Play and subversion in Mumsnet Talk

It’s not always wise to admit you have favourites, but I’m going to say it anyway. I looked child-swapat many threads during my study of the Mumsnet Talk discussion forum, but none were as much fun to read and analyse as ‘Can we have a child exchange?’ The opening post to this thread, written by Mumsnet regular BertieBotts, goes something like this:

I can offer one (currently) sweaty and exuberant 5 year old. Reads most things.

Speaks some German. Quite helpful around the house.

Reason for sale: Excessive farting.

Any takers?

The light-hearted, witty and playful nature of this thread made it both engaging and interesting, but also quite an analytical challenge. As I read contributors’ posts to this thread, it seemed that their words always had multiple potential meanings. For example, at one level, the entire theme of the thread, exchanging children, is subversive in the extreme, and contributors’ individual posts often reinforce the ‘shock-factor’ of this thread. They often describe their children in a distanced, impersonal way, as where Clobbered numbers her children as ‘Model 1, 2 and 3’, and uses lists and descriptive categories, such as ‘twenty-one’, ‘excellent cook’ and ‘screen-bound thirteen year old’, which foreground her children’s ‘assets’, but background any personal relationship with or love for them. Such descriptions work to position children as objects for sale – as commodities, who are being promoted in a busy marketplace. Whilst these linguistic strategies could be seen as subversive and shocking, however, it is unlikely that many would actually read them in this way. The playful use of a style that would be more at home in a classified ad means that this thread is framed as non-serious from the start. What contributors are suggesting on another level, then, is that their implied indifference to their children is laughable; inconceivable, even; that what they say is not what they mean.

Looking at the thread more closely, many other linguistic strategies that contributors use when describing their children are in sharp contrast with the kind of distanced, impersonal examples given above, and work to position contributors and their children in a different way entirely. For example, many contributors to this thread use linguistic and digital resources that emphasise their personal, emotive responses to their children. WhispersofWickedness, for example, describes her daughter as “VERY cute”, using both an intensive adjective and intensifying adverb (in CAPS) to describe her child in positive, emotive terms, whilst another writes that her son is “lovely to snuggle and smells nice ”.

Contributors’ use of these intensifying resources builds colourful portraits that focus on their affective responses to their children. At the same time, they can be said to draw on stereotypes around femininity (which are linked to Western ideals of “good” motherhood) – namely, that women orient towards an affective interactional style. In this way, it can be said that Mumsnet users emphasise their femininity in this thread, positioning themselves not just as parents but as mothers, and indeed, as good mothers, since cultural stereotypes around good mothering are often closely linked with stereotypes of femininity. Again, however, the humorous and ironic tone of the thread means that there are multiple possible readings of participants’ words. Whilst, on one level, their frequent use of affective emphasis in descriptions of their children works to emphasise their connections with and personal responses to their children, positioning them as ‘feminine’ mothers, on another level they can be said to play with, and even to subvert, these stereotypes around femininity and ‘good motherhood’.

My latest article in Discourse & Society explores these themes in detail, teasing out the intersecting discourses that come together in this thread to position its contributors as ‘good mothers’, and showing how Mumsnet users both take up, but also resist and subvert this subject position. It emphasises the importance of the digital context in making this kind of play possible. It’s available free, ahead of print, for a limited time, here.

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Ethics, Privacy and Internet Research

A few days ago my first academic paper was published online. This article is probably the single thing that I’m most proud of to date, because it feels entirely my own. Of course, I draw on the work of others and have been supported by a wider research community, especially in the field of language and new media. But really closely scrutinising the ethics of my internet research was something I pursued very much independently of my supervisor and even against the advice of many senior colleagues. This post marks the occasion by detailing the key messages of this paper. They are:

  1. First, and most importantly, I think we need to put the core ethical principle do no harm right back at the forefront of discussions about ethics and internet research. The question ‘could this research cause harm?’ should come way before any questions about whether participants are ‘entitled’ to privacy or protection by researchers.
  2. Researchers need to careful about the assumption that if online research contexts are ‘public’, there aren’t really ethical issues to consider. We don’t all agree on what ‘public’ means, and we certainly don’t agree that because information is in a ‘public’ domain, anyone can do whatever they like with it.
  3. ‘Anonymity’ is a complex concept in internet research, where protecting participants’ anonymity may not just be about making sure they aren’t identifiable in the ‘real’ (offline) world. My own study shows that in spaces such as Mumsnet Talk, where contributors use pseudonyms, participants’ identities within the internet community of which they are a part may also need to be protected and anonymised.
  4. Finally, internet researchers need to be sensitive to the mechanisms by which internet users are able to achieve various levels of privacy and/or anonymity, even in highly accessible spaces. In this way, they can develop a better understanding of the norms of information sharing (Nissenbaum, 2010) within their research context and respond accordingly.

All of this requires a reflexive, context-sensitive approach from the researcher, and my paper also addresses the issue of how internet researchers, especially in the discipline of Applied Linguistics, can go about taking such a stance. I therefore also outline five specific methods that can be employed as part of what I call a reflexive-linguistic approach to internet research ethics:

  1. Systematic observation of/ engagement with the research site prior to and alongside data collection and analysis;
  2. Memo writing or other self-reflexive activities that will help you to engage with the process of data construction and to document your observations, personal responses and data selections in a critical way;
  3. Adopting a participant stance: by situating yourself within the research site, you can better engage with ethical issues from the perspective of those who are being researched.
  4. Making early and regular contact with gatekeepers such as site moderators or employed staff. These are the people who are likely to have the best understanding of your research site, how people engage with it and what potential there may be for your research to cause harm to its users. Talking to individual users is important too, where possible: it is very likely that people will have different perceptions of their engagement with internet sites and marginal views should not be ignored.
  5. Linguistic analysis. My understanding of the norms of information sharing, privacy and anonymity in Mumsnet Talk was greatly strengthened by my close linguistic analysis of participants’ interactions. For example, I found that some Mumsnet users achieve a degree of privacy when they construct and address specific in-groups of users, through their use of shared in-group knowledge and linguistic resources.

My full article, Identifying informational norms in Mumsnet Talk: A reflexive-linguistic approach to internet research ethics, is free to download for a limited time.

 

References and further reading:

boyd, danah. 2011. Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and

Implications. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites, 39-58. New York and London: Routledge.

Markham, Annette & Buchanan, Elizabeth. 2015. Internet Research: Ethical Concerns. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier.

Marwick, Alice & boyd, danah. 2014. Networked privacy: How teenagers negotiate context in social media. New Media & Society 16(7). 1051-1067.

Nissenbaum, Helen. 2010. Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

All of the contributions to the forthcoming special issue of Applied Linguistics Review, most of which are currently available at https://www.degruyter.com/printahead/j/alr

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PhD Bite 3: Taiwo Ilori

In our third PhD Bite, Taiwo offers a poetic reflection on the PhD journeytaiwo-picture

…end of 3rd year

I look at you
with anger… love… frustration
my emotions every which way… all over the place

I stare at you
from afar
a wide gulf between us
content to stay that way
have no desire to close the gap
I am sat there… sipping my coffee
glancing at you surreptitiously from the corners of my eyes
not knowing if I should scream at you, throw something at you
or just keep looking at you with a bad eye

I stand now
tired of this game
of not knowing what to do with you
rooted to the spot, not willing to move an inch
the inch I finally move was just to grip the steel irons in front of me

don’t know if it was to push myself away, or pull forward
wanting to come forward… yet not wanting to

but we were friends once… once upon a time
Best of friends
I didn’t take to you well when we were first introduced
You were loud… oh so loud and noisy
People were always around you… in you
And for the sake of my sanity
I only come to visit once in a while
that I often forgot you existed
And things were meant to stay that way

…but then

one day, I came
and you were quiet… oh so quiet and peaceful
it was a Saturday morning
I couldn’t believe it
so you were more like me, I thought
you liked peaceful and quiet mornings
you like to be by yourself too
I didn’t know… never could have imagined that in a million years
we were old souls… both of us
quiet in the mornings… a little loud during the day
I understood your loudness now
as I am loud sometimes too… you see

instead of staying away… I stayed
I stayed when you were quiet, loud or noisy

I enjoyed it so much
that the 3 years were a blur
reading together, writing together, typing together
our relationship was filled with so much understanding that
I wrote my 40000 words with you easily
words so good that in 1year and a half
I left you for Nigeria for four months to gather data for my research
how we survived, I don’t know
I guess we may have needed the space
for you to welcome another old soul like me
or tolerate the noisy ones
and for me to get a whiff of summer
heat… rashes… and plan a wedding

I remembered coming to you
with the fears of my confirmation of candidature hanging over me
you comforted me the only way you could
you stayed quiet while I cried
and unburdened my fears and frustration in you
you didn’t offer to go hit my supervisors on the head
for putting me through this
neither did you tell me I should never had applied for a PhD
and that I could quit now if I wanted to
you knew the stakes were too high for me to just up and leave
so instead you stayed quiet
and offered me what you could
a chair… computer… and access to all the information I needed to get through this stage
you were quiet while I sat my butt down behind a computer
to think, write and come up with something awesome

I am handing in now
and I look at you again from a distance
I look… stare… glare… glower
I scowl… frown… I grimace… pout…
at you…
this room where I typed my words… nearly half of my thesis
heads bowed, fingers tapping away
for 3 years

why can’t I stand the sight of you?
is it the thought of the hardwork I know I am going to put in
the writings… rewritings… deletings… writings… I have to do
God… the thinking and more thinking… and then more thinking
until I come up with something to show for staying in/with you…

I really don’t know
and I know you don’t either
whatever it is
we need to find a way to repair it
because I need… we need
a few more weeks
to get through this
to complete this 80,000 words thesis

it won’t be long now
and we both go our separate ways
you will never see me again
nor I you
but right now
we really need to sort through what is going on between us

could you not accuse me
or point fingers at me

could you welcome me
as you did 3 years ago
as you did to those before me… and those who would come after me
would you welcome me
to almost the end
of this PhD journey

To all PhD students in whatever stage you are in…

*may the PhD room go with you

 

Taiwo Ilori is a PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University, UK. She is exploring the space between agency and desire in the process of learning English as a second language in Nigeria. She can be found on Facebook – http://facebook.com/conde.t.abosede and

LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/taiwo-adegboyega-conde

 

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PhD Bite 2: Emma Hutson

emma-pic

I recently met someone who has loved their PhD from the offset. They feel like they know what they’re doing, like they have a final goal in mind and that nothing will stop them from completing it. I hate this person a little bit.

When I was first accepted onto my PhD I was thrilled, obviously. I had written my proposal, practiced my interview in the shower, I had spider diagrams of ideas and a pile of books just waiting to be read and analysed. I moved to my new city, unpacked, and sat in my new room for two months wondering how to get started. For the first year I battled with uncertainty, imposter syndrome and depression. My supervisors encouraged me to get writing as soon as possible, but everything I wrote was terrible, I had no real idea what I was doing. Then I had my confirmation seminar; I had to submit a plan, I had no choice. I got ripped to shreds during the mini-viva and had to resubmit my report. It gave me the impetus I needed to really work out what I was doing, and in the process I met some other PhD candidates who were going through the same thing. These two things got me going and helped me to actually enjoy my PhD.

So, if you’re doing your PhD, no matter what stage you’re at, this is some advice on how not to go crackers:

emma-reading

Emma in the final of the Off the Shelf Short Story Competition 2016

1. Find a community

The worst thing about the PhD is the isolation and consequent fear that you’re doing everything wrong and you’re the only one who feels the way you do. Speaking to other people who are going through the same thing and getting advice from people who have already been through it is invaluable, even if it’s just online through hashtags like ‘phdchat’ or ‘acwri’. If you can, find people at your institute, arrange to have a monthly coffee and whinge session, mental health breaks are important.

2. Keep track of your progress

This is crucial for two reasons – keeping all of your drafts, annotations and supervisor comments all in one place is a good thing when it comes to your viva, you can show your process and prove that you’ve done the work. The other reason is that it slows the welling tide of despair you will likely feel at various points. During those times when it feels like you’ve been stuck on one chapter forever, or that you’ve just wasted a year of your life, having a list of things you’ve already done and achieved can be a lifesaver. I keep track of everything through my blog, I try to write regular posts about what I’ve done on any given week or month, and always write about chapters, conferences and papers I’ve completed.

3. Keep reading. Keep writing.

It’s easy to spend all of your time reading – there are always a million new articles coming out, another book’s bibliography to mine for further sources, but until you start writing you don’t really know what direction you’re heading in. Once you get going, writing can direct you towards the reading you need to do. Saying that, once you are actually writing, it’s tempting just to bash away at that and do nothing else. And then you wonder why you’re stuck in a rut. Going away and reading something new, or re-reading a key source can give you a new perspective and spark new ideas. Always mix and match your reading and writing.

Emma Hutson is completing her PhD at Sheffield Hallam University. She is applying trans theory to post-90s trans authored texts and is on track to submit a little bit early. As an Associate Lecturer she teaches on critical theory, and creative writing modules. She may be found on Twitter – @Emma_S_Hutson and has a blog – https://phdanger.wordpress.com/

Click here for more information about PhD Bites.

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PhD Bites 1: Vicki Whittaker

About PhD Bites

the-creative-process

When I first saw that Jai had written a blog post entitled Completing your PhD in three years, I couldn’t bear to read it. Not because it wouldn’t be full of good sense and sound recommendations, but because I was 28 days from my absolute deadline for submitting my PhD thesis – four years after I started it. I’d not observed Jai’s advice – because, well, Life – and had started September with half-written drafts of six chapters and no conclusion to speak of. (Not, I hasten to add, through any failing of supervision. This was on me.)

So, September was beyond brutal. But even in the depths of despair and darkness – quite literal darkness; I didn’t get a lot of sleep those four weeks – there was a certain measure of grim satisfaction. These are my tips for anyone who is in the home stretch, but still has a lot of ground to cover.

1. Plan.

Draw up a timetable of exactly when you will finish each chapter. Make sure you include time for formatting and proofing at the end. You don’t really have much slippage room; a day at most.

2. Hone your argument.

The advantage of working this intensively is that you see the whole thing unfold before you. You have to trace a compelling narrative path through your material. And you have to take your reader with you, so don’t forget to signpost. Do not deviate from this path. That detour via Saussure might look attractive, but if it adds nothing to your central argument, jettison it.

3. Work with what you’ve got.

Wonder if discourse analysis might throw light on that knotty problem in chapter 4? Too late. Do not start a new literature search at this point – you do not have the time or intellectual leeway to incorporate it and contemplating paths untrodden will just make you feel hopeless. The only time you should be on Google Scholar is to check a reference or a citation.

4. Go with it.

Stress can be productive, but it does have to be managed. If you’re finding it hard to sleep because your brain is whirring, try to harness this by noting down thoughts as they occur. (I often woke to several e-mails that I’d sent myself in the wee small hours) If you’re on a roll and up until 4am, go with it.

5. Pace yourself.

Don’t then try and get up at 7am to carry on working. You can’t keep that pace up for a whole month. If you need a change of pace, try formatting your references, choosing pseudonyms for your research participants, or writing your acknowledgements.

6. Know when to stop.

Accept when you’re banging your head against a brick wall and stop. Walk away from the computer. In fact, just walk. Walking kept me sane. Between 5 and 6pm every day I went for a walk with my son, who’s 10 and obsessed with Pokémon Go. (I’m now something of an expert. Ask me about Rattatas and what they evolve into.) We covered 60km in four weeks.

The thing is, now I’ve read Jai’s post, what we’re saying isn’t so very different: plan, focus, and know your limits. And good luck!

Vicki Whittaker is a PhD student at Aston University. Her PhD took a practice theory approach to studying allotments and social change, and was submitted 5 hours before the final deadline. She is also a translator (from French) and editor. She can be contacted at @MrsKettle on Twitter.

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I’m not yummy, or slummy, or smug: Why we need to stop labelling mothers

Yesterday, I read an article in The Guardian, titled From smug to slummy: the myths of modern parenthood. It was drawn to my attention by one of the bloggers who was mentioned in this piece, a ‘brummy mummy of two’, just like me. She wasn’t too pleased about it. She wasn’t happy about being labelled a ‘slummy mummy’ for a start, a term she has never used about herself in her own blog. She also wasn’t happy about the way mothers were being pitted against each other, creating a fictitious war of the ‘smugs’ vs the ‘slummies’, as it were. And I don’t blame her. Because I am sick of it too.
mum-word-cloud
           Let me try to put this in context; to explain why this article has angered me so much. Because it’s not just the one example we’re talking about here. Back when I was doing an A-Level in English Language, I learned about the semantic derogation of words associated with women. My eyes were opened to the many examples of adjacent pairs where the ‘feminine’ equivalent had become an insult – take, for example, the following pairs, and consider the different connotations of each: stallion/mare; master/mistress; wizard/ witch; husband/ hussy (yes, hussy comes from ‘housewife’).
           The term ‘mother’ has largely escaped such a fate, though this word and its derivatives are not without negative connotations. I wouldn’t take it as a compliment to be called ‘mumsy’, for example. And it seems that in popular news media, journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to describe someone as a ‘mum’ without prefixing it with a cutting and sometimes quite vicious adjective. This is something that struck me when I was looking for newspaper articles about Mumsnet, as part of my PhD research on constructions of motherhood within this site. I started out looking for facts and figures about Mumsnet, like who founded it and how many users it had. But what I found was that a disproportionate amount of media coverage about the site was given over to labelling and insulting the women who use it. I found that Mumsnet users were variously described, for example, as ‘yummy mummies’; a ‘coven of poisonous women’; as ‘cliquey’, ‘grumpy’ and ‘scratchy’ (scratchy?!)
           What message is this sending to mothers? We are damned if we are proud, damned if we are flippant. Damned if we step out in high heels and make-up, damned if we wear trainers and PJs. Women who dare to speak out about their lives in a public forum, it seems, just can’t get it right. Fortunately, that isn’t stopping the countless women who continue to do just that, and they are often using their public voices to challenge persistent stereotypes and negative representations of women. But there is plenty of work still to be done.
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Completing your PhD in three years

This week, I submitted my PhD thesis, exactly two years and eleven months from the date

Hourglass

I started. During the final weeks and months of writing up, I’ve been reflecting on the whole process and the strategies that have helped me to submit within that elusive three-year time frame. I think it boils down to four key pieces of advice.

1. Begin with the end in mind.

Three years can seem long a long way off when you first start your PhD. It’s really not. Set a date from the very beginning for completing each chapter, submitting your first draft and final submission. Aim to submit before the final deadline and allow far more time than you think will be necessary at each stage. Work your way back from here, charting the steps you need to take in order to meet these long-term goals.

2. Set regular and realistic targets and deadlines.

Have two timetables on the go at all times: a long-term plan, with major goals for each year of study, and short-term targets and deadlines, which fit in to your ‘big picture’. Don’t get too attached, though, as adjustments will need to be made as you go along. At first you may have unrealistic perceptions of how long things take or how much you can do. If you want to stay on track you’ll have to learn to adjust and rework accordingly. Pay attention to how long it takes to complete tasks such as writing an abstract, article or chapter, reading a paper or creating a diagram. This will help you to set more realistic targets for yourself as you progress in your studies.

3. Write often.

You don’t want to spend your final year learning how to write in an appropriate style. Start writing early, however sketchy or uncertain your work may seem. Share it with your supervisor(s). This will help you to find your academic ‘voice’ and to iron out any problems with your style or referencing, for example. Your early notes are also likely to prove very useful later on, and will help you to chart the development of your research. So make sure you keep and date everything you do.

4. Don’t take on too many other responsibilities.

By this I do not mean that you should spend all day, every day on your PhD. Do not do this, your health will suffer. But if you’re working a significant number of hours a week to support yourself, and/or have other responsibilities that take a lot of time out of your working week, it may not be realistic for you to submit in three years. And that’s ok. Set yourself a more realistic deadline; study part-time if you need to. Your health and well-being are the most important things you have, don’t risk them by asking too much of yourself. I’ve also written about the importance of being kind to yourself here.

It’s really as simple as that. Bear in mind, though, that research can be a messy endeavour and you may come across many hurdles along the way. Personal circumstances can change and you may have significant, unavoidable delays with things like data collection, ethical approval and analysis. Relationships with supervisors or significant others involved in your study are not always smooth and this could hamper your progress too. I speak from the fortunate position of having a fantastic working relationship with my supervisor and no major hiccups along the way, but not everyone has this experience. If you hit problems, be ready to adjust and shift your expectations. Above all, be kind to yourself and flexible when necessary. You will get there in the end!

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