UCU Teach Out IV

Linguistics Lay-In: A Critical Analysis Workshop

  • This report is a part of the following series: UCU Teach Out.
  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

Use these powers responsibly; go forth and analyse further texts.

Dr Johann Johnny Unger

The first of the day’s two workshops was presented by Dr Johann Johnny Unger—he of that debate the other day fame—and revolved around the use of discourse studies in analysing texts.

Dr Unger introduced the concept via Save Our Staff MCR’s video What is Nancy really saying?, which purports to highlight the underlying meaning of the University of Manchester VC’s address to her striking staff. Defining texts as all forms of communication, whether spoken, written or anything else, Dr Unger then posed a question: if the video was a good example of lay analysis, and thus anyone can analyse texts, why do we need linguists? He identified the linguist USP as that of a particular scholarly interest in language, in a way that differentiated them from sociologists, political scientists, social scientists, etc., despite the fact that many of the aforementioned utilise the tools of discourse studies in their work.

Discourse studies is partially interested in the relationship between language and power, and how it can be used to persuade. In order to demonstrate this, Dr Unger had provided three texts which we were to analyse in groups. The texts were: a (partial) transcript of the University of Lancaster VC Prof. Mark E. Smith’s recent interview with our student media; an email from UCU General Secretary Sally Hunt recently distributed to UCU members; and and a press release from Universities UK (UUK). There was a small chorus of boos at the mention of the UUK. All of the texts came from March 2nd.

First, though, Dr Unger sought to provide us a whistlestop tour of all of discourse studies in ten minutes, which I feel he largely achieved. He began by detailing the ways in which metaphor can be employed—particularly those metaphors that imply burden, threat, military concerns and natural disasters—and how to analyse an argument by asking what is being proposed?, what is the evidence for it, and is it reliable?, what are the implicit premises of the argument? and is the proposer using any argumentative shortcuts?, with the prime example of the latter being the think of the children argument.

He then went over a handful of rhetorical flourishes, such as the rule of three and the use of repetition and equivalence. Not quite as in-depth a discussion of rhetoric as Aristotle’s, but I appreciate Dr Unger was rather pressed for time. Finally, he covered analysis of the relative positioning and agency of the text author(s) and audience(s), including the use of pronouns (who is the we and who the they in the text?) and the foregrounding or backgrounding of responsibility through, for example, the use of the passive voice, in assigning or limiting agency.

That finished, we got into our groups and chose our texts. I chose the email for our group, largely because I knew the other two were publicly available and I’m a bit nosy. We started off annotating our own copies, and one of the group went perhaps too far down the rabbit hole of authorial analysis (the Barthesian in me was screaming out the whole time), but we come up with some interesting observations about the shifting use of pronouns throughout and the complete lack of any mention of pensions, over which this whole dispute is supposedly about. In place of pensions, we noted, was a constant refrain for people to join something—nominally the picket line, but, we thought, more importantly the UCU.

One tangent I followed for a bit was it’s use of language designed to evoke memories of previous examples of industrial action in the UK. Within the UK, the de facto image of a strike is that of the Thatcher-era miners’ strikes, with all of their violence and ill will. Especially within the UK labour movements, it appears to me, the sacrifices of the strikes, which did, it must be stressed, fail, hold a position of esteem roughly comparable to those of Jesus for a Christian. Likely strikes conjure up different images in different cultures—most Americans would break out in a cold sweat, most French would look around them at the picket line they’re currently on that day and shrug. The use, in the email, of language like sacrifice for what has been a protest of comparatively little sacrifice is clearly an attempt to invoke a parallel. Constant messages of inclusivity, promising the minority who [have] not taken strike action are still welcome to start now, are no doubt also a response to the memories of those historic strikes, and the reprisals meted out onto scabs.

The groups who had analysed the UUK press release came next, and they focused on the use of passive language in avoiding any culpability for the collapse of talks between the UUK and UCU. Most interestingly, I thought, was the academic who pointed that the picture used to illustrate the press release—a sterile, stock photography shot of a corporate boardroom—was not a workplace setting [they] recognise, driving home just how different the environments of the opposing forces within the neoliberal university really are.

Finally came the transcript. Prof. Smith’s ground zero metaphor for the state of the pension talks was identified for its connotations of 9/11 and the atomic bombings of Japan, creating an impression of abject devastation. Also taken apart were his attempts to appear as one of the guys, such as characterising the complicated actuarial science behind the claims that the current pension scheme is unaffordable as something that I won’t even pretend to understand. This is despite the fact that a) the math behind it is, by most accounts, actually remarkably simple to follow and b) if Prof. Smith is the endearingly clueless dumbass that he makes himself out to be, why is he the highly-salaried head of a top-ten university?

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