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The Undergraduate Experience: Language in the Workplace

Following on from last summer's student post on Field Linguistics, another outgoing second year student tells us about her experiences of a Linguistics module at Huddersfield. Here's Bethany Ridley-Duff on the Language in the Workplace module.

The Language in the Workplace module, as I’m sure you can guess, focuses on two main things: language and work. 150 hours of work, to be precise, squeezed into the gaps between lectures, train journeys, stacks of extra reading, essay meltdowns – all of your typical student pastimes. Throughout the module, students must write a series of blog posts about their experience of the placement, then present the findings of a work-derived linguistic analysis at the end of the year.

During my own experience with the module, I completed two 75-hour work placements. One involved working at the university with an organisation called Grist Books, promoting and publicising its 2018 prose and poetry contest. For the second, I assisted in the English and Film Studies departments of Greenhead College, marking essays, offering scriptwriting advice, even getting the exciting (and initially terrifying) opportunity to teach solo. Both placements did a great deal for my confidence. Once you’ve spent an hour dissecting Carol Ann Duffy poems in front of a roomful of seventeen-year-olds, a five-minute presentation to your fellow students doesn’t seem quite so daunting.

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 In terms of linguistic analysis, I knew from fairly early on that I wanted to centre my investigation on my teaching placement. Working in a school comes with a tangle of ethical constraints; I knew I wouldn’t be able to collect any spoken data, so I kept my focus text-based. From there, I decided to take a stylistic approach, choosing to ground my analysis in something known as Text World Theory (Werth, 1999; Gavins, 2007).

What is Text World Theory? I’m glad you asked. In its briefest terms, it’s a theory that accounts for how readers understand texts. It argues that when we read, we create mental representations – or ‘text worlds’ – that correspond to events in the given discourse. These text worlds are furnished with enactors (the people or characters within the text) and informed by other contextual details such as the location and time, although these aren’t always explicit within the discourse. Changes in these details, and in the smallest linguistic cues, prompt the creation of new text worlds. Consider the quote below:

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This sentence contains two distinct text worlds. The first comes with ‘I heard Katie say’, where we have a sense of being entrenched in the perspective of whoever ‘I’ is. We also feel that we’re looking backwards, as the verb ‘heard’ is in the past tense. However, when we read the dialogue “I hate the smell of shoe polish”, a new text world is formed. We are still in the perspective of ‘I’, but we know that the referent of ‘I’ has changed – we’re in Katie’s head now. With the verb ‘hate’, we also move from the past to the present. You could represent it like this…

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These linguistic shifts, subtle as they are, cause us to create new worlds as we read. You’re actually doing it right now. And now.

Before I started working at the college, I had to read something called the Greenhead Safeguarding Policy, which is a document that details everything that is expected of prospective and current staff. A section of this policy discusses what actions staff members should take if they discover that a student is being abused. Using Text World Theory, analysed how the policy prepares the reader to cope with such a high-pressure scenario. The extract I examined is below. 

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One central feature I noticed is the use of coordinated text worlds at multiple points in the extract. When it says ‘If a student says that he or she is being ill-treated…’, the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’ are juxtaposed. This creates two parallel text worlds, one in which the abuse is happening to a male victim, one in which it is happening to a female. This shows the reader that victims have an equal chance of being either gender, potentially challenging pre-existing biases about who abuse is most likely to afflict.

We also see the triadic list ‘ill-treated, bullied or abused in any way’, which creates a trio of text worlds to illustrate the many ways in which abuse can manifest – it may simply look like ill treatment, which a reader might not consider ‘serious’ enough to be classified as abuse. The use of ‘any’ broadens the scope further, encouraging the reader to be aware of abuse in forms beyond those the text describes.

Other trends are also present. The second person pronoun ‘you’ occurs throughout the text, directly addressing the reader and marking them out as an enactor in each text world. Many of the sentences are imperatives (‘listen carefully’; ‘accept what is said’), which act as instructions and reinforce the reader’s role in each world. This is compounded by the use of deontic modal verbs such as ‘should’, which place obligation on the reader to do as the text directs.

Moreover, the text offers coordinated examples of direct speech (e.g. “is there anything else?”; “yes?”), which create text worlds that provide the reader with an exact template of what to say. There are also multiple negative constructions (‘try not to look shocked’, ‘avoid leading questions’) which create text worlds to show the reader how not to behave.

An extensive text world analysis is beyond the scope of a humble blog post, but these trends still tell us a great deal about how the extract is understood. Second person address and imperatives make the reader into an enactor within the text world, emulating their role of duty in the real world. Coordinated text worlds expand and challenge the reader’s understanding of what abuse looks like and who it affects. Specific dialogue worlds and negative constructions provide examples of how (and how not) to behave in the hypothetical situation the extract proposes.

Whether these trends hold true for all instructive discourse, I cannot reliably say. The Language in the Workplace module allows only for a small-scale investigation, letting you dip your toes into a vast ocean of a topic just long enough to give you a taste for it. And leave you curious to find out more.  

Bethany Ridley-Duff is an undergraduate student on the BA (Hons) English Language with Creative Writing and is about to start her third year.

References

  • Gavins, J. (2007). Text World Theory: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  • Werth, P. (1999). Text Worlds: Representing Conceptual Space in Discourse. London: Longman.