40th Anniversary Celebrations, Department of Linguistics and English Language

Here are my notes from my contribution to the panel on Discourse Studies at the 40th birthday party for my department:

I’d like to start by answering the question “why did I come to work at Lancaster”?
I first came I as an MA student, then PhD – then after a few years working in Vienna, returned as lecturer. What made me choose it in the first place? I’d love to say it was brilliant staff, long tradition of research in the field of discourse, the many textbooks written by Lancaster academics, the visionary architecture on campus, or one of the other excellent qualities we’re hearing so much about today.

But in fact – it was love. My girlfriend at the time was studying in Blackpool and I was living in Fife, in Scotland, trying to be a writer and working in a kilt shop. So I looked around for the nearest thing to do that would keep me occupied. And I hit on the MA in Language Studies, as it was then called, as a really interesting and flexible degree (remember these adjectives!) that would allow me to extend my knowledge of language & linguistics, something I’d previously only dabbled in as part of my undergrad studies in English literature. I also applied for a job as a tutor on the EAP (Study Skills) programme, and came for an interview in March 2003. I arrived in Lancaster by train from Scotland, heavily laden with a huge bag full of inline hockey equipment because I was on my way to Majorca for a sports tour. Fortunately, after struggling to find my way through town and getting lost several times on campus, I found the department – in Bowland College back then, and met some of the people who would become my future teachers and colleagues. It was also the first time I realised what a friendly and welcoming atmosphere pervaded the department – let’s add the adjective “collegial”. Marjorie saw me trying to lug my bag around after the interview and in no time at all had arranged for Mick Short to give me a lift to the train station – a small act of kindness that those of you who know Marj and Mick will know is absolutely in character. And it made me feel a lot better about not getting the tutor job that year! In fact I run the programme now, so I can’t have done that badly.

So, let’s come back to interesting and flexible: these are words that I would still use to describe my view of our department as a place to work in the field of discourse studies. For me personally, over the past 4 years I have enjoyed the support of various colleagues in following areas that interest me, particularly my former PhD supervisors Ruth, who has led research in this area, and Elena, who has been HoD for most of my time working here. I’ve been able to consolidate and build on my PhD research into discursive approaches to language policy, and publish my first book, “The Discursive Construction of the Scots Language”. I have also launched into an entirely new area, digitally mediated politics and activism, which I see as a key research context for critical discourse studies for the foreseeable future.

Digital media have also become an important part of my work in other ways, not just as a site of research or source of data. This has been a real realisation for me – that social media like twitter can fulfil a valuable role in connecting researchers across space and time. Need to know whether someone has written about a given topic? One tweet and you’ll usually have the answer in minutes. Can’t find a journal paper in the library? A moment’s work. Want to know what’s going on in all the other rooms at a conference even though you can only attend one panel at a time? Following a hashtag will enable you to achieve the previously impossible. But of course we also need to consider social media from a critical perspective, and think about the negative aspects and their role in turning us and our data into products to be sold to corporations.

I also don’t want to give the impression that I ignore the people around me entirely. And this brings me to my last point – what I see as the key responsibilities of critical discourse researchers. These are of course in many respects the same as those of any researcher – we have responsibilities to our students, our colleagues, our institutions. But in my view, as people who study politics and policy, discrimination and marginalised groups, abuses of power and hegemonic conditions, we have an added responsibility to fight against injustices against not just those people who participate in our research, but also those whom we teach and those we work next to. This, for me, is part of being collegial. And sometimes this means we are at odds with the university management or even with other voices within our department, for instance when we vocally support our trade union, or speak out against the increasing marketisation of education, as Norman and Ruth have done today. I see this as a vital part of being collegial, and something that keeps a 50-year old institution and 40-year old department like ours strong and vibrant, but it will, I hope help us survive then next 40 or 50 years and continue to attract brilliant students and colleagues by being interesting, flexible and collegial.


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