Lauren Gawne recaps last night’s Linguistics in the Pub, a monthly informal gathering of linguists in Melbourne to discuss topical areas in our field.
This month’s Linguistics in the Pub meet-up in Melbourne focused on a topic relevant not only to those involved in language documentation but to all linguists – How can we engage the general public in what we do. Although the discussion was ostensibly lead by Ruth Singer and myself, everyone was able to bring their experiences to the discussion and this summary includes the wisdom of all those who attended, and even someone who didn’t.
We started out by looking at communicating with the public using the blogosphere. Blogging has been a useful tool for academics looking to reach a broader audience due to the relatively small overhead compared to other forms of media and the general voraciousness of the internet-reading public. We started off by discussing the more general linguistics blogs out there. While those such as Language Log and Johnson have large readerships they do focus heavily on English, and largely on debates around English usage and pedantry. Fully (Sic) in Australia has a much broader and inclusive focus and should be used more by linguists who wish to share their work in a way that is inclusive, accessible but not ‘dumbed down.’
In language documentation more specifically there is a small but growing genre of ‘fieldwork blogs.’ Some good examples of these include Anggarrgoon, That Munanga Linguist, Consonant Aspirations, and Iltyem-Iltyem. I talked briefly about my fieldwork blog and how I found it a great way to engage with friends and family, and an unintended wider audience, while away for extended periods. Instead of just disappearing I can share, in a very non-academic way, the trials, tribulations and triumphs of my field adventures (internet access permitting). Unfortunately however, fieldwork blogs tend to suffer in that they tend to languish when the fieldworker is back at home. Another important blog for language documentation is this very blog. Nick Thieberger encouraged us all to use this blog more as an opportunity to let people know what language documentation work is being done. He also suggested that the University of Hawaii’s Linguistics Department is an excellent example of a department with a good web presence – those visiting the website can quickly and easily see what they’ve been up to recently.
The conversation then moved into a more general discussion about how to balance the need to connect with an audience and to remain faithful to your work. There was a general feeling that linguists tend to be too harsh on each other for how we present our work to the general public, although perhaps this is just a kind of academic tall poppy syndrome found only in Australia. There was also concern that linguists tend to be far too modest for their own good. While scientists will often have their modest findings dressed up with headlines claiming they’ve “solved X” or “cured Y” linguists tend to avoid such hyperbole where possible.
We read Claire Bowern’s amusing but sadly true “formula” for writing a story on language death – from starting with the poignant anecdote about an elderly speaker to wrapping up with a trite cliche – and talked about how stories about endangered languages should be framed instead. Claire’s point from another post that these kind of stories tend to focus on the linguist, when it would be nicer for them to be about the speakers, framed much of this discussion. It was also suggested that writing more proactive and positive stories could counteract this stereotypical representation.
We then talked about other stereotypical features of popular press articles on language – how often the “expert” in such stories are voice coaches or “body language experts.” Linguists need to make a place for themselves in such stories. Just because our personal specialty is not on English expression doesn’t mean we don’t have the professional skills to bring our expertise to such an area.
Unlike print media and blogs, radio is a slightly less fertile area for linguists to expand into. Still, it’s good to seek out community and local stations and see if they have any programs that might be interested in a story about language. Podcasts were also suggested as a way of connecting to an audience – since most of us have some basic audio-editing skills there’s no reason why a podcast, like a blog, can’t be a DIY project. In this part of the conversation Nick Thieberger also mentioned the “Hypotheticals” game that he presented at an ALS conference some years back. He said it worked well because it was humorous as well as educational and he lamented that too much of what linguists try to do when speaking to a more generalist audience lacks humour. The Speculative Grammarian was brought up as an example of satirical linguistics but the punchlines require rather too much technical knowledge for a layperson.
Moving up the budgetary scale to television. We mainly discussed Stephen Fry’s “Planet Word” that is currently screening in the UK. Most of the blog responses from linguists have been to nick-pick at the show. No populist show is ever going to satisfy a professional, and instead we should be glad that there is an opportunity for people to engage with language and be prepared to help them do so.
Felicity from RNLD was our special guest for the evening. She told us all about RNLD’s excellent media repository, accessible through their website. She talked about the breadth of stories that find their way into the popular press.
For those of us who work at Universities and other research facilities we often have resources available to us to help is promote our work that we rarely use. There are often PR departments that can help write press releases and intra-institution publications are a great way to practice getting your message out. The Conversation is a good example of such a publication; set up by a group of Universities in Australia, it is an online publication trying to bridge the gap between quality journalistic reporting and academia.
In much the same way that The Time Team made archeology dynamic linguists need to find a way to sell themselves. Aidan Wilson pointed out that having accessible side-projects can be a good way of doing this. His mobile phone accessible Wagiman dictionary took relatively little time to create but it and the other dictionaries created as part of the Project for Free Electronic Dictionaries generated a lot of popular media attention and educated many about the status of indigenous languages in Australia.
As this point in the evening we heard from our first LIP correspondent contributor. Piers Kelly, who was instrumental in the setting up of Fully (sic) and who is a passionate advocate of the need to share our work with a wider audience than our colleagues, touched on many of the topics that we have discussed above. He pointed to a great article by John Armstrong in the Griffith Review that touches on the more general issue of the Humanities lacking the ability to reach the general public. Another thing that he pointed out was that universities need to accept non-peer reviewed publications as part of the overall contribution to research dissemination. Nick Thieberger argued that this was already occurring as part of the goals of “service” and “outreach.”
All of these sound like great ideas, but trying to implement them all when our time commitments are usually already strained can be a big ask. Getting into the habit of writing a press release when findings are published or you win a grant is a good start, as is writing an occasional contribution to a group blog (such as this one). With practice writing for a generalist audience these things get easier.
Feeling sufficiently enthusiastic after our discussion, we turned our thoughts to how we could implement what we’d discussed. As we were largely a University of Melbourne group we brainstormed ways to make people more aware of the work being done in our department, balancing up the need to share our work with a process that could be sustained without too much work for anyone. When we finalise the details we’ll let you know how it goes.