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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.

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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.