Saturday, September 8, 2012

Style and Stance #2: Categorizing

Think back to the halls of  high school.  Can you see the different groups standing together while eyeing the other groups? Do you remember what group you were in? What groups you wanted to be in?  Little did you know you were an early sociolinguist.

Dr. Anderson asked us to spend a week noticing when we ourselves categorized the world around us or we saw others doing so.  Well, I work in a high school, so this is like asking me to put my eye up to the fire hose and turn it on.

What do people categorize in high schools?  Everything.  Students categorize by clothing, sports they play, perceived intellect, family make-up, future goals, weekend choices, ...  What is maybe more interesting is what I see myself categorizing. I teach one class that can be considered categorizing: AP English. The students who choose to take this course are selecting into a category of being readers and writers. I also advise the yearbook, and the staff is its own category. Being a yearbook staff member brings on certain privileges (walking around the school with an expensive camera) and also certain secrecy (that year's theme and cover), and these things make yearbook staffers a different category then even their journalism peers on the newspaper staff (who have their own privileges and secrets).

The adults also are categorized in a school, just as I am sure they are in any work place. Age, single or married, kids or no kids, sports fan, musical interests and talents ... This list is sounding in many ways like those student categories above. And I think that is the point: while much changes after high school, one thing is true about human nature. We seek out categories to make sense of the world and to stake our place in it. These categories are not always negative, but it is important to recognize our tendencies before we slip into the extreme of categorizing, stereotyping. As John Rickford, Penelope Eckert, and Judith Irvine explain in the introduction to and first chapter of Style and Sociolinguistic Variation (which I will call SSV to save space!), sociolinguists watches for categories in order to understand individuals and groups because categories are inescapable parts of who we are, even in how we talk and write.

I am pondering my own observation plans in connection to two points from these opening aspects of SSV.
  • "viewing individual variables as resources that can be put to work in constructing new personae ... An emerging focus on agency is bringing researchers to examine variation as part of a process of construction of identities and social meaning" (Rickford and Eckert Loc159-160).  This made me think about profile writing in our digital age. Sherry Turkle makes the case that, for adolescents today, profile writing is one of the most important tasks of high school. It would be very interesting to explore the different or similar profiles individuals make in different areas of their online worlds. Maybe I will explore this kind of analysis in a future post.
  • I am also trying to tease out how aspects of style can apply to writing. The examples focus on oral language, so I want to be sure I know how these techniques can be applied to my research interests of academic writing.
    • "styles in speaking involve the ways speakers, as agents in social (and sociolinguistic) space, negotiate their positions and goals within a system of distinctions and possibilities" (Irvine Loc 401-402).  I believe this is true for academics in their writing as well.  There are certain expectations that they must position themselves within. I would like to see if these systems change in online arenas.
    • "Indeed, some of the most important and interesting aspects of ideology lie behind the scenes, in assumptions that are taken for granted -- that are never explicitly stated in any format that would permit them also to be explicitly denied" (Irvine Loc 422-423). I also think this applies to academic writing because many of the expectations are implied by acceptance or not to traditional journals. But more importantly, I sense that this might be happening in a different way with online academic writing. That online writers are, behind the scenes, changing the ideology of what makes effective academic writing in these new spaces.  I hope to be someone who can explicitly show the changes happening so that the hidden ideologies of traditional academic writing and what I hope are changes in online academic writing can come face to face and understand each other.
Rickford, Penelope Eckert and John R., ed. Style and Sociolinguistic Variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Kindle edition.

Turkle, Sherry. Together Alone: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. New York, NY: Basic Books (Kindle edition is what I read), 2011. Kindle Edition.

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