I spent yesterday at the very stimulating TLANG project seminar entitled ‘Language, social media and migration: the role of mobile communication technologies in migrants’ everyday lives’, organised by Caroline Tagg.

It was my favourite kind of academic gathering – one track, a small group of people in the same room, and enough time for questions/discussion, talks by a mixture of established academics and early career researchers, and best of all, as I wasn’t giving a presentation myself I could sit back, enjoy and reflect on the ideas colleagues were sharing.

While each of the a presenters had something interesting to say about the migrants’ communication practices and mobile technologies, I think one of the most memorable phrases I heard was in Stefan Vollmer‘s talk on Syrian newcomers to the UK and (among other things) how they approach getting a new driving licence, which he also writes about in this short paper.

Expanding on Bourdieu’s notions of cultural and symbolic capital, he used the term ‘technological capital’ in his talk to describe his participant’s facility with smartphone technology, and his ability to use it to circumvent some of the linguistic barriers he faced and attempt to make up for the “loss of capital” resulting from the invalidity of his Syrian driving licence in the UK.

I was very taken by this idea, but in the subsequent discussion I suggested that if we are to use technological capital in a way that is analogous with Bourdieu’s notion of linguistic capital, it should not simply refer to ability or proficiency in the use of technology. Instead, it should refer to the perception of others that one has a particular standing in society that relates to technology. This would not be based not on proficiency with that technology, but instead on other personal characteristics that might make someone assume one is good at technology. For instance, purely by being young, one would have technological capital because young people are assumed to be good with technology. Perhaps possessing a certain type of smart phone, or typing in a particular way (for instance, without key-click noises!), would also imbue people with technological capital This would then be comparable with Bourdieu’s linguistic capital – the notion that based on someone’s choice of language or variety, their pronunciation or use of particular registers, they are taken more seriously and seen to be authoritative, friendly, intelligent, or whatever other quality has come to be associated with that language variety.

As I said in the discussion, this is still “back of envelope” thinking, and the ideas need to be fleshed out. I’d be very interested to find out what others who have worked with Bourdieu, or on the intersection of technologies and identities, have to say.

I spent four hours this morning at the entrances to Lancaster University, picketing for my union, UCU, who are involved in an ongoing industrial dispute centred around fair pay. I was joined by colleagues from across the University: members of UCU and the other main campus unions (UNITE and UNISON) but also by students from the Lancaster University Anti-Capitalist group, who brought radical slogans and music.

Spirits are usually high at the picket line – we feel like we are doing something to bring about positive change, we are standing up for our rights and supporting each other. And today was no different: many people stopped at the picket line while driving, riding or walking past, took a leaflet and perhaps exchanged a few words with us. But others drove straight past, stern-faced and with windows (and minds) firmly closed.

There is almost never enough time to fully explain why we’re striking, which is one reason we have our leaflets. But more than once today I wished I had been able to say my piece, to express my thoughts in full to some of the people passing. I’m not talking about the strike in general, which is more than adequately explained on the UCU website (see I’m talking about some specific things I would have liked to say to some of the individuals who passed me.

To the student who, when I said we were striking for fair pay, answered “well I pay £9000 and I’m not getting my lectures”:

You’re right. You pay a lot for your education. I protested against the introduction of tuition fees, as did my union. I am deeply opposed to the ideologically loaded fees policy, which reduces opportunities for the least advantaged, increases inequality, and will cost much more in the long run than not charging any fees at all. But given that you will pay these fees (one day, once you earn enough), where would you like to see the money invested? In prestige projects that make the campus look pretty, but are often designed by architects who have no idea about what university teaching actually involves? In Vice-Chancellors’ salary increases (more than 5% up on average just in the past year)? Into maintaining what is arguably an excessive surplus (currently £1bn or more in the sector)? Or in the dedicated, highly qualified staff who make your education possible, and who determine its quality? I think the students who stood side-by-side with us today expressed it better than I can: “Support the staff who support you”.

To the many colleagues who passed by who are not members of a union:

I’m here for you too, not just my fellow union members. But are you happy to accept any gains we might win? Or will you turn down a salary increase that might arise from our industrial action? Do you enjoy the rights and benefits that have been brought about or enhanced through past industrial action, such as weekends, regulated working hours, holidays, pensions, appeals processes, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination rules, workplace safety rules, rights of redress… I could go on. All I can ask is that you consider joining (or re-joining) the union – for teaching or research staff (including postgraduates who teach) this can easily be done here:

To the colleagues who are members of a union, but still crossed the picket line:

You are harming our cause. The point of industrial action is that all members of the union act together, with the only tool that we can (lawfully) use to compel our employers to listen to us: withdrawal of labour. If you come into work, work from home, or rearrange classes for another day, you may as well wear a big sign saying “feel free to walk all over me”. You may disagree with this particular action, or think that you earn enough already and so have no need to take part. But unless the union supports its weakest members, including those who are not as fortunate as you, it is not a union. The union is a representative democracy, and like many such institutions, it can never be perfect for everyone. And when you are more personally affected, how would you feel if your colleagues turned their backs on you? If you are targeted unfairly as an individual, will you ask the union for casework support? Finally, even if you are not concerned about pay, this should not stop you from taking part in the action: I’m not striking because I want more money, I’m striking because I am disgusted with the inequality in the sector, with VCs often earning more than 20 times what the lowest paid earn, and because I am deeply concerned by the ongoing marketisation and commercialisation of education.

To the lorry driver who cancelled his delivery to the university and turned around because he did not want to cross our picket line:

Thank you. The world needs more people like you.

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!


Yesterday we had a departmental meeting all about teaching. Not about planning next year’s teaching, or about approving future courses or other administrative issues. Rather, it was a chance to present and discuss ideas for how teaching in the department might develop in future, and in particular how we can take advantage of the opportunities offered by online tools to augment our face-to-face and distance courses.

We started with Judit Kormos presenting some of the work she and other colleagues have done on our distance programme. What I found particularly interesting was the way she presented different ideas and online tools in the context of the learning cycle for our programmes:

Initial reflections → Input → Understanding and reflecting on input → Applying knowledge/skills learnt → Reflecting on the learning experience

A number of the ideas work extremely well in distance learning contexts because from the beginning of the programme, there is an expectation that students will take part in these forms of interaction. Some of the potential issues we identified relate to expectation management: it is particularly important to set clear boundaries and patterns at the beginning, and to start as you mean to continue (e.g. if you won’t generally be replying to forum posts immediately throughout the year, don’t start doing this in the first week).

I particularly liked idea of using Voxopop, essentially a voice-based message board. This will allow students who might each be on a different continent to have structured interactions via voice rather than just written texts.

After some further discussion, we heard from Andrew Hardie about the government’s so-called Key Information Sets. These are supposedly an effective way for prospective students to compare courses at different institutions based on quantifiable features like student satisfaction, average salary of graduates, tuition fees, and crucially for yesterday’s discussion, contact time. It seems that only the ‘top’ (in terms of student numbers) modules in each year count, but the undergraduate module I’m most involved in, LING204, is one of these. The take-home message was that we don’t need to make huge changes, like adding more lectures to every module, but that we should make sure that all contact with students “counts”, in that it is timetabled and hence included in the official figures. This could include “online” contact, such as a chat-based office hour, which brings me to my contribution to the meeting…

I set out to present four ideas to colleagues, not as things we should definitely do on all courses, but just to raise awareness and stimulate discussion about some ways of interacting with students that not everyone might have thought of. I’ve included the four ideas below, and would welcome questions, comments or further ideas.

We had an extremely interesting discussion afterwards, with views ranging from colleagues who felt these ideas might just add work for little gain (for Lancaster-based programmes, at least), to more enthusiastic responses and ideas for adapting and taking the ideas further. One of the key issues raised related to ownership of the platforms and information: should we be using external companies (often US-based, and hence subject to the Patriot Act) to host our activities with students, with the subsequent problems this might bring? On the other hand, should we expect students to use our virtual learning environment (Moodle, as of this coming academic year). for interactions that they can already do (more easily) on the social media platforms they already use?

Augmented contact with students

Idea 1: Encourage a backchannel for your lecture
Ask students to raise questions or comment on your lecture using social media (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Moodle) before, during and after the lecture. Show these on the screen throughout, at certain points during, or at the end of the lecture. Advantages are increased engagement (including from students who may be reluctant to speak in a lecture), and a record of questions and answers that will remain available for some time.

Example: If using Twitter, ask the students to use a particular hashtag (e.g. #LING204) to post questions and comments and then show these on the screen using Twitterfall. Answer them then and there, or even better – tweet your answers. Or, if you have seminar tutors, encourage them to tweet in response to questions during the lecture. You could also pose specific questions and ask for answers via Twitter.

Idea 2: Conduct a collaborative analysis
Using a tool such as eMargin or Google Docs, set students a task which requires identifying or commenting on features in a text. This could involve highlighting items in different colours, or adding comments or tags. Advantages are that students can see their analysis taking shape in real time, and can help each other and discuss as they go along.

Example: During a seminar, ask students to work in pairs to identify persuasive features in a political speech in eMargin, and add at least one reference to a relevant scholarly source for each feature they identify. Add your own annotations where correction/clarification is needed. Then go through the analysis with the whole group.

Idea 3: Blogging the study process
Ask your supervisees (UG or PG) to record their research or study processes in a blog or vlog (e.g. using WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Moodle, YouTube, etc.). They might report on findings, comment on literature, raise questions, engage with theories and have discussions with other students. They can choose whether to share their blog just with you, with selected other students, or to make it public. Advantages: this may help them focus on the research process, and may enable them to get feedback on their work.

Example: Suggest that a supervisee might use WordPress to set up a study blog, and post a brief summary (and critique, where appropriate) of every relevant scholarly work she reads. Where necessary, you could comment on these directly on the blog, or during supervision sessions.

Idea 4: Conduct a group office hour online
Invite students to attend your online office hour at a specific time (e.g. using Skype group chat, Facebook, Google+ or Moodle). This could perhaps be focussed on a particular course (e.g. revision session for a UG module) or could be for all interested students in a particular category (e.g. all UG dissertation supervisees). Advantages: students will have a record of the discussion, and be able to get an insight into their peers’ work. This may also reduce email traffic.

Example: Start a Facebook group for your dissertation supervisees. At regular intervals, conduct a group meeting during which all members of the group are expected to be online at the same time. Ask students to prepare something each week, and post it on the group wall before the session, then discuss them during the group meeting.