespeare and so on, and students will likely examine English in its historical context, the impact writers like Shakespeare had on English, the Inkhorn Controversy, changes over time in English and so on. They might examine these texts from a literary perspective in terms of characterisation, meaning, thematic analysis etc etc, but that starts to move away from the purview of a linguistic analysis. This is all great and good and I am totally on board with students reading and analysing these texts. Not only are they important points in the development of English but they are wonderful examples of literature and as such should be included in a course like this.

But since the qualification has at its heart English Language studies, it makes perfect sense that students examine contemporary texts as well, not as examples of classic literature, but rather as examples of language in action. As linguists, we don’t make appraisals about how good or bad a particular text is. Instead, we try to bring out the kinds of linguistic strategies and techniques that a writer (or speaker) utilises in the production of said text and to position this description within a broader social context. So looking at the Dizzee Rascal clip above, a linguist might examine not only his phonology and grammar and discuss this in relation to standard and non-standard linguistic markets, but also examine how persuasive his arguments are, what kind rhetorical strategies he uses, what his text tells us about language and race in the UK, how power relationship between Paxman and Rascal are encoded, how interruption and overlap are patterned throughout the interaction, and so on. These are all really important issues to examine and go beyond the ideology that because Dizzee Rascal is a hip-hop artist, we should just ignore any text in which he features.

Ultimately, giving students the skills to be able to analyse any text, regardless of its provenance, is a really important skill, and focusing purely on classic texts ignores the complexity of language that happens in every day situations. The OCR acknowledges this in their press release on the proposals: “The aim is for students to develop the skills to analyse any text, whether spoken or written, literary or non-literary, in the most appropriate way.

Analysing Rascal or Brand or Perry or Brosh or any other contemporary writer doesn’t meant the end of the UK as we know it. It doesn’t signal the death knell of a literary education. It doesn’t even represent a ‘dumbing down’ of students’ abilities or of the course material. If anything, focusing wholly on Orwell or Shakespeare or Blake or Wordsworth at the expense of other kinds of texts would simply hamstring students’ abilities to be able to transfer their skills to a variety of texts, would prevent them being able to understand the historical progression of English over time, and would make them think that the language that they listen to every day isn’t worth analysing. And it would be shameful if that happened.

The Social Linguist

How do you use social media in your research?

April 29, 2014 2 comments


So…. This blog thing… Um… Wow, has it really been four months since I last updated? Eek. That’s eh… that’s not so good. Wow.

I know I keep on saying that I should get back on the wagon with the blog, and I have had a few bits and pieces I’ve wanted to write about, but it’s been hard finding time, especially during the semester. Beyond teaching (oh, and a recent promotion!), there’s also been lots of upheaval outside of university (getting engaged, buying a house, having knee surgery etc etc), all of which has been a bit of a major distraction from regular updates.

In any event, I do actually have something I wanted to write about today and I figured that while I’m laid up at home recovering from my op (nothing serious; a torn meniscus and chrodroplasty, taken care of in day surgery), I could use the time productively in my research. Hurrah!

I think I’ve said before on the blog that I’m currently working on a volume (with Dave Sayers, Sheffield Hallam University) about the application of sociolinguistic research outside of academia. We think it’s a pretty big area of research that’s not really been talked about too much over the years, and with the importance of ‘impact’ ever rising within funding councils, we’re looking to show how sociolinguistics can be leveraged and applied beyond the immediate university context.

My chapter focuses on the use of social and traditional media in the reporting of sociolinguistic research and the advantages and disadvantaged each method has. But I’m also interested in finding out about how sociolinguists have used social media in their research. So if you’re a (ir)regular user of Facebook, Twitter, forums, personal research blogs, research blogs you’ve made for a funder, or any other form of social media, I’m hoping you might be able to take the time to answer a few questions:

  1. What forms of social media do you use in your research (Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc)?
  2. How useful has social media been to you?
  3. What have been the primary functions you’ve used social media for (research findings, general language discussion etc)?
  4. How have funders responded to your use of social media?
  5. How effective has social media been in facilitating knowledge dissemination?
  6. How effective has social media been in developing stakeholder/end user/general public engagement?
  7. Anything else you’d like to add about social media?

Ideally, I’d like to examine in my chapter not only the pros and cons of traditional/social media, but also how it’s actually been used by sociolinguists, as a kind of ‘how to’. Feel free to put your comments down below, or alternatively, fire off an email to robert.lawson AT

The Social Linguist


January 28, 2014 2 comments

A *long* time ago, I touted the idea of a new edited volume about new sociolinguistic research in Scotland. It was partly an idea in response to the fact that it was back in 2003 (over ten years ago now) that the last edited volume about language use in Scotland had been published, and in the interim, there had been an awful lot of work that had been published about language in this (that?) part of the world.

After some mucking around with EUP, I submitted the proposal to Palgrave Macmillan and they liked it so much they gave me a contract. So with a contract, a set of contributors and a bunch of ideas in mind, everything all of a sudden seemed to be going quite smoothly after a fairly rocky start. During my year in Pittsburgh, I was able to spend a good amount of time focused on getting the volume finished, and along with help from a bunch of reviewers and my girlfriend Rebecca (who proof read every single chapter for me. Twice.), I was able to get the book finished and sent into Palgrave around April last year. After that, there was a flurry of correcting proofs (bizarrely, the copy editor changed all the semi-colons to commas, some of which had to be semi-colons in order for the sentence to be grammatically correct…), doing the marketing material, checking final versions of the chapters, checking the index was correct, and all sorts of miscellaneous bits and pieces you overlook when thinking about what’s involved in getting an edited volume finished, I received an email saying that everything was all done and dusted and that the final version would be at my house within the next two days.

And lo and behold, the final product is here!

ImageFifteen glorious chapters! 336 pages of awesomeness! A whole 5.5×8.75×1 (inches) of knowledge ready to be dropped! Pictures! Maps! Graphs! Words! Commas! It’s all here and it’s all fantastic.

It’s now available to buy via Amazon (hardback – £55) or Palgrave (hardback – £70), and hopefully if it does well enough, it’ll come out in paperback and come down to a bit more of an affordable price.

But because I have a bunch of author copies that I don’t need, I’ll be giving away a copy to three random people who either ‘like’ or ‘share’ this post on facebook, twitter or wordpress. Free books are always a good thing!

Obviously, a project like this isn’t just the culmination of one person’s efforts, so I’d like to take the opportunity to publicly thank all the contributors who wrote a chapter, all the reviewers who gave helpful feedback on the chapters, Palgrave (and especially Olivia Middleton, Nicola Lennon and Philip Tye) for giving me the opportunity to publish this project, all the people in Pittsburgh who were supportive as the book was coming close to completion, and particularly my girlfriend Rebecca, who was unwavering in her support and love through all the tribulations writing and editing brings.

The Social Linguist

P.S. Thanks again to Rebecca for proof-reading my blog post and finding at least two mistakes on her first read through…

Categories: Uncategorized

Some research stuff!

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

RIP Iain Banks

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

Scrabble vs. Spell Tower

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).

Spell tower gameplay

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!).

EVICTION for 194

The Social Linguist

Edited volumes: Worth it in the long run?

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