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Monday, July 22, 2013

How to be a working human being

I ran across this post by an MIT PhD who is now faculty at Harvard. While I don't know whether tenure-track positions will be in my future, I do think her technique for being happy in a high-stress career is widely applicable. Here are seven actions she takes to this end (which I have tailored to be for any job).

1. Decide this is a good position for you for now.
  • Enjoy making friends with your coworkers
  • Don't treat it as merely a means-to-an-end

2. Stop taking advice on how to be successful.
  • What people suggest is often overwhelming (and not feasible for everyone)
  • Find your own goals and your own road for getting there

3. Create a "feel good" email folder.
  • Emails of praise, offers, acceptances, etc.
  • To be opened and reread whenever you feel insecure 

4. Work a fixed number of hours and a fixed amount.
  • Here, I quote her directly, since she shares a lot of detail about her method here:

  • "I travel at most 5 times a year. This includes: all invited lectures, all panel meetings, conferences, special workshops, etc. [...] It is *not easy* to say no that often, especially when the invitations are so attractive, or when the people asking are so ungraceful in accepting no for an answer. But when I didn’t have this limit I noticed other things. Like how exhausted and unhappy I was, how I got sick a lot, how it affected my kids and my husband, and how when I stopped traveling I had so much more time to pay real attention to my research and my amazing students.
  • I have a quota for non-teaching/research items. Just like the travel, I have a fixed number of paper reviews (usually 10), fixed number of graduate and undergraduate recruiting or mingling events, and fixed number of departmental committees I am allowed to do each year. I also do one “special” thing per year that might be time consuming, e.g. being on a conference senior program committee [...] But only 1 per year. As soon as I sign up for that one, all present and future opportunities are an automatic no (Makes you think a lot before you say “yes”, no?). Plus, there are things that are really important to me that don’t get enforced externally. Like making time to meet other women in computer science, and doing a certain amount of outreach to non-Harvard audiences. If I’m not careful, I end up with no time for these less promoted events. And if I end up with no time for these, I end up a very bitter person. I have a quota to prevent me from accidently getting bitter.
  • I also have a weekly hard/fun quota There are things that for some reason are super hard, or bring out your worst procrastination habits. For me, that’s grant reports and writing recommendations. There are also things that are really fun. For me, that’s making logos and t-shirts and hacking on my website. If I can do 1 hard thing per week, and 1 fun thing per week, then I declare victory. That was a good week, by a reasonable measure of goodness."
  • And her weekend advice: "The weekend is either for getting organized at home or just spending [with people]." If you have kids, carve out a chunk of your budget to get household help one to two times a week, to create more time for yourself on the weekends to be together as a family. 
5. Try to be the best "whole" person you can.
  • Don't buy into the idea that not being the "best" at one part of your life means you suck
  • It is not a compromise; you are being the "best" at being a complete and happy person

6. Find real friends.
  • People who think you're special
  • Friends "not in your field but in your 'court'"

7. Have fun NOW.
  • "Demote the prize [career] so the risk becomes less" when you dare to enjoy yourself
  • Take as much vacation as possible, during which NO EMAIL

Monday, July 15, 2013

Keeping grandma sharp and connected

This article about the benefits of a project teaching older people how to use the internet is inspiring - especially because there is always talk about how younger generations are lonelier due to all their "synthetic" relationships on social media (I have been told this many times during my research by people over fifty). However, the data I have collected do not support this claim, and there are people of all ages who don't jump to negative conclusions about life online. 

If we keep an open mind (and keep a check on our sharing impulses), society can greatly benefit from online interactions. Specifically, social media has the potential to reconnect members of society who may have limited mobility and keep them sharp. One study involving participants over 68 years-old, reports "Those who had learned to use Facebook performed around 25 percent better than they did at the start of the study on tasks designed to measure their mental updating abilities." 

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Social networking: It's (not) complicated

In a blog post written in December 2012, Josh Miller, an undergraduate at Princeton, reported interesting insights from a conversation he had with his 15-year-old sister. The informal interview was prompted by his observations that the ways in which his sister used social media stood in stark contrast with his own uses. For one, she and her peers seemed to drive the popularity of new platforms not yet popularized among adults, such as Snapchat. His sister also revealed that she specifically avoided Facebook due to it being "addicting," and to her tendency to "get lost in it."

A small survey study inspired by this informal interview then found that teen respondents (and those age 19-25) favored Tumblr, a platform that is known for it's stream-lined look and topic-focused blogs (though it also reported that Facebook came in second in popularity).

How does this compare with overall numbers from Internet users ages 18 and above? A 2012 Pew report shows that only 6% of adult internet users use Tumblr, 13% use Instagram, and an impressive 67% use Facebook.

In addition to which platforms some teens are using, the December 2012 interview reported that teenagers' pictures on Instagram (Josh Miller was allowed to view his sister's pictures) consisted of people, while those he observed in his own feed (both on Instagram and Facebook) focused more on objects and scenery. This suggests that teens are more interested in the phatic "social" aspect of these platforms rather than incorporating and sharing other aspects of life like Facebook tends to encourage.

Facebook, wanting to be a hub of communication and sharing in general, is now full of political views, retail offers, social causes, religious musings, etc. It seems that this may be more of the reason teens are shying away. Not that adding adults to the participation format of a site necessarily makes it "uncool" by default, but that the content they produce and recycle does not match the social content sought by teenagers.

In conclusion, they're not great at explaining why (and it can make you feel like the "what" guy at the end of this commercial) but teens have different social media preferences than adults.

(awesome werewolf drawing taken [and adapted] from

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Discourse 2.0: Language and New Media

Discourse 2.0 is a new book of linguistic studies of language on social media, published in February of this year by Georgetown University Press.

It is a collection of research that is meant to drive forward the conversation about new media and social interaction. BIG names in the field contributed work including Susan Herring and Naomi Baron (both early computer-mediated communication researchers), Jannis Androutsopoulos and Crispin Thurlow, as well as the widely-published Georgetown locals, Anna-Marie Trester and Deborah Tannen. I hope others in the field find it as useful as I am finding it in my own dissertation research (ESPECIALLY when coupled with Digital Discourse: Language in New Media!)

Monday, February 04, 2013

Facebook lawsuit: Angel Fraley vs. Facebook, Inc.

Before the internet, people had a good deal of control over their public and private interactions. There might be overhearers sometimes, but typically, you were aware if someone was seated nearby or had picked up the phone in the other room. Online interaction, specifically social media, has complicated the issue considerably. For example:

Below, is part of an email I received from Facebook last week, one of many the site sent out to users in the past few months.

Facebook's new "sponsored stories" feature, which allows businesses to promote individual members' activity so that it's more likely to be seen by others, has landed them in hot water. Five members of the site filed a lawsuit on behalf of all members.

Part of Facebook's response was as follows:
"With respect to the right of publicity claim, Facebook argued that the Sponsored Stories were "newsworthy" within the meaning of the statute because users are "public figures to their friends." The court disagreed, holding that the newsworthiness exemption does not apply to "commercial rather than journalistic" uses. The court went on to state, however, that the fact that users might be "celebrities to their friends" was sufficient to establish that the users had commercially exploitable names and likenesses protected under the statute." (Click here for more).
Facebook then proposed a $10 million settlement, which was initially rejected by a District Judge Seeborg. Later, a revised settlement was approved for $20 million. It will be dispersed by giving up to $10 to each member who submits a valid claim and the rest will go to non-profits that are:
"involved in educational outreach that teaches adults and children how to use social media technologies safely, or are involved in research of social media, with a focus on critical thinking around advertising and commercialization, and particularly with protecting the interests of children." (Read the rest of the legal notice here).
From a linguistics perspective, this is a fascinating event involving the concept of public versus private discourse and how the boundaries are negotiated.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Parents on Facebook

I recently began detail-oriented research of the history of Facebook (in a few days, on February 4th, the site will have been around for NINE YEARS). The fact that it has existed nearly a decade reminds me that there are people who grew up on Facebook (I joined the site at the end of undergrad in 2005). And while most of us in our 20's have been members since the early days, I am not sure we realize just how much the site has changed, when the changes occurred and in what order, and what effects these had on our Facebook interactions.

For instance, in 2006, Facebook opened up to all users over 13 (no longer requiring a .edu address for membership). High schoolers seemed to jump in quickly, and over time, older users (people over 50; those of the Baby Boomer generation and older) began wandering onto the site. I stumbled on this article from 2007, written by a parent who joined then, which strikes me as relatively early. In addition to being pretty funny, it is a stark reminder of just how much of a "young person" place Facebook used to be.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Social media: "The new water cooler"

Here is a great new post by Jezebel on social media and workplace relations, a fascinating area of study that researchers (and lawmakers) have only just begun to explore.

And while employment is perhaps the most obvious issue to make us consider the real world repercussions of our social media behavior, it is important to ask the question about offline consequences of online posting in general. A friend of mine shared a story with me recently about her brother, who was kicked off his high school sports team for a post he made criticizing the coach. I've also observed that the way people post on social media can result in them being mocked in offline conversations.

This also touches on the critical issue of private versus public life and back versus front stage discourse (For recent research in the area of "publicness," See Baym & Boyd). Should we be held responsible for what we say to our online social network, or should we be allowed to blow off steam at the virtual water cooler? (This is clearly a much-debated topic based on the commenting at the end of the relevant New York Times article.)

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Facebook steps up its prompts

Remember back when Facebook provided every member with a general prompt?

The social networking site has stepped up its communication with members, now referring to them by name with alternating questions to prompt status updates (I guess I missed when this happened to some people earlier). This is mine at the moment:

I've witnessed some discussion on FB about this, with suggestions that this new format is "creepy." (A suggestion also shared by someone on reddit) It does seem like this may not have been the best time for Facebook to anthropomorphize itself, with members already complaining that the site oversteps its boundaries. And using our name? This may remind users that Facebook is omniscient in its knowledge of its members and that privacy is not really an option.

I'm interested to see whether members will start responding with answers to these specific questions, talking to Facebook, or whether they will ignore the prompt as they often have in the past (before the "what's on your mind?" prompt, there was "what are you doing right now?" and the format would say your name + is, encouraging users to post in the third person present, a format ignored by many.)

This is also a fascinating linguistic move to observe: Facebook attempting to create a more maleable context by creating "flexible sentences" in certain cases.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Discourse, Context & Media

If you are interested in language and media, this young journal is very promising.

Discourse, Context & Media published its first volume last year with four issues. While the journal, like many publications in the social sciences, is cross-disciplinary, it is particularly appealing to linguists hoping to find and publish articles in this area. The brief "Aims and Scope" section examines several topics but has an eye for the linguistic, specifically mentioning "discourse analysts," "detailed linguistic analyses," and "sociolinguistics."

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Facebook researchers unite!

A small group of researchers has been assembling all the scattered information and social science studies that exist about Facebook. One of the places they have made this collection accessible is here.

In addition, they sent an email out notifying other researchers that they have created a Facebook group for social science researchers of the site, which seems like a great place to go for research advice.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Michael Bamberg

Michael Bamberg visited the Georgetown linguistics department last Friday. He lead a discussion on publishing papers on narrative, and later in the day gave a talk demonstrating his concept (used by Georgakopoulou) of "small stories" in group interview and public confessions data.

Michael Bamberg is a lovely person with a big smile and a ready laugh. He is currently a psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, MA. He also has a mustache.

Michael Bamberg photo from Clark University's faculty webpage
There were several very useful things I learned from his visit that I will record here; among them is that Bamberg generously makes his numerous publications easily available here.

His afternoon discussion about publishing (Bamberg is editor of the journal Narrative Inquiry, once known as The Journal of Narrative and Life History) was full of hard truths that were good to hear and important to remember:
  • Just because your data is narrative, doesn't mean what you're doing is "narrative." 
This, of course, is a very tempting misconception. "Narrative" is a very specific theoretical framework, and just because s story exists in our data, does not necessarily mean our paper is a Narrative study. In addition, we often think that if our data does something interesting, then so does our research. But the data isn't the work; it's how we work with it that creates something publishable (or not) in a certain journal.
  • Dissertations are not publishable.
Not, at least, without being restructured for a different audience. Our dissertations are written and framed mostly for our chair, the committee and for ourselves. While it would be convenient, we can't simply submit a dissertation chapter to a journal and expect it to be appreciated.
  • Submitting to a journal often requires research of its own.
Bamberg suggests choosing a journal that seems relevant and reading its mission statement and several issues. He says it's important to locate the debates that the journal has published and to frame your own paper within those debates.

For his talk, he began by problematizing identity, claiming that it is becoming less sufficient to simply make identity claims; instead, these stances have become increasingly performed. He demonstrated this with an excellent choice of movie clip:

The need to perform our identities drives the constant use of small stories in interaction; indeed, in some cases, this is the only linguistic tool we have for this task. (Small stories are the short, fragmented tellings of personal experiences, which Bamberg (2005, 2006, 2007) and Georgakopoulou (2007, 2008) - and the two together (2007, 2008) - have found to be ubiquitous in everyday speech.)

Bamberg currently examines these small stories and narrative in the public confessions of politicians and shared some of his data and analysis with us. I won't share it here, since I don't have permission, but I would definitely keep an eye out for his publications on this fascinating topic.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Graduate school Oral Exam

Some schools have comprehensive exams (comps) at the end of your Ph.D. coursework. My school has a more focused exam, with questions coming from four designated areas of the literature, tailored to your proposed dissertation study. Regardless of the nature of the exam, I think these tips are helpful, and I was very glad someone shared them with me.

1. If you don't know an answer, say so. Faking it will just up your anxiety and lead to more questions on the topic to make sense of what you said. Instead, say "that is an area I will need to do more reading in."

2. If you need a minute to think, say so. Taking the time to gather my thoughts and take a few breaths, helped me to relax and prepare my answer.

3. Have a pad and paper and take notes; then, come back to things as the opportunity arises (the committee likes to see that you know topics well enough to bring them up yourself)

4. Beforehand: Research each committee member's educational background, advisors, mentors, etc. to know how their academic career has been shaped. This helps to anticipate the types of questions they might ask and the literature they likely see as most important.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

2012 IMI Conference

Dr. Anna Trester (left) and I presented at this year's Intercultural Management Institute, talking about intercultural communication on Facebook between members of different generations.

Lakoff and The Lone Ranger

I heard Robin Lakoff speak today. There is always something fascinating about meeting someone you have read and cited. I did not imagine her to be the perfect combination of funny, passionate, humble, and creative that she proves to be in person. Lakoff's work is brilliant, yet she doesn't make it a solemn business. She began by telling us about the Lone Ranger, brought up Humpty Dumpty half-way through the lecture, and ended with a New Yorker cartoon.

One statement she made that I particularly enjoyed was her explanation of linguists' relationship to science. That, perhaps more than any researchers of social sciences, linguists want to be white-lab coat scientists. However, language, what we study, will always include an “erosion of boundaries and quarrels over definitions.” This, she says, makes quantification a tricky and often false business in linguistics (she then admitted that counting has never been very important to her; she said she could count to 20 today, since she was wearing sandles).

Lakoff claims human minds have this dichotomy: constantly seeking categories, and conditions/rules, wanting to separate and define things, while at the same time needing to acknowledge the connections, relationships, and overlaps that are inherent in language. The tug of war reminded me of what Lakoff (1973) was one of the first to highlight happens in social interaction (along with Goffman (1967)): We are at once in need of privacy and independence while craving connectivity with others. Every relationship we negotiate, each conversation we have with others, is a balancing of these two conflicting desires (to tie this back into my own research interests, I believe this is what is responsible for the phenomenon of quitting and rejoining Facebook, or using the site but complaining about privacy settings: people have opposing needs for both distance from and intimacy with others)

Lakoff, by the way, is responsible for the foundations of Politeness Theory (which is usually credited to Brown and Levinson, who was Lakoff's student.)

The talk today was entitled, "Whaddya mean 'We,' Paleface?"  (a reference from The Lone Ranger) and was on indexicals.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Discourse Markers

Ryan is here to "warn everyone" about this book. I ran across his 2003 rant on Discourse Markers on the Amazon website.

The book is widely cited and is the foundational work on discourse markers, but Ryan Witte gives the book 1 star. He then goes on to argue that, "Any halfway decent undergrad professor, if s/he'd seen this, would have told her to start over or write a different book." 

Who is a good researcher he recommends instead? William Labov. (Ryan Unwittingly recommends Deborah Schiffrin's mentor and advisor.) 

Luckily, much more intelligent and well-informed Warren, appeared in 2011 to comment on Witte's review:
  • Making accusations against qualitative research projects which lack a "control group" is only the worst and most moronic of his comments, followed closely by recommending William Lebov's research method as an example of how Dr. Schiffrin's work /should/ have been done.

A google search for Witte's "extensive research" in discourse brings up only his bitter review of Dr. Schiffrin's book. The book is part of the cannon of discourse analysis. Get a copy, and feel free to write an educated review about it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Nancy Baym and Microsoft

For those who study language use on social media, Nancy Baym is a star. She has written hundreds of brilliant pages about how people manage to communicate via Web 2.0 and why we should care. (One of my personal favorites is her early work on humor.)

She just announced that she is taking a position with Microsoft as a social media researcher. Way to go, Microsoft!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's not cool to be a sexist linguist

This is an excerpt from Dr. Deborah Tannen's advice on writing a discourse paper:

Avoid the generic masculine. Although some prescriptive grammarians proclaim that "he" means "he or she," linguists are descriptivists, not prescriptivists. According to Mühlhäusler and Harré (Pronouns and People), the generic masculine was a grammatical innovation that did not emerge as the natural development of language use but was imposed by grammarians in the 18th and 19th centuries, based on Latin grammar; before that, from at least about 1500, the correct sex-indefinite pronoun was "they," as it still is in spoken English.  Furthermore, who is to say it is better to violate gender agreement rather than number?  More important, research shows that readers and hearers think "masculine" when they read or hear "he," "him," "himself," etc. Try plural; try rewording your sentence; you may resort to "one," "s/he," "she or he," or "he or she." 

And now you know.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Love of Labov

Today is the start of NWAV 2011 at Georgetown University. This is my first NWAV and the following is my first experience at the conference:

I stood in front of an older gentleman who sat unassumingly at a table in the conference room I had entered. A glance at his nametag pushed me into action: “Hi, Dr. Labov. I’m Laura West.” “Oh!” he said smiling, generously and gregariously shaking my hand as if it were an honor. “I will be your AV person,” I said proudly. (which means, I will be sitting nervously in the front row praying nothing goes wrong with the audio-visual, because I won't know how to fix it).

For those non-linguists who don’t know William Labov, he’s a rock star. His Master’s thesis created a new field of linguistic study (something none of us even hope to do with our Dissertation): sound change looked at in social context. And this was at a time when he had no access to the friendly technology linguists enjoy today. He mentioned that the early use of sonograph took up to five minutes to measure the vowel formants of a single vowel! And forget using fancy lab equipment for acoustic measurements; back then, a graduate student would have had to come up with $20k for a study using a lab. (Now, linguists have PRAAT, which is both quicker and FREE!)

And now, Labov and friends are developing FAVE (forced alignment & vowel extraction), to save linguists from the hand-coding of formants altogether. Thanks for everything, Labov!!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Super Fun Linguistics

Last night I was sitting with a group of friends outside Wonderland bar sipping on an IPA (which is my favorite beer both for the hops AND because its acronym is the same as that of the International Phonetic Alphabet.)

By the way, when you google them, they come up in this order:

The conversation last night turned to talk about a "super fund" site out in California. The guy discussing the topic used this term about 6 times, and each time I pictured this: 
What the guy was really talking about, of course, had nothing to do with super-fun-roller-coaster land at all. He was talking about the EPA's Superfund. The problem with the term is one that a linguist would have been able to predict; when the word is used in its most common context - namely, before "site," - it creates a consonant cluster. 

This is because speech is continuous; while written sentences show spaces between words, there are no pauses between words in speech. We pause to take a breath, think, mark a clause, etc., but not at word boundaries. And, in conversational speech, we are not going to bother with the task of pronouncing three distinct alveolar consonants that are clustered together. It's too much work, and we prefer to reduce the cluster, so only the "n" of "Superfund" and the "s" of "site" are fully articulated. 

The result is that, to someone who has never seen the words spelled-out (I was that person last night), it sounds like "super fun site," which is incredibly unfortunate given that that is almost the exact opposite of what the actual term refers to. Maybe Congress could hire a linguist for any future naming activities they do.

And this concludes another post on why linguists should have jobs.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Geena Davis, not a linguist but still worth blogging about!

The fact that I'm blogging about the actor, Geena Davis, is linguistically-relevant for a lot of reasons. For one, she expresses strong lexical-preference for the word "actor" for her occupation, saying the definition is "a person who acts," so the cutesy "ess" on the end of words - by this she means the bound morpheme marking female gender - is unnecessary. (To drive the point home, she says she considers herself "a waiter turned actor.") She is witty, gracious, unapolegetically-female and feminist, and - not that it matters - but...GORGEOUS.

It's also relevant that I talk about Geena Davis on my linguistic-themed blog because I went to hear her speak as part of a continued ethnography I am working on (with a small team of linguists) of communicative behaviors within the Georgetown McDonough School of Business (more on this to come in later blog posts); the business school invited Ms. Davis to speak tonight.

The actor was recently inspired to start a non-profit research institute after she had children and had begun to notice the gender inequalities in the movies and shows they were watching.

Since then, the research her institute has conducted has revealed, among other things, that:
  • less than 30% of speaking characters in G-rated films are female
  • the average ratio of male-to-female characters in films has not changed since 1946
  • the percentage of directors in Hollywood who are female has never hit double digits (it wavers from between 2-7% and had a significant drop this year)
  • the animated female characters in G-rated films wear as much sexually-revealing clothing as the women in R-rated films
  • the majority of animated female characters have proportions that are not physically-possible (demonstrated by exhibit A: Princess Jasmine)
(There's no way that waistline could contain stomach muscles that could hold up that head of hair!)

When asked by an audience member about how to raise children's awareness of gender bias, Geena said she likes to watch movies with her kids and lean over to ask them things like, "now, why do you think she's wearing that when she's about to go rescue someone? That doesn't seem very practical, does it?" She says that now her daughter is 9, and when Geena leans over and says, "hey, did you notice-?" She says her daughter cuts her off with, "yeah, mom, not enough girls." (The actor and founder always treated the issue as important during her talk - even critical - but never took herself too seriously.)

Perhaps my favorite fact + comment Geena made during the evening was that very often crowd scenes in movies don't feature - or feature very few - women. She shrugged and said, "so, women don't gather." 

Though the research findings are bleak, Geena's outlook is not. She said we have "every reason to hope," because as she presents the numbers to producers, directors, writers, etc., they are genuinely shocked and horrified and want to change. "It shows it's not a plot to keep women out of power," she says; it's just that we (both women and men) don't even recognize the extent of the inequality. Her goal is to simply raise awareness of the situation and trust that people will be willing and able to produce more female characters with a wider range of important and interesting roles and occupations (and, we dare to hope, realistic proportions and more practical clothing choices).