Maurice Nevile (2)

A talk by Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of Conversation Analysis, has been recently made available, and Maurice Nevile undertook to transcribe it for the benefit of the language-in-interaction community. Here he reports on what it meant to him, and what we can all get out of such a powerful historical document.

Maurice Nevile, University of Southern Denmark

Maurice Nevile, University of Southern Denmark

Transcribing Gail Jefferson: The 1977 Boston talk as it actually was

When I first saw the film recording of Gail Jefferson presenting at the 1977 Boston University Conference on Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis I was immediately keen to transcribe it.

Generally, the talk gives a sense of the content and flow of Jefferson’s spoken analytic voice, especially as reflecting and contributing to the early years of CA’s development and emergence. It shows Jefferson’s approach to collecting and analysing data, and identifying and presenting interaction phenomena, while reflecting the collegial and collaborative context in which she was working. More specifically, the talk’s focus and interests were especially significant for Jefferson.

The poetics of talk

Jefferson later elaborated elements of the talk into the 1996 paper ‘On the poetics of ordinary talk’ (in Text and Performance Quarterly, 16,1:1-61), in which she describes her 1977 talk as “specifically directed to loosening up people’s sense of the sort of work done in the field of Conversation Analysis” (p.1). She notes that at the time of the talk, a year and half after Harvey Sacks’ death, conversation analysis was becoming identified very closely with the 1974 Sacks, Schegloff & Jefferson paper ‘A simplest systematics…’. Her talk was therefore developed as “an antidote to that drastically constricted version of the field” (p.1), and as “an expression of the wild side of Conversation Analysis” (p.1).

Gail Jefferson during the talk

Gail Jefferson during the talk

Jefferson refers in the 1996 poetics paper to a transcription of the talk completed and sent to her by Robert Hopper. I have not seen that transcription and don’t know of its level of detail, but the paper begins with text apparently paralleling the talk’s content, under the heading ‘The Boston talk (as it never was)’ (p.2) – this would therefore seem to be adapted from Hopper’s transcription. So in my transcription I intended to give a clearer and more detailed sense of the Boston talk as it actually was, as a talk, with no intention to pursue any kind of analysis.

The transcription

At one point in the talk Jefferson describes herself as a ‘professional transcriber’, and her transcription conventions have become commonly accepted as germane to CA research. It was therefore with some trepidation that I transcribed Jefferson herself, and I am certain that she would have thought my transcription to be inadequate. Nevertheless, I offer it as a personal, respectful, and appreciative attempt to capture and detail one brief moment of her wider contribution to the field as she gives “a guided tour through the data”, providing in 1977 a view of the “wild side” of CA.

jefferson4I made no attempt to transcribe details of embodiment, so at least one distinctive aspect of the presentation, Jefferson’s continual pacing from side-to-side, is missing. Nor did I transcribe various forms of audience response and participation (e.g. indistinct chatter and mumbling, laughter, coughing, groans). The talk is given as a monologue and so I used headings for guidance, some of which echo those of Jefferson (1996). The period of audience questions and discussion after the talk I have transcribed only relatively minimally.

Personal comment

At a personal level I was delighted to listen to and see Gail Jefferson in action presenting on her work in the first years of conversation analysis. I met and knew her only much later when I was fortunate to be taught by her in Denmark at two week-long summer schools for new researchers (2000, 2003), and later at a two-day masterclass (2007). These courses were demanding, and in equal measure immensely rewarding and challenging as Jefferson responded to and critiqued our analyses of data, and our own transcriptions. I remain indebted to Gail for her insistence on precision in the pursuit and representation of interactional phenomena.

Availability and acknowledgement

The transcription, in CLAN with direct links to the video recording, is now available at and the new site which is a developing collection of historically significant materials highlighting origins and progress of Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis. The original film recording was made available by Prof. George Psathas (Boston University). Prof. Doug Maynard (University of Wisconsin) arranged for the recording to be digitised.

Part of Maurice Nevile's Talkbank transcription

Part of Maurice Nevile’s Talkbank transcription