November 2019

Given the number of FutureLearn courses that I’ve undertaken over the last few years, it’s been interesting to spend 5 weeks as a mentor on the Lancaster University/FutureLearn course on Lancaster Castle: The View From the Stronghold.

The course takes participants through the region’s history from the Romans to the twentieth century, although obviously in only 3 hours a week for five weeks it’s something of a whistle-stop tour:

  • Week 1 – from the Romans to the 11th century
  • Week 2 – the mid to high Middle Ages
  • Week 3 – the early modern period
  • Week 4 – the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
  • Week 5 – the twentieth century
Lancaster Castle

The videos are hosted by current and retired staff from Lancaster, including Professor David Shotter – which is a bit of a blast from the past because my mum was a secretary in the Classics department at Lancaster when she was younger, while Professor Shotter was working there.

It’s been interesting to view a course from the other side. As course mentors, we took a very light touch, preferring to let the learning community help one another. We tried only to step in when needed, for example, when someone had asked a question to which no-one else responded, or if there were technical problems which needed investigation. And it’s been really nice to see how everyone responded to one another, helping each other with further links to other material, discussing the issues that were raised and trying sort out any problems that arose.

Just before the start of the Michaelmas term, I went to the Archiving the Soundscape workshop at the Wellcome Institute, London, organised by the Soundscapes in the Early Modern World project.

Day 2 began with a panel which opened with an archaeologist from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, Catrina Cooper, who worked on the Virtual St Stephens Project.   An add on was created called ‘Hearing the Commons’ because the visualisations were beautiful but missed the full sensory experiences.  You can used digital technology to recapture the soundscapes.  But one of the big questions is how to create an acoustic and visual model of a space that no longer exists?

For the Voice and Vote exhibition as part of Vote 100 project they used architectural plans, because you need to know the size and shape of the space and its surface materials.  Anechoic recordings are then in a dead space with no reverberation, so that they can then be modelled through software which applies the impulse responses of the space. This means you can hear what it sounded like.  It was really interesting to think about how the women would have had to concentrated as they tried to listen to debates in the Commons from an attic space, with the sound travelling through an air vent.  Also Catriona pointed out that it brought to mind how people in the space of the Commons itself used the acoustic features of the space to make it difficult for people who were in the chamber to hear.

Jennifer Richards asked whether there were more interactive ways of presenting these sort of results, as soundscapes tend to be very passive. Catrina acknowledged that there are problems, and you can never completely recreate the past, but she argued that we can get somewhere near.

Next up wash Katherine Butler Schofield on Chasing Eurydice: Music and its Material traces in 17-18C Mughal India.  She’s been trying to work out what Hindustani classical music actually sounded like in Mughal India.  She made the point, initially, that musical instruments sound very different in the hot and dry to the cold and wet, which is something that we rarely consider!  The Mughals were a central Asian dynasty who took Delhi in 1526.  Pictures often depict a small group of friends gathering to enjoy music in an elite aristocratic situation, but the music was mainly improvised and in any case not notated, therefore it has gone. To Hindus, and Jains in particular, sound was auspicious and you could use a bell to cleanse a temple when you entered, or music to greet an infant at the moment of its birth.

She then talked about how sound was very widely used in forts, for festival such as weddings, birthday celebrations and song and dance events.  She showed manuscript images of how Agra fort was used, with awnings, rich fabrics, fireworks and lots of people, including musicians.  The dozens of musicians apparently playing at once might not have been entirely realistic, she suggested, but rather the depiction was there to give a sense of the grandeur and the level of noise taking place overall.  She showed another example of a painting in which there were many musicians performing different functions at the birth of a prince.   Her last point was that there is no way of recapturing what music really sounded like, but it is the exploration which yields interesting results.

The final paper in the panel was given by Simon Smith on Song in the Archive: the case of playhouse music.  Scholars usually work on the melodies of playhouse songs and how they were performed.  But we have no record of how they were experienced and no descriptions of how they were performed on stage.  We have songbooks for non-dramatic recreational performance, but although what we are looking for did once exist, but what survive is something a little different.  What is the dramatic function of a playhouse song, for example, and how does this affect its afterlife as something else? He suggested that song was intended to make the audience take on the inherent viewpoint of the narrator through a process of imaginative identification.

The Workshop closed with a look at some sound-related items from the Wellcome’s early modern collections.

Just before the beginning of the Michaelmas term, I attended the Archiving the Soundscape workshop run at the Wellcome Institute in London by the Soundscapes in the Early Modern World project.

The first speaker was Richard David Williams, who talked about recalling traces of sound in Hindi manuscripts from the Wellcome Collection. My attempts to take notes on this session were somewhat hindered by the fact that I was privileged to be asked to live tweet the session on behalf of the project!  Nevertheless, it was really interesting.  As well as looking at various song books, he considered a sexological herbal from 1738 which includes treatments for the voice, because the voice is an instrument of seduction! One promised to help you sing like a celestial angel!  Williams noted the specificity of the recipe alongside the hyperbole of the claims it made.  When looking at the medical treatises as a whole, sound comes across in several ways – as a symptom of a problem (diagnosis) and part of the solution (cure).

One of the problems with working with these sources was vocabulary in translation and across time. He pointed out that Hindi includes lots of specific words for sounds with very precise meanings, but it’s hard to know if they mean the same now as they did in the past.  Also, they don’t translate well into English.

Flask lighting at the Wellcome

Next to speak was Louise Marshall, who talked about ‘Reverb: how contemporary sonic theory can resonate the past’.  The excitement about sound is mitigated by the lack of audible historic traces of sound before the development of recording technology.  Even that is not without problems of analysis.   Marshall talked about the idea of noisy objects.  The residue can be accessed through various methodologies.  She raised parallels with early documents which contain residues of bubonic plague, and later ones contain morphine residues which have been discovered through protein research.  Likewise, she argued that sound leaves traces – psychologists and philosophers talk about the continual referencing backwards of language and sound.  So she suggested that contemporary sound theory might help with historic sound studies and described the difference between listening and hearing, quoting Pauline Oliveres who defined and created the practice of Deep Listening.  This is a practice of sonic awareness, which can be used to elucidate networks, inaudible frequencies, and sound spaces. Hearing comes before listening and is a physiological process, whereas listening follows and is mediated. Sound is not simply sound. It is processed, is subject to power, relationships, etc. She pointed out that sonic worlds are not parallel worlds, they need to be legitimised in a real landscape, because the space in which we experience sound affects us too.

Next was Jennifer Richards speaking about Animating Texts and a Wellcome Collection case study, presenting research on behalf of a larger group of scholars.  The paper was about a digital archive.  She is interested in the relationship between digital and print versions of rare books and the voice, which is rarely thought about in relation to the book and digital archive. She argued that the best means of communication was and is the human voice and the digital can help us to recover that too, and experience it again.   The human voice can change the meaning and our understanding of the words.

Jennifer is co-lead on the Animating Text projects – ATNU – which asks the question ‘what is text in a digital age?’ She talked us through various aspects of the project, including an animated woodcut, and changing voices on a Tudor Latin schoolroom to see how volume, timbre, voice and pace affect us. She explained how she had been asked to do ‘something’ with a sample text from the Wellcome Collection- Gabriel Frend’s ‘Of the winter quarter’.  Books in the 16th century were not just objects to be held, but also heard and a record of who had used it, and her work aimed to reflect this. She argued that a book can be marked with the voice as well as by pens.

Close up of the flasks…

The third speaker was Professor Thomas Schmidt talking on ‘Beyond Notation: early modern music manuscripts as repositories of sound’.  Sounds perish because they cannot be written down, while notation is a memory aid to potentially recreate the ‘real’ music – the sound.  So in what other ways might sound have been recorded in the archive – written descriptions and visual images, for example.

But he also wanted to think about what the music books themselves can tell us?  Size and layout can tell us important things about the way that items were used and therefore the soundscape of that use. They tell us how many people could use the book, how they would be laid out and therefore how people would be able to sing or play from them.  For example, table books mean you have to sit around a smallish table – you make music not only with each other but at each other, while an audience is at best incidental in this intimate sound world. The early modern period is full of images of people grouped closely round a table.

Thomas reminded us that the composite sound of polyphony is made up of individual parts held in separate objects – the physical and conceptual units are separate. The objects have their own implications. For example the chant books have to be large and elevated as there is only one object which they all have to use. So the physicality of experiencing a performance from a large chant book placed on one of the remaining chant book lecterns is interesting. They have an effect on the sound that is created – the singers stand close together looking upwards, which sounds very different to modern choirs who stand in a row looking down at their own copy. Yet there are some chansonniers which are too small to be intended for performance, so what was their purpose?  Were they intended to be studied, meditated upon, carried around or copied?  So size has a huge impact on the way that books are used, and Thomas argued that sound is stored in them in this way.

It was a fascinating afternoon, where so many different times, places and spaces were brought together, giving us lots to think about.

I’ve applied for a job.

In itself, this is unremarkable, but as I write this post (which is long before you will get to read it), I know that this job is different for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, because I really, really, really want it. It is my dream job: a permanent research and teaching contract in my ideal workplace.

And secondly, because if I don’t get it, I will have to give up my dreams of an academic career.

I have entered the Academic Endgame.

The person specification could have been written for me, although it wasn’t. Which is why, deep down, I know that if I don’t get this job, that’s it. The university won’t be looking for anyone else like me for years, and I can’t wait that long for another chance. I can’t spend more than one more summer wondering if next year, I’m going to have enough contracts to bring in enough money to make ends meet. I can’t face spending more than another couple of years trying to juggle the million and one contracts I keep in the air at one time. I can’t risk not having the stability to know that I can afford to put my own children through university.

The Academic Endgame is slow. I started this application in September. The interviews are in late November. Which means that…

…the Academic Endgame is stressful. It feels like everything is riding on this one job application. Putting the application together was immensely stressful, because I knew every single word had to hit home and that I can’t afford to get anything wrong. As I write, I’m still waiting to hear if I’ve got an interview…

So the Academic Endgame is also like limbo. There is no real point me working on my research projects at the moment because it could all be a waste of time. If I don’t get the job, I can forget about them. I don’t see any point submitting proposals for conferences, even though there are a couple coming up that I would like to attend, because if I’m not going to be carrying on with my research, there’s no point spending my own money flogging a dead (or dying) horse.

If I don’t get the job, my academic career will die a slow and (for me) a painful death. I’ve got speaking engagements lined up until the end of 2020, and enough work at Lancaster to see me through until summer, which means that there will be no immediate change in my workload. There might be part time work at Lancaster next academic year too, which should give me enough of a buffer zone to find another, more permanent, job. But one of the big problems is that I don’t know what else to do.

And the other?

All the projects I wouldn’t complete. The work half done that would be left unfinished. Saying goodbye to people I’ve enjoyed collaborating and working with – good people who have done a lot to help and support me. The grief that would attend the death of my academic ambitions would be a heavy load to bear.

I’ve made it to the end of the FutureLearn/Lancaster University course on Corpus Linguistics (CL). It ran for 8 weeks and is much more work than any of the previous FutureLearn courses that I have undertaken, so I’m pleased to have made it this far, even if I’ve only been able to dip in and out of activities in the later weeks.

It’s difficult to talk about week 8, because it was all about bad language!  Often used but seldom studied, Tony McEnery had to develop a classification system for these words when he carried out his research, which were, frankly, fascinating, if only because it’s not something we usually think about in that level of detail!  The next video discussed whether men use more bad language than women and whether there is a difference between the words that are used.  There is no statistically significant difference between the amount of bad language uttered by males and females, but the actual words they select do differ.  You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t go into more detail on exactly how those differences manifest, but one thing that came across was the perceived ‘strength’  of the swear words used by men and women – you’ve guessed it: men tend to use ‘stronger’ swear words (based on how offensive film and television audiences find them in studies by the British Board of Film Classification)than women, who tend to use the milder forms.  But there were also statistically significant differences in the categories of usage.  Males used more swear words as adverbial boosters (eg ****** brilliant!) or emphatic adverbs/adjectives (eg he ***** did it!), whereas females used more general expletives and more swear words as premodifying intensifying negative adjectives (eg the **** idiot).

Part 3 investigated how genders interact using bad language – do we use more bad language with or at our own gender or across the gender divide?  Men use more bad language at or among other men than females, while women use it more at or with other females.  Of course, there was a taboo among men about using swear words in front of women, but the norm is there, regardless of this.  Some words are used exclusively at males or females, while others have strong tendencies to be directed at one sex or another.  The male directed words are stronger in terms of their offensiveness.  Likewise, as the fourth video showed, some categories of usage typically select stronger swear words than others.  The destinational category, used when you are angry and want someone to go away, typically uses much stronger words than the general expletive.

Further videos showed that swearing does tend to decline with age, from a peak in the 15-25 category, but Tony McEnery pointed out that this might not have anything to do with the aging process, it could just be the environment in which the words were collected made bad language taboo.  It doesn’t seem to be that they were more often replacing offensive words with non-offensive euphemisms.  The strength of the words used mirrors the frequency, and the stronger categories are used more by the younger age groups.  Social class does affect bad language use, and the study confirmed that lower social classes use more and stronger bad language than the middle and upper classes (although in terms of increasing strength, the results went: DE, C2, AB, C1 (where the social class groups are based on the National Readership Survey codes.

But the results could be skewed when you start considering the way that the corpus was put together.  Although it was put together with similar numbers of words from males and females, from different social classes and different age groups, it was only consistent when divided on the lines of a single variable.  There might, for example, be far more words from male AB speakers aged 45-60 than from female DE speakers aged under 15.  The differences in bad language use are socially constructed.

In the comments, someone pointed out “that females are better at conforming to “good” social norms than males. They are more likely to “be good girls” and less likely to break rules in this patriarchal world. So I think it reflects sexism in language use.” I think this is a good point, and I wonder if use of bad language (and especially strong bad language) likely to be something lower class males do in order to fit in with a stereotype of masculinity which they feel the need to ‘prove’ when they are young. And it’s not just for males, I suppose – there are female groups in which there would be similar peer pressure.  Anyway, I’m no expert on corpus linguistics, sociology nor psychology, so I’d better leave that there.

I’ve downloaded the videos on CQPweb, so I’ve more or less finished the bits that I wanted to do on this course. It’s been an interesting couple of months, and I’ve learned a lot, although there’s plenty more for me to learn by using the EEBO corpus in my research.

I’m still working on a FutureLearn/Lancaster University course on Corpus Linguistics (CL). It runs for 8 weeks and is much more work than any of the previous FutureLearn courses that I have undertaken, so whether I’ll get to the end of it remains to be seen, given my new teaching commitments and other roles to juggle. In the meantime, I’ll share with you my thoughts as each week progresses.

Although I decided last week that I would just store away the CQPweb videos for later, in the end, I did watch several of them after I posted my blog post, trying to find some interesting collocates on the EEBO corpus.  This led me to wondering how to get round the spelling issue – as words are spelled differently in historical corpora, the only thing I could think of was to put in a lot of variant search terms, which is a little tedious but, more importantly, is limited by what variations I could come up with.  I did try looking into the issue in a bit more depth, as the video interview with Steve Pumfrey suggested that he and Paul Rayson had discussed this very point and that there was a simple solution.  It wasn’t one that I could find among their publications, though, so I posted a comment asking about the problem and the course leader, Tony McEnery, replied suggesting a paper that I could read.  I’ve now downloaded it, and it’s waiting in my ‘to do’ pile.

And so on to Week 7, where we began by thinking about our experience of using corpora for language learning and teaching, and how useful they would be. I don’t have any direct experience of teaching languages apart from to my children as native speakers. I suppose we are all using our own corpora all the time, in that respect – there are the words and phrases we use all the time, and the ones which are less frequent, which is what generates the electronic corpora we have been talking about.  I wonder if my own language-learning experiences (yes, we’re back to the Spanish!!!) have been informed by corpora or not…..?

It might well be useful to use corpora for language teaching, albeit with the caveats we discussed last week – some of the most frequently used ideas and phrases might require a higher level of thinking and ability that beginners don’t have, while the sheer number of meanings of the most frequently used might be confusing for beginners too. So there is a compromise to be had between teaching words which will be most useful and ‘flexible’ – giving a lot of usage with a small vocabulary – and keeping things straightforward, perhaps by introducing a few frequent meanings first and less common ones later.

The first video looked at how corpora could help with language learning research, because they both look at patterns in language.  We can look at the variation between the use of language by native speakers and second language learners.  It raised the interesting point that corpora of second language learners’ language are influenced by what they are taught when, as well as how often those words and phrases are needed.  The next video was about what different learner corpora could tell us about the development of language proficiency, while the third talked about the use of this information in developing corpus-based teaching materials.  Exposure to authentic language use allows language to be learned implicitly, which is more fluent.  Another interesting point that it raised was about active learning – that knowledge gained by discovery and finding out for themselves is more robust and likely to be retained in the long term.  The final video described how data-driven learning could be used in language teaching and learning by allowing learners access to the corpora in order to explore language of personal relevance to them or complete controlled tasks set by the teacher, as well as the challenges these techniques raised.  Learners needed preparing for the use of corpora in language learning as they found some aspects difficult – for example, they needed clear instructions, but they also needed training on interpreting the corpus results such as whether something was a pattern or not.  BNClab contains teaching materials which help language learners use the corpora effectively, so they get an introduction to the linguistic topic explaining why it is important, then a series of tasks which allow them to access the data directly and interpret the results effectively.

The practical activity had us looking at the use of utterly and perfectly, which appear to have more or less the same meaning according to dictionary definitions.  This means that learner English speakers would expect to use them interchangeably, but their actual usage by native English speakers tells a rather different story. 

Your query “utterly” returned 33 matches in 26 different texts (in 1,147,097 words [500 texts]; frequency: 28.77 instances per million words)
I noticed that 18 of the 33 were ‘JJ’, although I’m not sure what that classifies them as.
Your query “perfectly” returned 55 matches in 47 different texts (in 1,147,097 words [500 texts]; frequency: 47.95 instances per million words

Before beginning the task, I would have guessed that utterly was negative and perfectly was positive, but looking at the situations which cropped up, I wonder if perfectly is often used in a passive aggressive way! Utterly is more used in explicitly negative situations, whereas perfectly can be implicitly negative.  Nevertheless, the teacher notes backed up my gut response to the positive/negative division.

So despite my worries about getting through the course, I’ve made it to the final week! On to Week 8…