Week 9: Christmas Trees

Linguistics surely has its place in geek heaven.  It’s not just the intricacies of the subject, but also the challenge of how to include formulae and precise diagrams in word-processed documents.  So one of the things I’ve been doing this term is getting to grips with available tools that make presentation a bit easier for linguists, and allow us to focus on the content.

As it’s nearly Christmas, I thought I’d start by reporting on my experience with Treeform.  This is free software, developed by phonetician Donald Derrick, with the kind of drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG interface that is the norm for everyone but hardcore coders.  The software works on Windows, Mac and Linux and can be downloaded from the Sourceforge Treeform page. If you don’t already have Java installed on your computer, you will need that as well.

The interface is highly intuitive and simple to use, but it can handle high complexity.  Structures are built by dragging one of the side buttons onto the screen.  These allow you to automatically set up an XP structure, or a range of branches.  There are buttons for adding child and intermediate parent notes, as well as a parent node and an adjunct.  Text or symbols can be added under terminal nodes and triangles.  There are specific labels for cases, features and theta roles, together with the opportunity to link features and draw movement arrows.  All node labels can be edited, and individual nodes and lines can be given custom colours, fonts and highlighting. This looks like pretty much everything that you need to draw trees that fit with a variety of theoretical frameworks and assumptions.  There is also a short demonstration video, which will probably answer any questions that you have.

Once you’ve created your tree, you need to get it into a document.  The tree data is stored as an .xml file, but you can copy and paste diagrams directly into Word, or export create a .PDF file or .JPG or .PNG image with varying resolution.  The canvas you work on is big, but once you’ve finished, resizing the frame before you export reduces the amount of white space on your image.

I drew the the tree below in under 5 minutes: it’s my (current) favourite sample sentence, from Yehuda Falk’s 2001 book Lexical Functional Grammar: An Introduction to Parallel Constraint-Based Syntax.

The biggest disadvantage I’ve come across so far is with the final layout.  If you compare with the example below taken from the printed book, you’ll see that Treeform doesn’t guarantee every terminal node direct line-of-sight to the bottom of the diagram.  (Look at where will is placed in the two.) This means that sometimes it’s not quite so easy to read the sentence from the diagram. 

You can force the branches to spread apart in Treeform by using empty intermediate nodes to bring a terminal further down, but I’m not keen on the way that looks, and it still doesn’t give you a straight, unbroken line from the terminal to its parent.  But this snag is small beer compared to the ease of use in generating the tree.  

And that’s before you get to proof-reading.  According to the wikibook on LaTeX, I could have generated the above tree using two lines of LaTeX code:


\Tree [.IP [.DP [.D’ [.D the ] [.NP [.N’ [.N hamster ] ] ] ] ] [.I’ [.I will ] [.VP [.V’ [.V give ] [.DP [.D’ [.D a ] [.NP [.N’ [.N felafel ] ] ] ] ] [.PP [.P’ [.P to ] [.DP [.D’ [.D the ] [.NP [.N’ [.N dinosaur ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ] ]

But to write that second line just now, I needed to draw the tree anyway.  Add that to learning how to use LaTeX properly, limiting myself to LaTeX documents and, worst of all, the faff of proofreading (every bracket and every space is vital, before you even get to the content of the tree!), and you’ll understand the attractions of Treeform.

So I’ve been spending a bit of time getting used to the software and also trying to navigate the minefield of assumptions and claims that I’m making every time I add a node, or choose to connect a sub-tree at a particular point.

Is this the most appropriate way to represent a sentence topic?

And I’m not sure who the subject is here?  Is Gabriel an amplifying adjunct to the angel, or is he the head?  And if he’s the head, does that make the angel the specifier of his DP?


Not to mention working out how best to include direct speech.

(Yes, since you ask, I am enjoying myself!)

That was the term that was…

…it’s over, let it go. Time to reflect, sum up and move on.  The usual three questions, starting at the top.

What’s gone well?

I’ve enjoyed the core course.  I now have a much clearer idea of the areas of linguistics that I want to know more about, and of which areas I’m going to set aside for the time being.  Some of the content has been tough to get to grips with (set theory and various kinds of formal logic over five lectures, anyone?), but I haven’t been completely at sea.  And I’m looking forward to the remaining elements of the foundation programme next term – semantics, morphology, historical linguistics – alongside the specialised options.

The course extras have been good too.  The working- and reading groups have been a chance to think about evidence and methods with colleagues, the seminars have opened my eyes to research questions I’d never dreamed of, and it is much more fun learning Korean in a class than on my own in front of a computer.

I’ve got to know some really excellent people: sharp, energetic, witty, relaxed, funny.  I’d forgotten how energising university can be, and I’ve enjoyed hearing different perspectives on the work and the subject.  I’ve also learned from seeing how other students are using their experience to tackle their own learning challenges.

Having been accountable for an organisation for the past seven years, I now have a chance to look at various other organisations – bits of the university – from a different position.  This has been fun, interesting and also a relief that it’s not my responsibility!  I’ve had lots of ideas which people within the organisations have been willing to listen to, and I feel like I’ve had space to experiment.

Outside the course, I’ve joined in (and started some) initiatives in the faculty, college and the wider university.  I’ve engaged with social media.  I’ve had a whole range of dance lessons.  I’ve been to a conference and workshops.  And I’ve rolled around on the floor pretending to be a snake trying to move quickly on sheet ice.  What’s not to like?

What’s not gone so well?

Overall, this has been a good term.  There isn’t a lot I could flag up as going badly.

The biggest challenge is getting feedback.  I’m not at all missing the health service performance management regime, but the foundation course is mostly about listening and thinking, and the feedback I’ve received relates to work submitted for classes.  I’m not looking for summative feedback, as the exams in 2015 will come soon enough, but I am looking forward to tutorials starting so that I can get more of a sense of what reasonable expectations are in terms of the breadth, depth and pace of my learning.

The other areas feel a bit nit-picky or hyper-critical (which was not the point of giving up work to study!), but I think they’re worth noting nonetheless.

Despite the best of intentions, I haven’t written every day.  To be fair, I started the term with almost no subject matter on linguistics, and there really is a limit to how much reflective writing I can do.  But this is still something I want to spend time on, and the discipline will be important later on.

A couple of times, I didn’t deliver on commitments because I had too much on.  I don’t like letting other people down, but the downside of my low boredom threshold and tolerance for “good stress” is that there isn’t a lot of margin when deadlines pile up.  It’s the usual answer: if you can’t stand the heat, you shouldn’t make the kitchen so hot!

I made time for wider reading, but not as much as I would have liked.  And although keeping enthusiastic in the library is a bit easier than it was in 1987, it is by no means a cinch.  I wonder if this has something to do with that unforgettable Bodleian smell?

And I’m not very good at proofreading, particularly when the text is on screen.  The trouble is, this gets in the way of me (and the tutors) realising when I haven’t understood something properly, rather than just clumsy typing.

And so what to do differently?

A big challenge will be embedding what I’ve learned.  We’ve covered an enormous amount of ground in eight weeks, and it’s going to take some revision and practice to make sure that I really do have firm foundation for the rest of the course.  This isn’t just the theoretical frameworks and the evidence base, but also the tools of the trade.  So one of my tasks for the next six weeks is to spend some time playing with Praat, TreeForm, LaTeX, Python and the rest so that when I need to use them in earnest, I’m not back at square one with the manual.

The next biggie is prioritisation.  Alongside the course, I have a number of small elephants on the horizon between now and July, that are going to be bloody big elephants when I’m staring them in the face.  This means that I can’t realistically take on another commitment, and I’m also going to be sparing about evenings and weekends.  It’s helpful to have realised that now, the challenge will be to stick to it when the next enticing project shows up.

I’m going to tweak my routines a bit, to make time for more exercise, for writing every day, and for wider reading.

And I’m going to keep on with the 23 Things programme at my own pace, and keep on with the blog.

Adventures in academic life: the iCog conference

Saturday of eighth week. Where did the term go? This blog has been neglected but I’ll be catching up, and reflecting on why the blog got neglected, later this week.

In the meantime, I attended the inaugural conference organised by the iCog Network in Sheffield last weekend, and used the opportunity to have a go at Twitter reporting.  iCog describes itself as a network for postgraduates and early-career researchers working in interdisciplinary cognitive science, and their site is well worth a visit.

I’ve also pulled together a Storify on the conference. As ever, feedback and comments are welcome. I’d certainly try it again – what do you think?

Third week: later than you think

A few things have happened last week that have brought me back to the reality of time. First, I need to know by this Friday, whether I want to take one of two option papers that are only available the second term of the academic year (that’s Trinity Term in Oxford English).  On the face of it, this isn’t a problem as I’m on a two-year course and so could take either of them in 2015, but that may then cut across the scheduling of other options, or give me unnecessary pressure later on.  So although I’ve been working on the basis that my decision on where to specialise can wait till January or February, in fact it will help if I can exclude some possibilities more quickly.

I’ve also been feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day.  My assignments are handed in on time, but I have a growing reading pile and a backlog developing on my to-do-list.  When I map out the fixed hours on the course, I have 16 hours of lectures, seminars and classes in a week, plus anything I do extra like IT or study skills.  This is a lot for Oxford, but it’s way less than the hours I was working in the NHS.

Then on Thursday in my oboe lesson I had to face up to the fact that regular practice time had been squeezed out, after the first three days of good intentions since the previous lesson.  One of the reasons for coming back to full-time study was that I would have the time and energy to improve my playing, and yet somehow it hasn’t been happening.  Whose time am I wasting here?

The past month has been a bit of a blur, re-entering student life and trying to work out what’s going on in between the excitement and bewilderment.  There is so much on offer at Oxford that I have found it impossible not to behave like I’ve won a supermarket trolley dash, cramming anything I can see into a growing and increasingly unstable pile.  But it’s unsustainable, and so it’s time for me to get real.

Some of it is going back to basics on time management: overcome resistance with routines and pomodoros; make sure that I’m on top of everything that needs to be done; and get up early to clear the backlog if I’m falling behind. For the time being, that will probably be enough.  I’m clear that I don’t want to neglect home, relationships, music, or my own physical and mental health.  I know what the warning signs are, so I’ll keep an eye on them as I get into my new working rhythm.

The more difficult bit is the prioritisation: I’m spoilt for choice and three weeks into the course, I haven’t really had enough time to know what I would like to specialise in longer-term.  One of the faculty members last week was discouraging a “strategic” approach to learning that aimed to choose a set of options that would maximise grades for a given input.  I do want a strategic approach, but one that takes in as diverse a range as possible of linguistics without becoming undoably broad, includes the interests that I already have, leaves space for things that I might yet become interested in, and keeps my future options open.

Social media fledgling

A gratuitous goldfinch – linked from rspb.org.uk

Apologies for the pun, but the 23 Things tasks for this week are to explore some other social media vehicles, in particular Twitter and RSS readers.

I’m already on Twitter and have been for a while.  I enjoy reading other people’s tweets, the immediacy and wit of the response to events but I’m not really sure how best to become a more active user. And in the light of recent media coverage of libel and trolling, and friends’ horror stories, I’m a little bit wary.  Prompted by Thing 7, I’ve started a list of linguistics tweeters to follow, which I’ll expand over the next few weeks. I’ve also changed my profile so that I’m now @SpkgOnTongues, and WordPress tells me that some readers have arrived here via that route.  But I still don’t know what kind of content I’ve got that would work well on Twitter, other than letting people know that I’ve written a new blog post.  Today’s experiment was asking a question (non-academic) to see what comes back, but so far it’s been a null response.

RSS Feeds (Thing 8) are a different matter.  I’m a huge fan of Feedly on the iPad: I like the way that I can segment my areas of interest and it encourages me to go further into topics that bloggers raise.  I’ve also started using it to keep an eye on what this year’s other 23 Things bloggers are up to.  I hadn’t realised that there was also a web version, and so I’m looking forward to browsing with a larger screen.

As for Thing 9’s encouragement to try Storify, paper.li or scoop.it,  I don’t think I’m quite ready yet.  But it’s something that I’ll consider later on in the term as a way of reporting back on responses to and during a conference that I’m going to.  At the moment though, there are other priorities.

I’m really interested to know who else I could be following on Twitter, whatever the subject.  Or what kind of things I should be tweeting about.  Any suggestions?  Maybe it’s time to dip my toes into the murky waters of #ff?

Second week

Picture of a pig wallowing in muckI’m in hog heaven.  This week, I’ve been to a seminar on sign language impairments, learned some Lindy Hop, signed up for Korean classes and an interdisciplinary conference, hosted a queer theory/mediaeval art lecture screening in college and eaten home-made kimchi.  And I’ve met warm, inspiring, thoughtful people in college and the department.  I only had one evening with my partner – which is not enough and needs to change! – but overall this is everything I hoped for, and more.

Despite all the extra-curricular activity, most of my time has been spent on the course.  And as it’s second week, the first signs of storming have emerged: the inevitable group negotiation of roles, boundaries and mutual expectations.

The boundaries are appearing at all levels: the implicit rules of the group, but also theoretical boundaries between sub-disciplines, between sounds and meanings.  I’m  tripping over them: using the wrong explanatory framework, focusing on a phonetic distinction in a phonology class, confusing grammatical case with syntactic function.   I feel like I’m learning a whole set of new languages and at the same time trying to figure out what they have in common, and why the differences are important.  The linguistics of linguistics, if you like.  (Stop me if you think I’ve just spiralled up my own academic backside!)

This is an adult learning environment and I’m responsible for my own learning.  It’s my job to draw my own map of the subject and make sense of it.  I see many parallels between postgraduate study and my last role: the need to handle ambiguity, understand multiple competing representations and perspectives, choose a course of action and justify it in the wider context, and have the same conversation in different ways with different stakeholders.  But this is also a structured foundation programme with classes and homework.  There’s real temptation to pretend I’m back at school and hand responsibility back to the faculty.

As you would expect, the course tutors have different styles, preferences and approaches which overlay the differences in the subject matter, and I’ve realised this week that these differences are actually very helpful.  The variety provides an opportunity for comparison, and therefore to build hypotheses about what’s driving it and what’s going to be important in the long run.   For me, the best approach so far is where the tutor’s assumptions are clearly stated and tested, and where the structure of teaching supports me to distinguish between the core concepts of the subject, the competing theoretical approaches and a tutor’s personal academic viewpoint.  But where that isn’t as clear for any reason, I now have a framework and some tools to engage in discussion with the tutors and build my understanding: my own personal contribution to the storming.

So I’m looking forward to third week, but it’s still early days and I’m sure that I’m not noticing loads of stuff.  What do you think?  What have I missed?

network error, try reloading ;(

It’s 23 Things time again.  The task this week is to dredge the internet for references to me, and reflect on what I find.  The difficulty I have with my name is, there are a lot of us about.

Starting with just Stephen Jones brings up the usual suspects: the milliner, the rugby player, the TV presenter.  But also some unexpected treats, like the author of “Zombie Apocalypse #1” (add to e-reading list).

When I add in “Oxford”, I find a criminologist, a policy consultant, a private-school headmaster and the leader of a free church.  Adding in “Oxford University” unearths a geneticist, a sports scientist and a musicologist.  Putting “linguistics” onto the end of the search string finally brings up my MPhil class list (as the first item, no less), and this blog at number three.  So I am findable, but it needs persistence.

Facebook doesn’t show up.  That’s good: I want a degree of separation between my personal and professional lives, and I’m pleased that the privacy settings seem to be working, at least to some extent.  But neither does my LinkedIn profile, which is up-to-date and shows my current student status.  Until I google with my old organisation, when I pop up at the top of the first page, besuited and smiling.  Hmm.

What do I think about all of this?  Overall, it’s not surprising and it’s not a problem either.  Today is term 1, week 2, Thursday of my return to study.  I have no academic products to offer anyone yet.  I’m still feeling my way into the subject and deciding where I’d like to specialise.  My past is part of why I’m here today, and is informing my approach to the MPhil and academic life more broadly.  It’s impossible to airbrush it out, and so I’m relieved that the internet didn’t really take off until my 30s: the on-line footprint that I’m managing is a lot less lurid than it might have been otherwise.

My follow-up actions are straightforward.  Think about how I might change LinkedIn to point a bit more towards the future.  Set up a profile on academia.  And spend most of my time on the MPhil work so that I can shift over time from reflections on process, to reflections on content.

PS – If anyone is able to get a result out of the MIT Personas project, let me know.  The introductory pages are really tempting, but all I ever got from the search box was “network error, try reloading ;(“ after a variable search time.  This teasing, inconsistent feedback kept me glued to the screen as if it was a Las Vegas slot-machine.

First week!

Many thanks to Rosie, Tony and Joh for commenting on my last post.  It’s great to get feedback and your comments were really helpful.  The essence of what I took from the comments is: the focus of the blog is fine, and I need to worry less for blog posts about perfect content or fully-developed ideas.  So here goes with my second post.

First week learningThis is a mind map capturing some of my reflections at the end of the first week of term, seven whole days of transition!  As you can see, there’s been quite a lot going on. (Click on the picture to see the original pdf).  As I was drawing it, two themes stood out for me in particular so I’ll expand on them here a bit.

The first theme is ignorance.  I’ve had a massive wobble over the past couple of weeks as it has become clear to me just how much I don’t know.  This includes things I wasn’t aware of (painful but exciting), and also things that I thought I knew but in fact I don’t (painful and embarrassing).  I was kind of expecting it, but it’s always a disconcerting experience.  The temptation to over-use what I do know has been strong, and I’ve given in to it a few times more than I would have liked.  I think that’s probably a universal temptation, I just hope for the sake of my classmates that I haven’t been spouting absolute bullshit.

Digging around on the net I’ve found a couple of resources which I think explain the phenomenon really well: James Atherton’s Doceo blog  and the University of Arizona Medical School’s Q-Cubed micro-site , in particular their splendid Ignorance Map.    Acknowledging ignorance is an necessary part of increasing knowledge: painful but unavoidable.  In other words, if I can stick with the discomfort and embarrassment, they will point me in the right direction.  This is much easier at 46 than it was at 18 – hooray!  But that lurch on moving into conscious ignorance never goes away.

The second theme is belonging.  My starting point is that we humans are hard-wired to be tribal and territorial.  I don’t think I’m alone in this, Edmund Burke noticed it also (half way down para 75 – thanks for the tip, Tony).  Being tribeless is not an easy place to be, and since I left paid work in July I’ve been feeling a bit adrift.  I’m extraverted and gregarious by nature and I miss being part of an organisation.  And so I was impatient for the start of term, so that I would have somewhere to fit in. Of course, life isn’t quite like that.

Starting a new job, there is a formal organisational structure, an explicit and an unwritten culture to engage with, and sometimes even a formal induction programme to help you find your feet.  Starting at university gives you some of that, and everyone at both Kellogg and Ling/Phil has worked hard to ensure that students feel welcome.  This is much appreciated, and I hope that I can contribute to my college and department as well as receive.  But I guess one of the advantages of being a student is the freedom to create my own social space and tribe.  Some of the people I met in my first freshers’ week in 1985 are still close friends now, and with luck that will happen this time around too.

My personal challenge is that I’m a past master of the ambitious deadline.  Part of me would like all my social stuff to be sorted now, and so I am working hard to remember that actually I haven’t had time to build the relationships and I need to go with the flow.  My unaware-unknowns in this case are the thousands of people across the university that I haven’t yet met.  A great evening yesterday with the OULGBTQ-Graduates (it’s not just the NHS that does crazy initialisms!) was a good reminder that I need to keep creating opportunities and making space to build networks.  This particular literature search never ends.  There’s something here about parallels between EndNote and Facebook but I’ll think about that another time.

As before, your thoughts, comments and feedback are most welcome.  I’m particularly interested in two questions.  How does this match or differ from your experience in similar situations?  What have I missed?

Becoming a blogger

Like most of my friends, I started off on social media with Facebook.  Having resisted for a long time, I progressed rapidly from silent lurker to poster, commenter and sharer.  LinkedIn came later, when I realised that I wanted a connection to colleagues without them being aware of all my social adventures.  Somehow I was never as active there as on Facebook, and since I left paid employment at the end of June, I’m not quite sure where my LinkedIn presence is going to go.

Then I found real-time linguistics, and real-life linguists on the net, through Twitter and the Feedly blog reader.  All of a sudden, I realised what I had been missing. People were pointing me towards interesting articles and sharing their work.  They had good advice, and provocative questions.  And they wanted to interact.  I was already interested in language, and spending increasing amounts of time reading around the subject.  Blog posts and tweets brought the subject alive, and helped inspire and motivate me to take the plunge and move into full-time study.

Thus far, so good.  But why a start a blog now, given everything else I’m taking on at the moment?  I have to thank Tanya Golash-Boza, author of Get a Life, PhD, which is helping me build a bridge between my old life and my new one.  She has written many helpful posts about personal effectiveness, time management, prioritisation and the like.   These topics are familiar from the old life, and make a lot more sense now that I have more control over the shape of my working day.  What’s new for me is the reflection on the skills and mind-set I will need as a baby academic, and that has been incredibly useful.

The message that comes through loud and clear from Get a Life, PhD is to write every day.  Every day. There is no getting round it: writing is the crucial core skill for any academic. All those hours of reading, analysing, listening, thinking, that I’ll be putting in over the next two years, all those hours are going to be worth nothing if I can’t convert the results into a structured, compelling message, whether it’s in a peer-reviewed article or, more urgently, in a three-hour examination.  It’s also a skill that has fallen away, rather than been honed, over the twenty-odd years of work since my MSc. In other words, it’s one of the biggest changes of emphasis that I’m facing.

So I need to practise: essays, outlines, articles, blog posts, anything that strengthens my writing muscles.  And like any kind of exercise, a training programme and training buddies will help me keep disciplined.  In this context, signing up to do the Bodleian’s 23 Things was a no-brainer.

Over the next term – and maybe longer – I will be using this blog as a place to reflect on the process of becoming a linguist, as a postgraduate, a mature student, and a returner to Oxford after a long gap.  I hope to make contact with other people who share some, or all, or none of those characteristics.  And I’m really interested in your responses to my reflections.