Writing and thinking versus speaking and thinking (aka musings on using dictation software)

I haven’t written on this blog for quite a while because I recently fractured my wrist after taking a tumble walking out on the North Downs. It’s my left wrist and I’m left-handed and as it’s a carpal bone it’s taking a long time to heal. One of the many consequences of my injury is that I am unable to hand write or use a keyboard.

After what has seemed like many frustrating weeks of tapping the keyboard with my less than competent right fingers (painfully slowly!), I am now using Dragon software. For readers not familiar with this, it’s very handy dictation software. It’s been taking a bit of getting used to but I am now finding it very helpful and I have written this piece today with Dragon.

However, dictating what goes on a page involves a very different thinking process to handwriting or tapping things out on a keyboard and I’ve been thinking a lot about this difference. For straightforward tasks like the majority of emails dictating them is great and really easy. But when I’m doing more formal academic writing, I find that the actual physical process of writing helps to advance my thinking and to resolve problems. Sometimes I find the best way of getting through writing difficulty is to move away from the computer and take a notebook and pencil and simply write, cross things out and make a mess. Speaking in the form of dictating to the computer is quite a departure and I’ve been finding it a bit more difficult. For example, I’m writing up a report on some surveys for a project I manage so it’s in an academic style. It feels as though dictating what I want to write, saying it out loud is more challenging. Of course, I know from my PhD research that speaking is believed to facilitate the development of understanding (e.g. Barnes, 1992) but this is about speaking with another person and collaborating. I am not so sure about the monologue involved in speaking to the computer. Having said all this, speaking my thoughts about what I want to write is still helpful, it’s just not what I’m used to. One of the advantages I’m finding is that it’s enabling me to write in a more informal style which although not always appropriate, has its own benefits and, it could be argued, is adding a new dimension to my writing. So once my hand is healed, I will probably still find some uses for the dictation software because I think it’s giving me access to a different kind of writing and thinking.

References

Barnes, D. (1992) The role of talk in learning, IN: Norman, K. Ed. Thinking Voices: The Work of the National Oracy Project. Oxford: Blackwell, 123-138.

On (not) finding time to write

As someone who teaches on academic and research skills training programmes for postgraduate students, I spend a lot of my time advising students on strategies for writing – including getting started with writing, keeping going with writing, fitting short bursts of writing into a busy schedule, prioritising writing and so on. Some of these are strategies which I have made use of myself and I have found them to be helpful e.g. the Pomodoro Technique and I have commented on these before. Unfortunately, the reality is that I find it extremely difficult to make time for writing that isn’t a 100% compulsory part of my job. In other words, I’m not that great at following my own advice. The writing that I absolutely have to do like project and evaluation reports for funding bodies gets done. It’s the other stuff like completing a paper for a journal or writing a project proposal (useful and interesting but not totally necessary) that I find hard to fit in. Sometimes I am too busy with more urgent tasks, other times I get distracted by incoming emails or people coming to talk to me. Writing requires focused attention and if it’s late in the day, I can be too tired to concentrate. Yet when I get down to it, I really enjoy writing and always have ever since I was a primary school kid. I have come to the conclusion that for me, the best piece of advice I have come across is to allocate time to writing from Silva’s book How to write a lot: A practical guide to academic writing and it only works if the time I allocate is in the morning before I begin to look at emails. So that is what I have started trying to do – allocating a short period of time to writing several mornings each week. I plan to try and update this blog with my progress.

Planning and Time Management for Researchers

I’ve recently taught a workshop on planning and time management for postgraduate research students in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Southampton. The session covered a variety of techniques to help with planning and managing time effectively as well as issues to think about with reading and writing. I’ve uploaded my presentation to Humbox. The workshop was based on similar training materials I developed for postgraduate taught students in my other job role at SOAS, University of London and which I wrote about here.

A few reflections on modern languages and elitism

I was recently asked to speak at a widening participation workshop organised by Routes into Languages East Midlands about why we need to widen participation in language learning, which is one of the key objectives of the Routes into Languages programme. In preparing my presentation for the event, I started out by simply googling ‘languages an elitist subject.’ What came up was a wide variety of media headlines from the last decade – a few of these are listed below:

These headlines do seem to indicate that there really is a media discourse about languages as socially elitist in the UK which will be challenging for those of us in the languages community to break down.

When it comes to the evidence about what is actually going on in this area, the most recent Language Trends survey (Board & Tinsley, 2014) paid some attention to this and reported that among its respondents, fee-paying independent schools were more likely than maintained state schools to offer continuity of language in the transition from Key Stage 2 to 3 and more likely to offer more than one language in KS3. Additionally, as has been much publicised, exam entries in languages at both GCSE and A level include disproportionately high numbers of entries from the independent sector. Most recent GCSE figures show a 15% gap in favour of independent schools, for example. Post-16, the situation is even more pronounced with 32% of all A-level entries in 2013 coming from the independent sector according to Language Trends.

And what of universities? Well, languages tend to be located in the more traditional universities in the UK, i.e. the Russell Group. The UCAS 2013 Application Cycle: End of Cycle Report  in December 2013 made for depressing reading and reported that students from independent schools made up 9.58% of applicants across all subjects compared with 28.34% for European Languages. A few years ago, my former University of Southampton colleague, John Canning published statistics on the social and background of language applicants in UK HE and these highlight the problems in a bit more detail and can be seen on his website.

So in answer to the question, ‘are languages elitist subjects?‘ Yes it would seem so. It is important to emphasise, however, that to some extent they always have been. Languages were traditionally taught in grammar schools and not to the whole cohort. And in the languages community we are still grappling with this aura of elitism that surrounds our subject.

A note on travels in the Gaeltacht

I’ve just returned from a trip to counties Mayo (Maigh Eo) and Sligo (Sligeach) on the west coast of Ireland.

It was my first visit to Sligo and I finally got to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree which so inspired Yeats’ beautiful poem.

P1000194My Dad’s family originate from the Gaeltacht area of Mayo but I hadn’t been for a long time and I’d forgotten that in the stunning setting of the Corraun Peninsula and Achill and amid the memorials to the Spanish Armada, so much of the signage is in Irish only.

P1000184Coming from this part of the world, my Grandfather was Irish speaking and as a linguist, I do feel that my own inability to speak any Irish at all does represent a loss of knowledge. So I am thinking about whether to do something about this and whether to have a go at the 1000 words challenge in my heritage language of Irish. I’ll update this blog with what I decide and how I get on.

Motivation for Research Students

Recently I led a workshop on motivation for PhD students at the University of Southampton as part of the Faculty of Humanities doctoral research training programme. While developing the workshop content and deciding what to include, I found it interesting and also useful reflecting back on my own motivation when I was a part-time PhD student. I remember it as very challenging – somewhat ironic really given that my thesis focused on motivation in language learning. Of course, the motivation for starting a PhD is not the same as the motivation required to get to the end – it’s important to make this distinction. The effort and persistence needed to keep going when the going gets tough can result in students losing sight of the reasons for embarking on the PhD in the first place. I know it was like that for me.

In the end, my workshop covered the reasons for doing a PhD and the benefits associated with it and we then looked at some of the principles that might be involved in keeping motivated to the end:

  • Managing your time
  • Looking after yourself
  • Knowing when and where you work best
  • Planning and managing tasks (including setting goals)
  • Collaborating with others
  • Engaging with the concept of flow
  • Developing strategies to help you through the tough times
  • Reminding yourself of why you are doing a PhD in the first place

My PowerPoint presentation from the workshop is available on Humbox

Writing a Master’s Dissertation – useful resources

I’ve been looking around for useful websites for Masters students which include some nice tips for writing the dissertation. There is lots of stuff out there – the resources below all look helpful to me.