Talking the Talk

“Words, words, words” –Hamlet

In case you didn’t notice, there were a lot of words in the last post and if you’ve met me, there are usually a lot of words.  However, in this transition/ journey/ adventure words are proving to be a trickier- and consistent- issue.

We’ve probably realised that there are different vocabularies, different tones, different grammars that are expected in different context and with different people.  It can take some time to ‘read the room’ to determine the right tone.  Learning the new lingo requires work and a deliberate choice over and over again.  And, we’ve probably all misstepped from time to time, especially when we’re expected to figure it out on our own.

Getting a hold on things

Stepping into Academia has meant stepping into a number of new contexts, each requiring their own set of linguistic stylings.  There are different codes and expectations for each- from writing proposals, journal articles, abstracts, chapters of the thesis (blog entries) to speaking to new people like fellow grad students, supervisors, professors and professionals… then multiply that by the variety of contexts you might need to talk to those people in!  Examples of text types are useful- looking through examples of other written texts are fairly straightforward and listening to others in the room are good ways to start, but there are many exceptions to the rules and unwritten rules that should not be broken.  Across all of that, it is important to have your own voice- to be recognisably you.  I think the trick to be recognisably you is needing to have confidence in your voice, both written and spoken- however, having confidence in yourself and your voice as a PhD student and emerging academic, is a work in progress.  Fake it ‘til you make it, right?

For me, faking it in writing is easier than out loud, even though it means any missteps are then permanently recorded.  No one can see how many revisions you made, which words/ acronyms(!!!) you had to keep looking up, or how long it took to craft your ideas.  But, one of the problems with writing is, as a solitary exercise, there is no one to double-check connotations with or clarify the unwritten rules.  I keep getting caught up with the words: research/ paper/ project/ PhD.  These are all normal English words but they all mean slightly different things and for some reason, I keep not using them properly for Academia.  So then speaking, particularly when you’re feeling like The New Kid, feels like one of the easiest ways to be found out.  It’s surely a symptom of Imposter Syndrome; it’s the old keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool… When talking to other academics, I’m finding more confidence in the content, but am still wary of using/ needing to respond to ‘danger words’ (for example current danger words include: paradigms, theoretical frameworks, hermeneutics…) or a new and unexpected word in the vast array of academic vocabulary.  Oh, and fun fact- lots of these words are open to interpretation!  Yay!  (Just mumble something about it being contested and hope for no follow up questions…)  I’m usually not too shy to ask what a word or phrase means when I hear it for the first time- whether it’s a choice example of Aussie slang or another bloody acronym.  People are usually happy enough to clarify, but does the new knowledge then translate into confidence in using it?  I must admit to having secretly Googled words used in a conversation I was participating in (I also do this with ingredients on menus in hipster cafes).  A final source of stress when talking to academics now- I’m keenly aware that these are people I may want to collaborate with in the future or who may be in a position to hire me or review my work.  (For those of you who are reading this- I’m not an idiot and I totally, completely understood that last thing we were discussing.  Totally.)

Hmm, looking back at the last paragraph, it sounds like I’m petrified under my desk and not making a peep.  Let me assure you, that’s not the case!  This is all meant to be a reflective exercise.  Recently I have been writing abstracts, starting a blog, emailing various contacts, procrastinating from starting on actual chapters of the mythical thesis, and marking work from my high school students- so I have been thinking about the different types of language I use and need and bouncing around between a lot of them.

Swapping between the worlds

OK, so there’s lots of new words and conventions to consider with the move to Academia.  That’s not surprising and it’s something I feel like I’m generally making progress with.  But let’s get back to that idea of transition, of being in limbo this year.

Here’s a scenario to consider: the reminder notification goes off on my phone- time to stop struggling through a theory heavy article and get ready to go in to school.  Time to write up a few notes in my own words about whatever it was I just read (it seems important, but I needed to keep Googling things) and get changed into my teacher clothes.  Time for Teacher Mel to take over from Academic Mel.  I get to school and the day is already humming along.  There’s a bit of time to organise myself, get caught up on the little things that have been happening in the first few periods, then go off to class.  A part from a few mumbled greetings, standing in front of 30 odd fifteen year olds in a non-traditional class, is the first time I’m going to talk to a human being for the day… potentially the first time in more than four days.  They are also working on projects and research but not in the way I’m using those words.  Sometimes the word/ideas gears grind in trying to change them for the new context and I stall out.  Sometimes I hear it as it happens, sometimes it’s the interesting expressions on faces.  I try to make a joke with an explanation that I’ve been reading (I think it’s important to talk about doing a PhD and my focus area with my students- more on that in another post probably) and move on.  After a few hours at school, where I usually find the right gear eventually, I go home and see that article still on my desk that needs finishing.  That “break” I had where I spent time with real live humans, means I have to start from scratch with that article before bed.  This is called “Wednesday.”

Finding the right words and the right tone is something I’ve been fairly conscious of since moving to town.  Teacher Mel needed to find her voice and make it recognisably hers in a new context.  I arrived with a wicked awesome New England vocabulary, tinged with four years of Classics’ study.  There were many times I wasn’t understood as clearly as possible (how to explain the term baloney, as in ‘that excuse is a bunch of baloney’ when the lunch ‘meat’ isn’t a thing here- I went with sliced hot dogs), and many times I didn’t understand others.  In my first year, I had to read aloud to my Year 9 (ninth grade) English class from an Australian novel written largely in teenager slang.  Let’s call it a learning experience all around.  Even now, there are some new Aussie terms I use (I now “rock up” to places), and terms I think but won’t say (‘wanker’ is a great word, but just doesn’t suit my accent).  Back to the theme of trying to figure out what to say, learning to speak informally can be just as tricky as learning to speak formally- both in a slightly different version of English.  Trying to figure out how to talk with students and peers, how to comment on their work and write formal reports for them, takes practice as well.  Learning the lingo is definitely part of the transition into any group.  You want to use it properly to be professional, respectful, and to belong.  Fun fact- I only started reading Harry Potter when students on my first teaching placement asked me something about muggles.  I figured I had enough to worry about with Aussie slang, at least I could easily tap into that pop culture reference my students would have (written in yet another version of English).  Turns out having read Harry Potter was helpful in understanding the House competition system at school (except the Sorting Hat was an impressive fro).  Having remembered the process of learning the lingos for my Australian life, both informally and formally, is reassuring that I can do it again and be successful.

So, learning new lingos is complicated and part of the transition to a new group, but not the only necessary trick.  We all belong to various groups within various contexts and we tend to shift our vocabularies and language use accordingly without much conscious thought.  How I speak in the classroom- in each classroom and to each individual student- is different to how I speak to peers in and out of school, to friends, to academics… shifting between the norms of each context usually just happens once you’re comfortable and confident in the context.  However, I think the starker the contrast between the various contexts, the more likely to encounter problems- think about my earlier example of reading about theory to talking with Year 9s).  Swapping between contexts quickly also seems to create something of a lag-time in my brain (no, I’m not talking to a Year 11 student, this is a teleconference with other academics, use better words Mel).  I’m finding though, not only is there a need to be able to shift (with as few stalls or missteps as possible), there is also a need to translate between them.  How do you explain the New England use of “wicked” (a way cooler version of ‘very’) to Australians?  It requires a clear enough understanding of the term in its original context and a strong enough grasp of the ‘new’ lingo to find the closest equivalent as well as the potential missing nuance.  Plus, it takes a willing audience.  In this year of transitions for me, my two (or more) worlds don’t often collide or overlap.  When people ask what Teacher Mel or American Melyssa is up to, the answer is usually boring either way- “reading, writing, same same” (eh) or “I’ve been exploring the various aspects of social justice in rural education and trying to apply them, which is really interesting because…” (blank stare or polite nods).  I do get more positive responses, and I deeply appreciate them, but because I’m spending so much of my time and effort learning new lingo, in a focused research area, there aren’t many people I talk to that don’t require some level of translation.  This goes both ways- for the new contexts and the established contexts (not all education academics remember exactly what it’s like in a school).  Back to a previous point- translation doesn’t work if you don’t really understand it yourself.  And now you know why I haven’t provided my explanation of paradigm here.

Final Thoughts

To wrap things up, I’ve been reading a bit about how writing and working through a thesis is part of identity-making for new academics.  It resonated.  Working in the new lingo, learning it, using it, translating it is all part of moving along.  Much like any transition, it’s scary and exciting.

Through all this, I still need to find my voice and keep a sense of myself.  I’m sure the academic voice will keep developing and I’m fairly certain I can hang onto teacher voice.  But, I’m also finding that the Mel who’s not at work with students, teachers, or academics, is shifting too.  Will I still be able to apply witty quotes from ‘The Simpsons’ in casual conversation or swear when privately venting about some outrage, and what about the longevity of my never-ending supply of sarcasm?  New topics are filling my brain space (no, I haven’t seen that new movie/ TV show, but I’m still all over the politics of Westeros) and I’m not fully in any of my contexts, so informal conversations can become somewhat limited.  For the most part, I can’t talk about the footy in between conference sessions or about the latest interpretation of Dr SoAndSo’s theory in the staffroom over lunch.  Plus, it takes times in a new context to learn about the new people’s personalities.  I know which students and teachers want to talk about footy or ‘Game of Thrones’ or whatever, but I haven’t yet made enough strong connections in the academic world, especially since I’m currently an off campus student (definitely more on that later).  I think this often leads that sense of limbo, of being in between worlds.  One way I’ve decided to try and curb that sense of disconnect is to make time for the ‘background research’ on small talk topics with those people I do come into regular contact with.  So, I make time to watch footy and read up on the season, I watch this show or that so I can keep up conversations I’ve been having with those people.  Not only are these ways to sort of switch off from the various types of work, but it also is helping to ensure the time I do spend with other humans is more enjoyable.

The constant swapping and translating between worlds can leave my head spinning sometime.  When I slow down enough for some quiet reflection, there a growing sense of well, who am I right now?  How do you maintain a strong sense of self through a significant transition?  I’m developing my different voices, my different presentations of self for different contexts, but what’s happening behind the scenes to my self?  The internal monologue is changing along with the external representations, but I suppose it’s all part of the adventure.

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