Today, for the first time ever, I am on strike. @LancasterUCU You will not see me on the picket line (at least not yet) because frankly, I’m exhausted. @ucu here’s my #precaritystory

On Thursday morning, I posted a series of tweets which look set to be the most-read thing I’ve ever written, or am ever likely to. They came as I hit the bottom of a trough I’ve been trying to avoid for a while, and they seem to have touched a chord. As I write, on Saturday afternoon, the original tweet has been retweeted 313 times and has been seen by more than 120,000 people.

I’m on strike for the first time ever. I always managed to avoid it when I was teaching. And although I will go out on the picket line if we’re still striking in a week or two, at the moment, I’m just too tired. I am, as I said, exhausted – and that’s one reason why there hasn’t been any activity on the blog since the end of December. I thought I’d use a bit of my time to explain in a bit more detail where I’m at, what’s going on, and why I’ve been brought to this point.

I have very mixed feelings about this strike for a number of reasons, but in the end, how else will things change?

For one thing, I don’t like going on strike. Students deserve an education, and their learning is disrupted when we withdraw our labour. Yes, there are plenty of materials on the moodle or blackboard or whatever virtual learning environment we choose to use, but there’s nothing like being able to discuss them together. There is a lot of guilt here. If I didn’t want to teach, and if I didn’t value teaching and learning I wouldn’t be in this job.

There should be dialogue. I’d like to think things should be sorted out by talking. Striking should be a last resort. And in this case, it is. If I didn’t value teaching and learning so highly, I wouldn’t be on strike. Because something has to change.

I passed my viva in 2015. For a year I had no work.

That is the only reason I’ve got a book. I had nothing else really to occupy the 16 horrendous months when I had no income. I managed to spend that time researching my extra chapter, and revising my PhD.

Oh, and writing job applications of course. Knowing what I know now, I realise that a lot of that was time wasted. There was no way that I could ever have been shortlisted for any of those roles – I simply couldn’t compete with people like the person I am now, let alone people like the ones who are able to move all over the country to take up fellowships and short term cover positions.

But not all those jobs were in academia. I’ve never restricted myself to academic jobs. I’ve applied for teaching positions (I’m a qualified teacher and I always assumed I would go back to that), museum and heritage work, educational outreach roles, administration… anything that would bring in a regular pay packet and seemed within the scope of my skills. Nothing.

And then there were the applications for research grants. A whole other level of time-consuming and soul-destroying madness. One year an application got through to the second round of the British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowships – no mean feat in itself, and I was over the moon. But that’s the closest I’ve ever come.

Then I picked up a 3 hours a week teaching on a university evening course. I held on to this work for 3.5 years. But there was no pay during the holidays, and often they couldn’t tell me if there would be any work at all until 2 or even1 week before term started. A couple of weeks before term started, I was asked to write an entire unit of 8 lectures and 16 hours of seminar material. I needed the money, so I said yes.

Long term readers will know that I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the First Year history course for Liverpool Hope. They might remember my class drawing the causes of the civil war, re-creating Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech or singing a witchcraft ballad.

The new unit was the Foundation Course on Making Modern Britain. I was told that there was no one else to teach it as all the permanent staff had full workloads, so although it would be a lot of work in the first year, it would be mine to teach thereafter – a promise of some regular (if still hourly-paid) work. Now I know that the person who told me this believed it, as at the time they had no reason to think otherwise. It was a promise made in good faith.

The trouble was that it was already past the beginning of September and the course would start at the beginning of October – while the student material needed to be ready before that, as the course moodle was supposed to be ready a couple of weeks before the students started. I believe that this Foundation Course was supposed to be rolled out the following year, but someone in the university management had decided that as there had been several enquiries from humanities students after the A level results came out, they would bring it forward.

Not my area. Cue two weeks of frantic research and writing.

I’m a sixteenth century specialist, but I can turn my hand to a lot, and this was only a foundation (pre-first year) course, so I knuckled down and got on with it. Working all hours – a level of work only surpassed by the two weeks before I submitted the first full draft of my thesis to my supervisors.

The inbuilt ‘prep time’ of 2hrs per contact hour didn’t come near how long it actually took. Write a lecture in 2 hours on something you know little about? I think not. Of course I’m going to spend more time on it. I am a professional & students deserve better than a rush job.

And this is how academia works. If I had ever got to teach it again, the hours of preparation that I put in would have paid off. But that’s not what happens to hourly paid casual staff, as a rule – we usually teach different courses ever year, so we’re always doing more preparation, more reading…

I’m still proud of that unit. Despite the rush, the activities were carefully designed to introduce students to the historian’s art and they worked really well. I never got to teach it again. The course as a whole was restructured and the work reallocated to permanent staff.

I put a lot of effort in to writing a course that would introduce students to a wide range of source material, walk them through how to read academic articles, find appropriate resources and even think about how television presents history. Meanwhile, they got to do source analysis, reflective tasks, their own research and presentation… It was, if I do say so myself, pretty good.

I was asked to cover a whole module at another university. It was great. But again, I only worked 20 hours a week for 10 weeks. It was cover for research leave, so there was no chance of it being extended.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Edge Hill too. On the back of this, I got asked to develop the department’s summer school offering – one of the few things that helps to keep my finances afloat during the summer vacation.

 Again the gaping summer loomed. No work, no money and no guarantee of anything in the future. But I keep hanging on in hope…. It’s not much fun living in my house in the summer. There’s very little money and I find it very stressful.

When you’re an hourly paid, casual worker, you don’t get paid in the summer because there is no teaching. It’s vacation, so you have to find alternative means of supporting yourself. There might be a bit of work on a summer school, or exam invigilation, but it’s a really difficult time largely because there is never any guarantee that there will be more work in the autumn. I start my summer not knowing if I’m going to get any more work, and I often finish it the same way – I really do only find out a matter of days before teaching begins. Why? Because the universities don’t know how many students they are going to have to teach:

In the early summer of 2010, a decision was taken by an inner cabinet of the incoming Tory-led coalition government that has revolutionized higher education in England and Wales (though not in Scotland). Framed as part of a wider dismantling of public services in the name of ‘austerity’, the decision was to almost totally remove public funding for university teaching and replace it with high student fees backed by income-contingent loans, with the intention of creating a ‘market’ in higher education. Since then, a succession of steps have been taken to consolidate this marketisation. It has been made much easier for private providers, both for-profit and not-for-profit, to obtain degree-granting powers and the right for their students to be eligible for publicly-backed loans. The cap on student numbers has been removed, encouraging universities to maximise their income by admitting greatly increased undergraduate numbers. And a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has been installed which awards Olympic-style gradings to universities on the basis of such metrics as the employment record of their graduates.

https://fabians.org.uk/the-marketisation-of-higher-education/ [accessed 22/02/20

Now whatever your political allegiances, that paragraph sums up the changes to the university system in the last 10 years. Vice chancellors are now running businesses, and money is spent on capital projects. The proportion of money spent on staff has dropped.

No lazy summer days relaxing. No, that’s the time when I do my own research, for nothing. While panicking about whether I’ll get any more work. My partner and children suffer, because I’m tired, anxious and burned out.

Yes, I’ve still got to carry on with my own research, even though no one pays me to do it – in fact, it costs me money in travel, conference attendance, image rights, digitisation costs, paper and ink…. Because I’ve got to keep publishing at a rate of knots. A book isn’t enough, there always needs to be more if I want a permanent job. And I’ve got to develop all my ideas, plan future research projects… It’s never enough, as there could always be more.

In 2018, I managed to pick up some hourly paid work at my dream university. But after 18 months, I’m on my 25th short term casual contract.

They range from 30 minutes to 132 hours; from running welcome week introductions through delivering seminars, through setting up an entire course from scratch to supervising a PhD. And don’t forget the 16 dissertations I’m supervising.

These aren’t 25 ongoing contracts – some last far longer than others. I am currently teaching 6 seminars across 2 different first year courses and convening a second year module that I have created from a single paragraph outline as well as supervising 16 dissertations and acting as second supervisor on a PhD.

I never get paid the same from one month to the next. Except of course in summer when I don’t get paid at all. It’s impossible to tell if I’m being paid correctly and the strike will just make that worse.

Some of these contracts last for several weeks, some for several monsths, some are only a few days. Some of the contracts are on timesheets, some are paid monthly. Work comes and goes – for example I gave up last weekend to mark 25 second year essays, but that was a one off and I got a new contract just covering that. It’s almost impossible to keep on top off, and makes life incredibly hard work. I can’t help but think it would just be easier for the department to put me on a part time contract – the departmental administrator must spend hours generating all these separate contracts for me!

Last year a permanent job came up where I’m working. I applied, I interviewed, but I didn’t get it. I was and still am devastated. My hope has gone.

Because I can’t see how I’m ever going to get a proper academic job now. I know that any of the 5 of us who interviewed for that position could have done it. There’s so little to choose between us when we all have to be academic superheros. I drive home from work each day conflicted. I’m buzzing from teaching and working with such a great bunch of colleagues – I love it! But I know there is little chance of a long term future doing this. People have been very supportive since I didn’t get the job, pointing out that I have an excellent application for other jobs. But very few come up, and fewer still at places I can actually get to. I’m not prepared to move house because I’ve got family and friends here, and my children are settled in their schools. Academia doesn’t let you put your family first.

But I’m still working all hours [I did 15 yesterday although I admit that’s not normal!] because if I don’t, I can’t get through the work from one day to the next.

And I’m paid by the hour. Each seminar or lecture has an allocated number of hours of preparation time. Sometimes it’s appropriate, sometimes it isn’t. After all, if I happen to have read and know the two articles set as reading for a seminar, that’s fine. If I have to find those readings, especially on a topic that isn’t directly my area, then obviously it’s going to take far longer. How many articles do I have to read before I find the two that are just right?

This tends to work itself out a little if you teach the same course from one year to the next, as changes are incremental after the first year. But often we don’t, so we’re trapped in a cycle of read: prepare: teach: repeat. And the truth is that during term time, I can’t afford to turn any work down, because I don’t know whether I’ll get any more.

I really appreciate the people I’ve worked with at all these places. They work hard and worked hard to help me get more work. The problem isn’t them. It’s systemic. Our university system is broken because it’s all about the money. Education is not a business.

And this is one of the things I want to stress – the people I’ve worked with have been great – they understand the situation and they know that its exploitative. And they’ve done their best not just to get me more casual work but to help me find a more permanent role. I’m pleased to say that my head of department is making a stand on my behalf. But I am only one person, and so is he. The problem is so much bigger. Universities rely on casual staff like me.

I am working the equivalent of a full time academic job, but I will not earn £10k this academic year. And I have no hope of a full time permanent post. I would be better off stacking shelves at Aldi

Let’s get this straight. I don’t have the admin that permanent staff take on. But I have more teaching. As of contract number 25, I will make just over £10200 this academic year. A full time lecturer makes more than 3 times that amount.

Someone complained that I shouldn’t use the demeaning ‘working in retail’ trope. I don’t see anything demeaning about working in retail. Demeaning is not having an income for a quarter of the year. Demeaning is working for nothing. Demeaning is not having enough money to pay the bills even if you’re working full time. Demeaning is not knowing whether you’re going to get ny more work after your current contract ends. I don’t think I deserve a high salary because I’ve got a PhD. I am happy to work on the minimum wage, and I’ve done it regularly since I got my doctorate.

But the fact remains that, as my son pointed out, I would earn more at Aldi, because I would be paid for all the hours I did. I would have a permanent contract, so there would be security. And I would be able to walk home from work at the end of the shift and forget all about it.

Our students deserve to be taught by staff who don’t have to worry about where their next wage packet is coming from and whether they can pay the bills. Who have time to develop their research, keep up to date in their field & develop research-led teaching that can enthuse

Because constant worry is exhausting. When we’re exhausted and overworked, permanently worried and we daren’t turn down any work, then we’re not going to be working at our best, no matter how hard we try.

So that’s why I on strike. It’s probably too late to help me – I think my days of working in university will soon be over, though it breaks my heart because I love this job. But no-one else deserves to go through this.

So heartbreaking that I am, finally, crying.

I haven’t had time to grieve for my academic dreams since I didn’t get the job. I spent most of Christmas putting together the new course that I was covering for a colleague and convening from scratch. It didn’t leave time for much else. And when you hurtle from one bit of work to the next, you don’t have time to stop and think.

Now I’m on strike, I do.

I’m sad that it has come to this.


As 2019 draws to a close, I find myself with a lot on which to reflect.

There has been much to celebrate: I was invited to speak at a major conference in Spain, I’ve had two articles accepted by important journals, and my teaching continues to go well. I even wrote a blog post about precarity which has now been seen 1891 times (an enormous number of views for this blog!).

But there has been a significant disappointment, which really outweighs all the positive things about this year.

I didn’t get the job I wrote about in my Academic Endgame post.

I knew that the odds were never in my favour. Even when I got an interview, there was still only a 1 in 5 or 6 chance I would get the job. But up to that point, there was always hope. Now, there is very little of that. Because it’s not just about the one job, it’s about my whole academic future (or lack of it). To be honest, disappointed doesn’t begin to describe how I feel.

So the question for 2020 is where to go from here. I’m not able to up sticks and move to take a job anywhere, so my academic options are pretty limited. There is one more iron in the fire (and it’s such a long shot we can barely see the target) before I have to have a complete rethink about my future. And I’m not looking forward to that.

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.

Next Page »