The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Why I'm not an academic ...

I've always had a love-hate sort of relationship with academia. I love learning new stuff and getting to grips with ideas, but I get incredibly frustrated by the academic world and a lot of what goes along with it.

Throughout my career I've dipped in and out, with an MA in Applied Linguistics that helped me make the transition from classroom teacher to lexicographer (and beyond), thoughts of a PhD a few years ago that never went past a meeting with a potential supervisor and a bit of reading, then quite a bit of contact with the academic world as I got involved in EAP (both keeping up with ideas and research in EAP and getting to grips with texts from other disciplines). And as some of you will know, my latest foray has been into a slightly new area, embarking on a part-time MA in Forensic Linguistics last October.

I've found exploring the world of Forensic Linguistics fascinating and I've really loved learning new stuff. As my partner will attest to, there were days when I came home absolutely buzzing with new ideas and babbling on about possible new career directions. There was also a lot that I found insanely frustrating though and by the time I got to the end of my first year (the course is 2 years part time), those frustrations were starting to outweigh the excitement. It was a relief to get to the end of term and I realized that the prospect of having to do the same all over again rather filled me with dread ... which is never a good sign! 

I didn't want to give up too easily though, so I signed up for a 4-day summer school in Porto ahead of the Internatonal Association of Forensic Linguists conference, which I also registered for. The summer school consisted of a programme of largely practical workshops led by well-known forensic linguists, significantly, from different universities ... giving me a slightly different angle on the field from my MA course. It was an incredibly intense few days in terms of taking everything in, trying to process ideas to complete the practical tasks, both in the workshops and as 'homework', and in terms of some of the content; murder, drug-dealing, child abuse ... when you're dealing with the law, the topics are rarely light! But it was absolutely fascinating and provided lots of new angles on the field which hadn't cropped up on my course.

It also confirmed though that Forensic Linguistics is still a new field that's very much finding its feet. There aren't yet accepted methods and standards for the analysis of linguistic evidence. Instead, various academics are trying out different avenues of research, some theoretical, some practical, and those actually working with the police and courts almost all have 'day jobs' in academia. Which means that if I wanted to pursue a career, I'd not only have to finish my MA, but I'd really need to do a PhD too before I could even get a foot in the door. Which means more academia ... which brings me back to my problem ...

As I said, I love exercising my grey cells, but there are just some types of academic I really struggle with. They seem to fall into two camps. The first group are concerned with very abstract, esoteric ideas that seem to have little or no bearing on the real world ... study for study's sake. The second type are more practical, dealing with real data, but their studies have become super-narrow; they're investigating pronoun use by 15-year-old female English-French bilinguals in Vanuatu in text messages (that's a made-up example but not far off some of the papers at the conference!!). And when they present their research, they go into the minutiae of how they collected their data and exactly what they found, but never seem to get to any broader conclusions about what it might mean in the wider world. Leaving you with a distinct 'so what?' feeling.

And I can see that there's maybe a place for both types of study to feed into the general knowledge soup that eventually moves the whole field forward. But add onto that the insistence on using unnecessarily impenetrable language and an often shocking lack of rigour and  ... it's just not for me. And even if I wanted to focus on the more applied end of things that most interests me, I'd still have to plough through all that other stuff  - and cite and acknowledge it and 'situate' my work amongst it, etc. And you know, at this stage of my career, I just don't have the patience for often poorly-communicated ideas which seem to be going nowhere.

So somewhere in-between the summer school and looking at the programme for the conference, I decided it was time to cut my losses and step away from academia once again. I did go to a couple of conference plenaries, but I soon realized my motivation had evaporated, so I escaped the stuffy darkened rooms of the university to enjoy the Porto sunshine instead. 

What next? Well, I'll withdraw from the MA and go back to the 'day job' (which, thankfully, I've kept ticking over). I'd like to keep exploring Forensic Linguistics and maybe somewhere along the line find an 'in' where I can use my language analysis skills without jumping through all the academic hoops. Unfortunately though, once I lose my student log-in, I also lose access to all those academic journals. Journal subscription for Christmas maybe ...?

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Blogger Sandy said...

Sorry to hear that you've decided not to go ahead with the MA, but a bit of Porto sunshine never did anybody any harm I think!
A lot of your reservations about academia are similar to mine, and are part of the reason I've been reluctant to go further on the academic side of our field (money and time being the others!) It also reflects some of what I find in some teaching methodology books. The 'so what' feeling can be far too prevalent, when you feel like the author/researcher is too far divorced from real life. For example, I found it very hard to get my head around Michael Lewis's 'The Lexical Approach' because I just couldn't see the relevance to what I could do with my own students. It wasn't until I saw some of his ideas filtered through people like Leo Selivan, Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley that I started to see the relevance. Maybe as the field of Forensic Linguistics progresses, there might be more of examples of people bridging the gap - maybe that could even be something you could look into, though of course, then you'd have to wade through the original research! ;)
Good luck with the next step,

2:45 pm  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks for commenting, Sandy.
I have to say, there are a few people who are bridging the gap between the theory and practice in forensic linguistics ... and they did have me agonizing for quite some time over whether I coould make a go of it as a career. The trouble is, it's such a purely academic discipline at the moment ... you really only get to be an expert witness in court if you're Professor So-and-so and there isn't enough work around for the handful of existing experts to need assistants just yet. So that means ploughing through *all* the academic stuff along the way to becoming an 'expert'. It's not as if you can just be a day-to-day, jobbing forensic linguist who only has to worry about the practical, applied stuff ... it's 'expert' or nothing.

3:00 pm  

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