Conference Recap: PLA Student Symposium, 2013

Every conference or symposium is an opportunity to network with professionals and share research with the academic community. It is also an opportunity to learn. It’s a class seminar that goes on for days. This year, I helped organize the Purdue Linguistics Association Student Symposium. Here are a few of the things I learned at this year’s event:

1. Live-tweeting is hard. I was greatly indebted to the colleagues who live-tweeted CCCC, TESOL and ASCD this year. I had never live-tweeted before this symposium, and so I never realized how mentally draining it can be. Because I got started late on organizing live-tweeting, I ended up live-tweeting every talk myself. You can read the archive here. Live-tweeting forced me to focus on the line of reasoning of every talk and summarize each major point. Many of the presentations were on experiments, and so in many ways the tweeting mirrored the schematic structure of a scientific journal article. I always had some kind of orientation stage, a statement of the research question, a few tweets on the design, and the results. It may be that I tweeted TOO MUCH, and I would appreciate any pointers on this issue.

A happy side-effect of live-tweeting is that I was able to understand and become conversant in recent research in the various subfields of linguistics (our symposium is in general linguistics, so most subfields are represented). I find it far too easy to tune out during sessions that don’t apply to my subfield of educational linguistics–but live-tweeting made me a more attentive conference attendee.

2. Discoveries really can happen at conferences. As a result of one of our presentations, we discovered a certain syntactic construction was shared between two unrelated languages. For the sake of those who were present and wish to continue this research, I won’t elaborate–I want to respect their work. But I was mesmerized as I watched two scholars meet during the post-symposium dinner and work out the details of the discovery. I realized that, in all probability, this was (and I don’t mean to be melodramatic) the first time EVER that this connection had been made. It was a legitimate discovery in the field of linguistics. We put on a small, regional symposium, so I was quite surprised this happened. But I think it illustrates the power of the conference as a tool not just for networking and building of partnerships, but also for doing the work of the field.

3. Participatory Action Research is an important paradigm that I would like to get more involved in. But I’m not sure it is as empowering as it claims to be. We hosted a panel of scholars discussing Participatory Action Research (PAR) in indigenous language research. PAR in linguistics aims to educate members of an indigenous community in methods of linguistic study so that they can direct their own research on their home language according to community needs. Action Research in Education, in my understanding, is similar because the needs of the particular class or school context determine the research direction, as opposed to some outside researcher’s questions only. I find PAR a useful paradigm because any knowledge produced from research is ready-made for use in the community of practice–something that is often lost in the disconnect between the academy and the practitioner. I am looking forward to considering how I might use PAR in my own research program.

One of the goals of PAR is shifting the power of ownership of the research from the academy to the community. But I think there’s a catch. In the act of educating indigenous communities about linguistic science, field linguists may be enculturating these members into different epistemologies (e.g. scientific empiricism) that may conflict with their culture’s epistemology. In some sense, we might consider this enculturation as a form of oppression–or at the very least, an unnatural influence–on the indigenous culture by Western empirical science. One of the panelists, Daryl Baldwin of Miami University, addressed this concern by noting that cultures are “permeable.” That is, the interaction of science with indigenous cultures may not be seen as a threat to the indigenous culture but as a natural consequence of different cultures in contact with one another. I would venture that mutual respect of ways of knowing would be one way to safeguard from creating an imbalance in the relationship between cultures in contact.

Overall, I found the symposium to be above-average this year, with many fascinating presentations and even more fascinating follow-up discussions. I want to thank all of the members of the organizing committee for all their hard work. It was a great team effort, and we pulled off a great symposium this year. Looking forward to 2014.

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