The only linguist in the room

On 15th September, I presented some early findings from the Academics Writing project at the Quadrangular Conference on Technology, Organisations and Society.  The slides from the presentation can be found here. The conference was jointly organised by Lancaster University, the University of Cambridge, University College Dublin and the London School of Economics, and was hosted by Lancaster’s department of Organisation, Work & Technology. In this sense, it was an interdisciplinary event, with talks by academics from economics, history, political science, social anthropology and other social sciences. I was, to my knowledge, the only linguist in the room. However, the Academics Writing project is also interdisciplinary to some extent, and the conference theme Organisational Practices within Contemporary Landscapes seemed closely related to our own exploration of writing practices in universities as workplaces. So off I went, to boldy go where no linguist has gone before…

Like Karin, when she presented at the European Conference on Literacy, and David, at the International Conference on Language in the Media, I noticed many nods of recognition from the audience, suggesting that our findings resonate with others’ research in related areas and/or with their personal experience as academics. However, I was also asked a question that really got us thinking: “You’ve started from assumption that things have changed, but how do you know they have?” I was particularly thrown by this question because the presentation focused on academics’ use of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, ResearchGate and the like, most of which only came into existence in the last decade. For a linguist, the mode or genre of language use is an integral part of the literacy practice being enacted, and it wouldn’t make sense to claim that language itself is separable from this. In this sense, we cannot claim that academics’ writing has remained unchanged aside from the fact that it now occurs on these digital platforms. The constraints and affordances of these platforms, both materially and socio-culturally, must influence the nature of what is written. Our data supports this view.

Our data also shows that the use of these platforms is influenced by pressures relating to indisputable changes in higher education, such as the pressure to demonstrate impact beyond the academy, and the importance of metrics in assessing academics’ contribution to knowledge (or perhaps, more accurately, their value to their department and institution).

But perhaps there has been no radical transformation. Academics have always networked. They have always disseminated their research. So perhaps little has changed at a structural level. Will we look back one day and wonder what the fuss was about? Or do we need to pay attention to even small changes, lest gradual erosion washes away the ground beneath us? What do you think?