What Does Your Bookshelf Say About You?

If you didn’t know me, you could tell a lot about me by looking at the bookshelf in my room. I read lots of books, averaging one every 10 days or so, and many of the ones I’ve read aren’t on my bookshelf. This particular bookshelf is a space for books that I want to keep and books that have childhood memories attached to them.

Looking at my bookshelf, you’d be able to tell that I grew up in the Harry Potter generation. Much of my childhood and early teen years were spent eagerly awaiting the publication of the next installment in the series. My copies of those seven great books have been much-read and are showing signs of wear, with some covers a little creased.

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On Being “Discovered”

In the days when being Freshly Pressed was the holy grail of WordPress blogging, you’d often see bloggers proudly proclaiming “I’ve been Freshly Pressed”. Just a quick side note, in case you’re unfamiliar, Freshly Pressed used to be the section of the WordPress.com homepage where the WordPress editors chose the best of the blogosphere to be featured.

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The WordPress blogger’s native environment

Being Freshly Pressed was a huge thing to happen to a blogger. One day, you’re writing away, publishing your work and wondering what kind of reception it will get. And the next, you’re on the front page of the WordPress community. Your reader stats spike upwards so fast that they could give you whiplash and your comments section overflows with abundance. Exciting stuff!

At the end of the last year, the WordPress team gave Freshly Pressed a new look. It’s now called Discover. It’s the hot destination for editors’ picks, thought-provoking topics and recommended sites. And on Tuesday, I was Discovered! My post, talking about language and accents in Disney movies, was featured on Discover: Disney’s Loss of Innocence.

 

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A screenshot of my post on Discover

I’ve enjoyed the lively discussion in the comments that this post prompted. Not all of you agreed with what the researchers are saying, but hearing different perspectives is all part of the fun. And I’ve realized that one of my favourite writing topics is to break down academic research — specifically related to language and linguistics — into readable, (hopefully) thought-provoking and conversation-starting blog posts.

Having made the decision to put my postgraduate academic aspirations on indefinite hold, it’s a great way to keep up-to-date with the linguistics world and to write about interesting, diverse topics without any pressure of deadlines and grades. If you’re new to my blog, you can read about my decision here. And also, welcome to all my new readers and followers!

So, you’ll see more linguistic-themed posts in the near future. I hope you’ll join the conversation!

Disney’s Loss of Innocence: language, race and gender in children’s animated movies

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Disney Orlando castle at night. By Veryhuman (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of my peers grew up with Disney animated movies. They watched the classics — The Lion KingPocahontasBeauty and the Beast… I didn’t. To this day, I’ve seen a grand total of two Disney animations: Dumbo and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, yes, I know. I haven’t seen The Lion King, or Bambi, which is sometimes marked out as an oddity if it comes up in conversations with friends, as though I’m confessing an eccentric habit.

Disney’s movies are a fond presence in millions of childhoods throughout the world, and beyond (last year, a friend asked me if I wanted to go and see Cinderella with her. I suggested Far from the Madding Crowd instead). But these movies aren’t as child-friendly and full of innocent wonder as they seem. In fact, they have some symbolism in them that is pretty downright disturbing.

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The beginnings of language

In this post, I talk about some of the processes that take place in a child’s first year of life, leading up to their first words.

In 2013, when I was in my second year of studying linguistics, I took a class on language acquisition. This class provided me an overview of how children learn to talk. How do they go from being babies who coo and babble to children who start talking in full sentences, all within a remarkably short space of time?

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Public domain photo by London Scout

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Looking back at 2015

2015 was a good year — it brought new blogging adventures, my graduation, and an unexpected twist at the end of the year (you’ll have to read to the end of the post to find out about that).

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A piece of wisdom from Thomas Hardy

During the summer, I participated in the WordPress course Blogging 201, which gave me the boost I needed to refresh areas of my blog and plan for future posts.

I would have liked to post more often. My readership and reader engagement with the blog (i.e. via comments, follows and likes) increased during the two months when I posted my ‘Between the Pages’ series, with several themed posts about Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Continue reading

Musings from a Soon-to-be Graduate

Graduation frame - public domain image Text added by Grace @ Cultural Life.

Graduation frame – public domain image
Text added by Grace @ Cultural Life.

Last year, I was walking to class one day and another student was talking on his phone in front of me. Snippets of his conversation floated back to me and one of them was:

“Can you believe it? I’m actually getting a degree!”

I smiled when I heard this because I understood the feeling. As students, we know that we will get our degrees, as long as we study and work hard — well, even the students who don’t work hard can get degrees, but their degree classification will most likely suffer! — but it still feels slightly surreal.

When I walked out of the exam room for the last time, having spent the past two hours intensely focused on writing exam answers, I felt a strange mix of happiness and wistfulness. Graduation is a time of change and transition, which can bring mixed emotions with it. As I reflect on the past few years, I can see how far I have come and how much I have changed from day one to the last day of my undergraduate degree studies. I have developed increased self-assuredness and strength, as well as confidence in my own abilities and determination to reach my goals and push through challenges.

I completed my degree at the end of May and I received my official result in June: I am graduating with a First Class Honours degree! As most of my readers are from North America, achieving a First in your degree is equivalent to a 4.0 GPA. Needless to say, I am very happy with my degree classification! I’ll share some photos after my graduation ceremony in a few weeks.

Jumping for joy! (Public domain image source)

On the whole, my undergrad experience wasn’t the stereotypical student life; my mother developed a serious illness in my first year of studying and it culminated in a year’s leave of absence from my studies while I coped with being her caregiver and all the responsibilities which it entailed. However, I returned to academic life after my leave of absence and the experience gave me a greater sense of perspective.

Meanwhile, although it is exciting to graduate, I am already busy formulating a plan for the next step: working while studying part-time for a Masters by Research.

I have a research proposal for a linguistics project which is ready to go ahead and I will be sharing more about this in the coming weeks. The only obstacle is that the project needs funding. Earlier this year, I applied for funding from an academic research council, but unfortunately I didn’t get it. There are no scholarships available; I have written to educational trusts in the hope of obtaining a small grant, but many of them only fund undergraduates or PhD students.

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Academic funding budgets are small and have been cut in recent years. As a result, more and more graduates are turning to alternative and entrepreneurial ways of funding academic projects, including crowdfunding. As a student said in a Financial Times article,

“It’s really hard to find funding for postgraduate courses in the UK, in the same way that it’s really hard to afford the fees for undergraduate courses in the US”

I plan to work to fund living expenses and I will conduct my linguistics research part-time, which will take two years. Although I have mixed feelings about it, I am investigating crowdfunding as a funding method; my university has its own crowdfunding platform and other postgraduates have successfully raised funds.

Cultural Life is strictly non-commercial and is a space for me to share posts and connect with other bloggers. However, I decided to join Amazon Associates a few days ago after seeing that a few blogging acquaintances use it. If you click through to Amazon and make purchase anything via my Associates link, I get a tiny percentage as a reward for referring you to Amazon. Anything that I receive from being an Amazon affiliate is going to fund my project. Thank you very much!

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Amazon.co.uk

As always, I welcome feedback and discussion in the comments section. What advice would you offer to graduates who are transitioning to the next phase in their career?

Also, I am aware that crowdfunding can elicit negative responses — what do you think about the growing trend for postgraduate researchers to seek support via crowdfunding platforms? Please be honest! I’d love to hear what my readers think!

On the Difference Between Pursuing Grades and Exploring Interests

At this time of year, the pressure builds up for most college students. Spring break is over for many students, there are multiple deadlines for papers to be turned in and preparation for exams is in full-swing. But perhaps this pressure could be reduced if more students took a deeper interest in their classes. Arguably, students who are driven solely by grades come away from their college experience with a lot less knowledge than students who are motivated by interest.

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Exploring my intellectual interests is something that motivates me. I have posted before about how inspired I am by studying linguistics and how it is my aspiration to teach linguistics. In February, I applied for grant funding for graduate study and writing my research proposal felt great, chiefly because it involved my own original ideas, informed by the literature I read. All questions have to come from somewhere and in academia, you have to know what has been said already to generate new research.

However, I recently found myself losing sight, just a little, of the bigger picture and having to be particularly intentional in reminding myself what it is. Of course, grant funding is highly competitive. I am awaiting the decision, which I will hear in the next few weeks, and in the mean time my work is keeping me busy (hence, the sparsity of recent posts on my blog). To get funding, I need to get excellent results in my undergraduate degree and even then, it may not be awarded to me. Naturally, this has been on my mind quite a lot and I have been working solidly during Spring break: writing, writing, researching, and writing some more.

The idea for this post arose when I realized that I have been working so hard, focusing on getting the grades so I can continue my academic career, that my enthusiasm kept dipping. Personally, I find the more I fixate on pursuing grades, the less creative I become in exploring ideas. Grades are important, yes, because they are a measure of academic excellence. But I would argue that there are two versions of doing ‘well’: a materialistic version where you check all the boxes, such as being at the top of the class, a straight-A student, achieving a 4.0 GPA….etc. We hear a lot about the “straight-A student” as the benchmark for academic excellence, perhaps more so in high school contexts than in college. To me, this implies that the system prizes material scores over the other version of doing well: exploring ideas, learning because you want to learn, and not simply because you want a good transcript.

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While traditional grading systems, such as the letter grade, are deeply rooted in the education system, my personal opinion is that academic institutions should place less emphasis on students getting a perfect test score and, instead, focus more on intellectual interest.

Being engaged with what you are learning results in better work. Yes, it feels great to do well in an exam, but scoring perfect grades should be merely a byproduct of study that is motivated by wanting to know more, by curiosity and absorption. As I wrote above, I found that placing too much focus on the endpoint spoils the journey and results in work that is less creative and less intellectually engaged. I’d rather focus on the second version of doing well, and then the first comes much easier!

Advice For Young Academics

#AdviceForYoungJournalists was trending on Twitter this morning and a spinoff hashtag, #AdviceForYoungAcademics, started. It reminded me that the idea for this post has been brewing in my brain for a while, but I haven’t found the time to blog since early January: a partial explanation for my hiatus is the beginning of the Spring term and the deluge of reading, writing and class-attending that it entailed. The other reason is that I spent two weeks in a coffee haze, writing a research proposal to apply for grant funding for my MA and Ph.D. On Friday, I heard that I have been officially accepted for a Master’s degree, to be followed by a Ph.D. This is very exciting! Now I have to wait a couple of months before I hear about whether I am awarded the funding. The grant is competitive and there is one place available. In the meantime, I don’t have much time to think/worry about it, because I have 9,000 words to write over the next few weeks.

Regular Cultural Life readers will know how much I am enamored by academia, which brings me to the point of this post. Before Christmas, I checked out Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture, edited by Sherrie A. Inness, from my university library. Although it isn’t related to my academic field of linguistics, the title attracted me because I have an interest in how smart women are portrayed. Also: yes, I read academic books for fun. I checked this book out during winter break, so I think that probably makes me a nerd by default.

Geek Chic is a collection of chapters about the portrayal of intelligent women in popular culture and the media. This includes fictional women, such as “Beauty and the Geek: Changing Gender Stereotypes on the Gilmore Girls” by Karin E. Westman, and real-life women, such as, “Heckling Hillary: Jokes, Late Night Television, and Hillary Rodham Clinton” by Jeannie Banks Thomas. I didn’t read the book from cover-to-cover, instead I picked out the chapters that were most interesting to me. That’s one of the great things about an academic anthology of different chapters: you can pick and choose the parts that are the most interesting and relevant.

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I particularly enjoyed the chapter by Leigh H. Edwards, entitled “Dangerous Minds: The Woman Professor on Television”. Edwards writes about how women in academic careers are portrayed on screen in the dramas Jack and Bobby and The Education of Max Bickford. Unsurprisingly, the dramas portray female academics who achieve success in their professional lives, but at the same time they are “condemned for how they depart from traditional gender roles in their private lives” (Edwards, 2007: 122). Edwards’s chapter highlights the “continuing structural inequities for women in higher education” and the fact that many female graduates “[jump] off their career track to be stay-at-home mothers”. Note that Edwards is not judging women who choose that path, she is highlighting the problems and issues that many women face in their careers. This is an ongoing issue, as posts on the excellent Tenure, She Wrote blog show.

I am surrounded by intelligent, academic women in my university department and I respect them greatly for their knowledge and enthusiasm. I am at the beginning of my academic career and I am fortunate in that sexism directed at smart women isn’t something that I have personally encountered, although I know it exists. Just yesterday I read a chapter by Louise Mullany entitled “Gendered Identities in the Professional workplace: Negotiating the Glass Ceiling”, which is about how language can be used to reinforce and spread gender stereotypes in the business world. Mullany (2010: 183-4) cites Kanter’s (1977) four categorizations of gender identities that are often imposed on women in business: the ‘mother role’ (i.e., “stereotypically feminine”), the ‘iron maiden’ (“characterised […] by the performance of masculine speech styles”), the ‘seductress’ and the ‘pet’. If a woman tries to fulfill both feminine and masculine roles, it can result in a “double bind” (ibid.). This, to me, speaks volumes about how the media widely portrays women as unable to fulfill dual roles: duality is frowned upon.

Judgments are commonplace – I have heard them even within my family – about women who decide to fulfill dual roles. It seems to me that women are subject to more judgments about their choices in their personal lives and the chapter by Edwards in Geek Chic describes how the dramas she discussed portray a “dynamic in which women must excel in their career but replicate the nurturer-caregiver role at home, part and parcel of an effort to ‘have it all'” (Edwards, 2010: 124). These shows, and popular culture in general, rarely show women who pursue a professional career and a private life, without resorting to drug use or having their marriages fall apart. Rather than depictions of ‘mommy wars’ and judgments designed to induce guilt in working mothers, I’d rather read about professional women who manage just fine. As a post from Tenure, She Wrote aptly says: Daycare is not a bad word!

Public domain images source:  Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

Public domain images source: Woman Studying and Baby Carriage clipart

I am a young, aspiring academic; therefore, I guess I’m not best qualified to give advice. But I think it’s always good to reflect on your experiences, however old you are. A few of the things I’ve learned so far are:

1) Doing your own research and conducting fieldwork is a wonderful thing.

2) Hard work does pay off. When I look at my post in October, I was starting out on a project and felt somewhat downcast at the time. A few months later: I finished the project, which was very rewarding, and achieved an excellent grade.

3) Always be engaged. If something bores you, look at it from another angle and find what is interesting about it.

4) Prioritize! Start your most important papers/projects/essays etc. early. I like to start early and brainstorm, as it allows time for ideas to percolate.

5) Find your rhythm: when do you work best? For me, it’s the early morning, so I do more intellectually taxing work in those precious hours between 7 – 10 am.

6) Be determined! Everyone doubts themselves sometimes: it’s not a weakness.

Do you have advice for young academics? What do you think about the stereotypes and categorizations that are frequently imposed on professional women?

The references for the books which contain the chapters mentioned in my post are:

Inness, S. A. (2007). Geek Chic: Smart Women in Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Llamas, C. and Watt, D. (2010). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

How do you relax?

The past few weeks were strenuous in terms of my workload, enjoyable but strenuous! Regular readers of Cultural Life might remember that I hit a low point for a week or so when I started the final year of my BA in October, but I think that was simply due to adjusting back into the pace of the academic year. I was also feeling somewhat daunted by the first piece of fieldwork that I had to do for one of my modules. As I wrote in that October post, the class assignment was “the most advanced and demanding project I have done so far”.

However, flash forward a few months later: the project is finished, I turned it in last Monday and I feel happy with my work. When I printed out the project, MS Word told me the total editing time was 1906 minutes — 31.8 hours! That doesn’t include the time I spent finding people to interview, which entailed making lots of phone calls and utilizing social media, making several 2-hour round trips to interview people, transcribing the interviews and reading background literature on my subject. Overall, I estimate that I spent at least 60 hours on the project, but it was worth it! Whereas I felt somewhat downcast initially, the experience I had of carrying out this project has made me even more sure that the academic life is the life for me. I am intent on pursuing my goal of becoming a university lecturer. While I know there will be low points along the way, it’s good to reflect on the high points too because sometimes, when there are setbacks, it can be difficult to remember how the highs feel.

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This weekend is a brief respite before the Spring/Summer semester begins and I am making the most of doing nothing study-related! As Caitlin Kelly from Broadside Blog tweeted recently, “We all run ourselves at an industrial pace”, which is so true!

It does feel good being unproductive. I am taking this weekend out to relax; last night I went out for dinner with friends and today I went for a 3 mile walk, followed by too much time on my laptop, catching up on blogs and browsing online newspapers. This evening, I’m going to curl up in front of the fire with Hillary Clinton’s memoir of her time as Secretary of State. It feels deliciously unproductive and yes, I could be doing preliminary reading for the new classes which I start this week, but sometimes it’s good to just give ourselves a break.

How do you relax?

My kitty says "take a nap!"

My kitty says “take a nap!”

Weekend link love

Here’s a selection of links to things I’ve read and watched during the past few days, in between my hectic study schedule. Winter break starts in a week; it’s the first Sunday of Advent today and December starts tomorrow….where has the year gone?! Although I will still be busy working on my sociolinguistic project that is due at the beginning of January, it will be great to have a break from driving to campus every day!

Homes of the River Gods: The History of American Mansions: a short piece from JSTOR Daily. As I have an interest in country homes, à la Jane Austen, I was intrigued to learn a little about the history of mansions in America. On a side note, I use JSTOR a lot for sourcing academic papers and the JSTOR Daily section is a pleasant place to browse during a study break, with lots of fascinating short articles!

Tenure, She Wrote: this post, The strange duality of being a pregnant professor, was featured on Freshly Pressed a couple of days ago. As I am an aspiring academic, I’m always interested to hear about women’s experiences in academia.

A Bad Lip Reading of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

This is very silly, but rather clever, and it made me giggle this weekend! Bad Lip Reading is a YouTube channel that produces spoof videos of popular movies and TV shows with dubbed speech that ‘matches’ the vocal movements of the actors; hence, a bad lip reading. The videos are addictive and entertaining! They just released the Catching Fire video and I hope they do a Mockingjay one soon.

NPR – How Dogs Understand What We Say: we already know that canines are incredibly intelligent and can do many amazing things, such as sniffing out drugs and explosives and assisting people who are hearing-impaired or disabled. But a new study suggests that dogs understand more of human language than we think. Research conducted at the University of Sussex shows that dogs process both meaning and emotion in human speech and that “dogs are able to differentiate between meaningful and meaningless sound sequences”. As a student linguist, this kind of study is fascinating, but I imagine there are many difficulties in designing experiments for canine subjects and probably as many complexities in interpreting the results.

Pretty Stella

Roasted Fennel & Butternut Squash Soup: this soup is so tasty and quick to make. I changed the recipe slightly (I used vegetable stock and omitted the half and half) and it is an excellent winter meal!

What have you been reading, watching and listening to on the internet this weekend? Share some link love in the comments!