Tag Archives: academia

The end of my PhD is near, so what’s next?

I have just finished writing the last chapter of data analysis for my thesis. Now I need to write the conclusion and abstract, update my literature review, and do some final revisions then the printing and binding of four copies. Technically I have until March 2015 to submit, so if I haven’t managed to find a job this (Australian) summer, I’ll at least still have student status for a while longer. You’re probably thinking that I could finish in no time since I don’t have much left to do, but I have about seven jobs right now – more than half are actually volunteer positions – so I can’t exactly work on my thesis every single day. Plus turning my chapters into manuscripts to submit to journals takes a while, but needs to be done sooner rather than later since finding an academic job without having research publications is very difficult.

This may or may not be the same size as my stack of data and thesis copies...

This may or may not be the same size as my stack of data sets and thesis copies… [Photo Credit: gadl via Compfight cc]

I love all of my jobs though and wouldn’t give any of them up without a fight. The most time-consuming right now is teaching three classes this semester: first year French, second year French, and a tutorial on intercultural communication. I am a tiny bit obsessed with finding and creating fun speaking and vocabulary activities for my French students (see exhibit A: my Teaching French at Uni board on Pinterest).

I’m in Brisbane this week for the 1,600 delegate-strong AILA World Congress (the most important applied linguistics conference in the world!) and then I’m off to Sydney in October for the Easter Island exhibition that I’m co-curating as well as Taiwan in December to present at the Pacific History Association conference.

I’m also an assistant editor of the Journal of New Zealand & Pacific Studies which publishes two issues a year and has an annual conference in Europe, for which I’m an organiser, as part of the New Zealand Studies Association. (We’ll be in Vienna in July 2015, btw.) Add to those being the student representative for PhD students in my School (I get to complain on behalf of all of the students! I love complaining!), a research assistant, and webmaster of five websites, and hopefully you will understand why I have very little free time these days.

My current student visa expires in October 2015 and I’m still a little unclear as to whether the Department of Immigration changes the expiration date if your degree is conferred before your candidature is up. (It seems that international undergrads who finish their degrees early only have 28 days before they must leave the country.) I’m crossing my fingers that a visa-sponsoring academic job in Australia or New Zealand is available for next year but I’m also trying to prepare for the worst, i.e. packing up everything and moving across the ocean at my own expense for the third time in my life.

Plan B is submitting an expression of interest to obtain a resident visa for New Zealand since university lecturer is currently on the Long Term Skill Shortage List. Plan C is putting my stuff in storage, having friends look after Charlie and basically hanging out in Honolulu or LA until I can find a permanent way back to this part of the world. Just as one language will never be enough for me, one nationality and one passport will never be enough either.

I’ll post a summary of my time at AILA next week, but in the meantime I’m tweeting about the presentations and plenaries I’m attending and you can also check out the hashtag #AILA2014.

Do some academics look down on other academics as well as non-academics?

A recent post on The Thesis Whisperer, a blog designed to help research students in Australia, has been quite popular this past month. The title? Academic assholes and the circle of niceness

Luckily, I have not personally experienced any aggressive or arrogant behavior at the universities I have attended in the US or Australia. My professors and colleagues have always been supportive and helpful. But I have seen this behavior at conferences, and I felt extremely bad for the students who had to deal with it. How are you supposed to respond when a jerk in the audience says your research is pointless? Belittling students and colleagues in front of others in order to feel better about your own research is just awful. Unfortunately, these assholes tend to be perceived as more intelligent than nice people, though it seems to me that people are deliberately arrogant in order to feel superior to everyone else in more than just intelligence. Insecure much? A lot of it is simply bragging – look at me! look at what I can do! look at what I know! – which is incredibly sad considering that academics are supposed to be mature adults and not five year olds.

The Thesis WhispererVery helpful blog for research students

However, I wanted to write about this post because of one of the earliest comments on it, which brings up the issue of academics seemingly acting like jerks to non-academics. Fiona says “In my experience many if not most academics, seem to look down on the lowly general public… Anyone mentioning personal experience or views is usually shouted down by someone demanding an official study is vital to back up the opinion. It’s not possible or acceptable to have a view on anything, it would appear, unless there’s an official study to ‘prove’ it.”

I can understand why she feels that some academics look down on non-academics. There are definitely some Sheldon Coopers in the real world. Academics can seem arrogant when drawing attention to their intelligence, but here’s the thing: academics are more intelligent than non-academics in their chosen fields. I recently posted about my frustration with people who continue spreading myths about linguistics and language learning. It is quite offensive when people who have no professional training in an area that you have been researching for over a decade act as if they know more than you. It is also frustrating when people believe things that have been proven wrong by research for no reason other than they “just do.” When I ask teachers who use the Direct Method why they choose to do so when data show that banning the first language is not beneficial to learning a second language, many are unaware of the research which proves its inefficacy or choose not to abandon it because using the target language 100% of the time “seems” like a better idea, regardless of what the research says. Maybe it is our fault for not popularizing our research more, but what can we do when people refuse to believe our data or change their behavior to incorporate the facts?

Asking what people’s opinions are based on should not be interpreted as academics asserting their superiority, or just plain being assholes. We hope that your opinions will be informed by empirical data, because if not, what exactly are they based on? You can have personal views and tell anecdotes about your experiences, but when you believe things that are not supported by research, of course we want to know why. One person’s opinion is in a separate domain from scientific research, where the conclusions are peer-reviewed, many experiments have been done, and the results can be replicated. So yes, we get quite upset when someone says “I smoked for 20 years and never got sick so smoking doesn’t cause cancer” because years upon years of research involving thousands of people proves that it does cause cancer for some people. Just because something didn’t happen to you, or something didn’t work for you, doesn’t mean you can make a broad generalization for all other people.

Fiona continues her comment: “Most of the public are these days cynical of studies proving this or that, given that so many are contradictory. It seems to me that there’s far more we don’t know that what we do; and that sometimes overly dramatic scare-monger type media releases are simply a way of drumming up more research funding (whilst eroding credibility in the eyes of the public).”

It is true that there is far more that we don’t know than what we do, and that is exactly why we need science. Yet the first sentence epitomizes how misunderstood science really is (especially in the US!). People don’t trust scientists because their results and conclusions are constantly changing, and yes, contradictory. But that is science: the facts must change with the evidence. I don’t know why people are so uncomfortable with this. Granted, there are other reasons why people disregard research in addition to its changing nature. In the case of using the Direct Method, it is easier to teach languages and more profitable to write textbooks in this way, so even with all the evidence against it, teachers and publishers are less likely to do anything differently. I hope everyone can see what an enormous insult to researchers this line of thinking is. To me, disregarding research because it is the easy or profitable thing to do is far more arrogant than what researchers have been accused of.

I am often defensive about the importance of research and academia, mostly because of how much higher education is attacked by right-wingers in the US. I am not trying to brag about how smart I am or make others feel like they are inferior because they are not researchers. I’m just trying to share linguistic research since it’s a shame that so much of it can only be found in journals that are ridiculously expensive (embrace open access, academia!), and since some of the research that makes its way into the popular press only tells one side of the story. If I come across as arrogant online, I apologize for that – but I will not apologize for trying to teach people the beauty of science.

Have any students experienced aggressive and arrogant behavior by colleagues (or even other students)? For those not in academia, how do you feel about academics and researchers?

Non-Linguists, Please Stop Trying to Do or Talk About Linguistics Without the Help of Actual Linguists

Ben Zimmer has a wonderful article on “When physicists do linguistics” over at the Boston Globe, which can perhaps be best summarized by this comic from xkcd:

Joking aside, I am happy that other disciplines have an interest in language – however, I hate when other disciplines try to do linguistic research and fail because they do not involve any actual linguists in the research. I agree completely when Zimmer says that there is a “need for better communication between disciplines that previously had little to do with each other.” Communication among related fields could use a little boost too, because it isn’t just physicists who publish papers that contradict linguistic research. Psychologists, speech pathologists, and cognitive scientists have been doing it wrong for a while too, especially when it comes to multilingual and cultural aspects of language acquisition.

Linguistics seems to the be the field that everyone thinks they can do without any special training. Most people wouldn’t think of talking about chemistry or mathematics without actually having studied those subjects. Yet everyone seems to think they are experts on language simply because they speak a language (their native language) or because they have learned another language. Sorry, but those abilities do not make you a qualified linguist nor do they give you the right to talk about language without checking facts or to teach language as if you were an experienced teacher. I know how to drive a car, but I don’t go around pretending to be a certified mechanic or give advice to others on how to fix their own cars.

Robert Lane Greene’s book, You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, is about this phenomenon. People believe, and repeat, such ridiculous things as “this language has eleventy billion words for X” or “this language is primitive but that language is logical” all the time. Even worse, respected authors repeat these myths in their articles and books, such as Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue, and so they are repeated again and again without anyone questioning whether they are true or not. These myths are dangerous because a lot of them are based on ethnocentrism and the perceived superiority of the way we speak compared to everyone else.

Please, do yourself a favor and study language seriously instead of repeating myths. Talk to actual linguists, read books written by actual linguists or whose authors talked to actual linguists. In addition to You Are What You Speak, you can start with Language Myths (for a general overview), Vocabulary Myths (for language learners/teachers, which I previously posted about), and the “truth-squad” blog Language Log. But most importantly, always question what is written about language even if it is published by best-selling authors or academic researchers because they may not be linguists at all.

Update 26/02/13: And another one! Ugh. “Why speaking English can make you poor when you retire” about research done by a behavioural economist. Hey, that’s not linguistics! ::sigh:: At least the article quotes my hero, John McWhorter.

Update 15/03/15: So glad I’m not the only one who complains about this: If you’re not a linguist, don’t do linguistic research by @EvilJoeMcVeigh

Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching

Vocabulary Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching by Keith Folse (2004, University of Michigan Press) is a great introduction to the gap between practice and research in vocabulary learning and teaching.

I highly recommend the book, but if you’d like a shorter summary, Folse’s article “Myths about Teaching and Learning Second Language Vocabulary: What Recent Research Says” [TESL Reporter 37,2 (2004), pp. 1-13] is also available if you have access to online journals.

The eight myths are:

  1. Vocabulary is not as important in learning a foreign language as grammar or other areas.
  2. It is not good to use lists of words when learning vocabulary.
  3. Vocabulary should be presented in semantic sets.
  4. The use of translations is a poor way to learn new vocabulary.
  5. Guessing words from context is as productive for foreign language learners as it is for first language learners.
  6. The best vocabulary learners make use of only one or two effective specific vocabulary learning strategies.
  7. Foreign language learners should use a monolingual dictionary.
  8. Vocabulary is sufficiently covered in our curricula and courses.

Think about your language classes and how many of these myths were prevalent in the textbook or even encouraged by your teacher.  These myths make teaching languages as well as designing textbooks much easier for the teacher or author, but they go against second language acquisition research on how learners should go about learning a language and tend to make learning even harder.