Explaining what we do to the general public can be a daunting exercise, but the rewards can be well worth it. Marina Cantarutti, doing her doctoral research at the University of York, took on the task, and presented her work at a science fair of the kind that hosted Saul Albert and colleagues’ excellent CA Rollercoaster. She lived to tell the (happy) tale…
For some areas of linguistics, it may be a bit difficult to make your work accessible to the public without feeling you are betraying yourself, or your knowledge. The fear of trivialising is always at the back of one’s mind. Moreover, when you’re out there on your own, you are the sole representative of the discipline … daunting!
And there is also the issue of impact. When you do research on CA on institutional settings, for example, the “impact sell” is perhaps a bit easier than when your passion is the magic that happens in even the most mundane of our everyday interactions. Showing how studying “the ordinary” can make a difference is a challenge, and in this respect, the CA community is really grateful to Liz Stokoe and the work she has been doing making the “science of talk” known to the wider public.
What I talked about
On November 17th, as part of York’s YorNight, I presented an exhibition called “Human fusion…in conversation. Explaining Synchronisations through the Science of Talk, Conversation Analysis”.
From my collection of co-animations and turn-sharing, I focused only on cases of associative collaborative productions, in particular, choral productions (things “said at the same time”, as I called them), and anticipatory completions (“finishing each other’s sentences”). My aim was to show my audience that these are highly ordered activities that are not about “mind reading” but about the “reading” and negotiation of turn-design features from both the speaker’s and the recipient’s perspective. I used the Royal engagement interview and my data to show how we do this through our wording, tone of voice, gesture, gaze, and the timing of our incomings.
The activities and set-up
I divided my exhibition into five activities. The first was simply my welcome and announcement of my research topic, and a few introductory words with the question “do you want to hear more?”. None of the visitors, after hearing me say I study, among other things, when people “finish each other’s sentences and say the same thing at the same time”, actually rejected the invitation (lots of smiling and eyebrow raising reactions from them there)!
My second task was to see the Royals in action, finishing each other’s sentences, as an introduction to the kind of detail and organisation I’m interested in.
I spread out copies of my research slides on the table, with a running powerpoint, where people who came in could see snippets from the familiar Harry and Meghan BBC interview. I showed them at regular and slow speeds, with a breakdown of lots of interesting verbal and non-verbal aspects leading up to the famous collaborative completion. Here’s a version of it, in a rather minimal transcript (but good enough for the purpose):
The third activity was called “Sync away”, and it required that the audience get in my participants’ shoes by doing some predictive work. I would play two snippets of data, one with a choral production, and the other with an anticipatory completion, and stop just before these synchronised productions happened. The audience would have to guess what came next. Kids were particularly good at this one! (Pro tip: those five-way audio splitters for headphones are the best if you are planning a family-exhibition!)
The next activity was “Find the clues”, but in the end I never got to implement it, as it was just too difficult. It consisted in getting the audience to spot those interesting speaker and recipient behaviours leading up to these synchronisations . Even though I chose, of course, my stellar cases, those that look so perfect they should be in textbooks, it just wouldn’t work. So I decided to play the video again and guide their attention to rhythmic behaviour, clicks, vowel lengthening, hesitation markers, the holding and release of gestures, the predictability of certain grammatical structures. That got the “Wow!” I had hoped for.
The fourth activity was called “Sync with me” (or “force sync!”) and it invited the audience to pick a person in the group to pick an idiomatic expression (e.g. “you can’t have your cake and eat it”) out of a bag, which they had to include in their talk, and get the other person to either complete or produce in unison. It worked really well with a teenage brother-sister pair. It even worked with two kids who were around 8-12 – they didn’t know the expressions, but nevertheless they came up with some plausible completions in just the right way!
The best part: researcher-audience interaction
Beyond the startling question “you are planning to get your PhD finished in three years, I presume?” I received from a grandparent, the interactions I had with the audience were really super interesting, and gave me further ideas as to where the impact of my research could lie. Questions going from “are these things learned?” to “are these culturally-sensitive?”, into “how can this help our interaction with people in the autism spectrum?”, to the usual “you must find it impossible to lead a normal conversation with people”, my interaction with people all ages was priceless.
As with teaching, or poster presentations sessions at conferences, you get better at pitching your work and targeting your talk at your audience as you go along. This was a five-hour exhibition, and I must have met around 30 families/couples/groups of friends from different backgrounds and interests. I have discussed the detail of everyday talk in a tent space shared with researchers on subjects that the public would not doubt to call “science”, such as Chemistry and Physics. I can only say that I humbly believe I have been successful in showing how studying conversation isdoing science, how unpacking the orderliness of the ordinary can be fascinating, and how we can make a difference to people’s lives by describing how it is that we go about our everyday business of social interaction.