Quinn Norton, intrepid chronicler of our modern age, wrote A Note on How I Choose My Assignments. To summarize: she works as a freelance journalist so that she can be selective in what she writes about. Key quotes:
I see my work building towards a cohesive whole, a larger story, and I’m loyal to that story.
[I] choose stories based on my desire to understand and explain how the technology of this age is changing what it means to be human
(Of course, the whole piece is worth reading, and it’s not long.)
I think a lot about the similarities and differences between the cultures of different academic disciplines and professions. And like any good poststructuralist social scientist, I try to apply those observations to the doing of social science itself. The question here is, to what extent does Quinn’s approach apply in my case? Does my research “build towards a cohesive whole,” and if so, what is it?
To start, I had one question for Quinn. How did she arrive at her particular focus? Is it an a priori interest that inspired or predated her career in journalism? Is it a question that occurred to her one day, more or less fully formed, that has since gone on to form the primary focus of her work? Or is it something that emerged organically, a common thread that she came to identify in her work, and used thereafter to provide focus and cohesion? When I asked her about this, she told me that she had an existing interest in technology and society, and saw journalism as a role for herself in that developing story:
[I was] interested in how political movements and internet governance worked, and a lot of that informed the story arc of how people and technology are interacting in major ways at the moment … I had wanted to be a journalist since roughly the third grade [but thought that] I would probably be a technologist … I found my home as a journalist and a writer.
In my case, it’s just the opposite: I tend to jump in and see where things take me. To choose a major as an undergrad, I took a bunch of courses that looked interesting, and then I realized that I had basically started on the requirements of the comparative literature program, so I majored in comp lit. So what am I focusing on now? What’s the “larger story” of my two-year-old academic career, as far as I can see one? Well, here’s what I’ve done so far, defined as projects that worked well enough and that I pursued far enough to get them accepted as conference presentations. In the spirit of my bigger question here, I’ll phrase them as research questions:
- How do participants in blog comment threads accomplish impolite language? How does that impoliteness play a role in identity construction online?
- How do middle school math teachers orchestrate lessons that stand as cohesive texts? How are math content and classroom practice integrated into the lesson? What about multimodal aspects: charts, graphs, equations?
- In face-to-face casual conversation, can we model conversational style as a feature of the interaction, rather than a feature of participants? That is, rather than talking about a person who tends to talk fast, interrupt, and otherwise show high involvement, can we find stretches of interaction that show more or less high involvement?
When I try to identify a common thread among these three projects, I can look at it in two different ways. One asks the question of what — the content that I’m interested in — and the other looks more closely at how — methodology.
All of these projects, in different ways, deal with the question of what makes a community. Cyclists and drivers have ways of showing their partisan affiliation in computer-mediated discourse; math teachers initiate their students into the classroom community of people who do math; the talk among friends at lunch creates and consolidates a group identity. But “community” means a lot of things. Why am I interested in these aspects but not as much in, say, the way I might show my Philadelphia roots by pronouncing “water” as “wooder” or by rhyming “radiator” with “bratty hater”? I guess it’s pronunciation, in this case, that isn’t as interesting to me. I’m more interested in a functional orientation to language, considering how speakers use pragmatics to create communities. Politeness/impoliteness and conversational style fall into this realm, as well as the characteristically academic or mathematical ways of organizing a definition or an explanation.
So, “larger story” number one: How do groups of people share and manipulate social uses of language in order to constitute communities?
As for the “how,” each of these projects began as a class term paper, and they all involved a combination of research methods that I had learned in different classes. The bike/blog project involved using corpora for sociolinguistic research, as well as an attempt to synthesize different theoretical approaches to politeness and impoliteness. (Not all that ambitious, in the grand scheme, but it was my first semester.) The math class project combined a functional grammar analysis based on Halliday with an interactional sociolinguistic analysis based on Erickson and Goffman. And the casual conversation project involved a representation of talk among friends as a Markov process, as well as an attempt to rethink what “style” means.
So maybe “larger story” number two is: What new insights can we obtain by combining methodological approaches?
Of course, now that I’ve articulated these two big questions, there’s a danger of reifying them, shutting myself off from projects that I would have been interested in because they don’t fit my newly consolidated research persona. I don’t think that’s so much of a danger as long as I continue to just follow my interests, and prepare to make plenty of mistakes. As Quinn puts it — and this is definitely something academics and journalists have in common —
I spend a lot of time being wrong, which is just part and parcel of spending a lot of time in unknown territory.