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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.

Invited paper: Approaching language policy from a critical perspective: the role of discourse studies

Centre for Linguistics and Applied Linguistics, Guangzhou, China

(N.B. This is an updated version of the talk I gave at Leeds LLTPRG last year)

Abstract

In this paper I will outline some of the main theoretical and methodological considerations involved in applying a critical discourse studies framework to the study of language policies and language attitudes. In particular, I will attempt to show how we can best use critical, discursive approaches such as critical discourse analysis when examining language attitudes and policies. Two case studies will illustrate this point: first, drawing on a previous research project, a study of the Scots language, an autochtonous minority language spoken in Scotland, is used to show how language attitudes pervade the public and private spheres, and how often languages are evaluated positively, but not necessarily valued; and second, I will present the findings from an investigation into attitudes towards the use of English as a Lingua Franca at a higher education institution in France, in which students in a highly multilingual environment hold sometimes unexpected attitudes towards the various languages in their linguistic repertoires. In each case, “top-down” data such as policy documents and debates among power elites are combined with “bottom-up” data gathered from language users affected by policies and attitudes. I will argue that it is not enough to look at the content of language policies and what people say about language. Rather, to fully account for the impact of policy and attitudes on the lives of language users, we must look at how both powerful and affected groups and structure, instrumentalise, and recontextualise discourse on language and language varieties.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been involved in two events that have tested my analysis skills. The first was as “Rhetoric Officer” in the first sitting of The Rational Parliament. This innovative new forum for public debate on issues that matter took place in London last week. The organiser Adam Smith invited me to comment on how members of the parliament were using language, and to alert them to any attempts to use “rhetorical tricks” to manipulate the audience. What made this unlike any other analysis I’d done before was that it had to happen in real time. There I was, on the night, sitting next to the “Speaker” (Michael Brooks, the moderator of the debate) and giving my thoughts on language use every so often.

Picture of the rational parliament in session

The Rational Parliament in session

The good news is the audience seemed to appreciate my contributions, and I quite enjoyed it. Someone commented that it really “cooled off” the debate – perhaps making people think about how they were speaking discouraged them from verbal attacks. I think the way the session was introduced by Adam and moderated by Michael had a much bigger impact in this regard.

Having observed my live analysis at the Rational Parliament, Daniel Trilling, editor of New Humanist magazine, approached me earlier this week to ask whether I would perform a similar kind of analysis on the UK party leaders’ speeches being broadcast over the next fortnight. Though I had some doubts over whether I wanted to open my analysis to the scrutiny of potentially thousands of followers of the Rationalist Association twitter feed, I agreed, because I have for a long time believed that we critical discourse analysts need to get out of the ivory tower and communicate our research, and above all our analyses,
to a wider public. This is the result of my first live-tweeting, then writing up in a slightly more coherent fashion (you may disagree with the latter statement), my analysis of the speech.

I got some help along the way from my colleague Veronika Koller, my PhD student David Pask-Hughes, and several other linguists and non-linguists who were watching the debate. I wonder if this could become a trend? At least for important public events and speeches, if enough linguists, logicians, political scientists, sociologists, and other thinkers, make a concerted effort to post their on-the-fly critiques of poliiticans’ speeches and actions, would this make a difference? Perhaps I’m being idealistic, but it sounds like something to try.

Comments and thoughts, and above all critiques of my analysis (bearing in mind it was done in real time) are very welcome!

 

Invited paper: Using critical discourse studies to investigate language policy and attitudes

Leeds University, Language, Linguistics and Translation PGR group (LLTPGR)

Abstract

In this paper I will outline some of the main theoretical and methodological considerations involved in applying a critical discourse studies framework to the study of language policies and language attitudes. In particular, I will attempt to show how we can best use critical, discursive approaches such as critical discourse analysis when examining language attitudes and policies. Two case studies will illustrate this point: first, drawing on a previous research project, a study of the Scots language, an autochtonous minority language spoken in Scotland, is used to show how language attitudes pervade the public and private spheres, and how often languages are evaluated positively, but not necessarily valued; and second, I will present the initial findings from an ongoing investigation into attitudes towards the use of English as a Lingua Franca at a higher education institution in France, in which students in a highly multilingual environment hold sometimes unexpected attitudes towards the various languages in their linguistic repertoires. In each case, “top-down” data such as policy documents and debates among power elites are combined with “bottom-up” data gathered from language users affected by policies and attitudes. I will argue that it is not enough to look at the content of language policies and what people say about language. Rather, to fully account for the impact of policy and attitudes on the lives of language users, we must look at how both powerful and affected groups and structure, instrumentalise, and recontextualise discourse on language and language varieties.