If you can’t be bothered to read my thesis, read this instead (by Michaela Salmon)

A few weeks ago, Lauren Godfrey-Smith wrote about her experience with 3MT. As Lauren describes, getting your PhD dissertation across to a broad audience in only three minutes is no mean feat but the challenge ultimately helps to clarify the content. Distilling a complex document into a small digestible chunk is the best and most viable way to sharing it with an audience beyond our cohort of students and academics.

In a similar vein, researchers took to Twitter a few years ago under the hashtag “#emojiresearch” to explain their areas of study in 140 characters or less, with the aid of emojis.

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Given that only about 2% of friends and family have the time (let alone the inclination) to read my 150 page thesis, a strategy like this seems a good way to spread my findings.

My #emojiresearch would look something a little bit like this:

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In other words: Women from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco come to Canada (specifically Quebec, but there’s no emoji of the Quebec flag). We talked about their experiences using language but also about other social and cultural factors that had an impact on their experiences of integration.

A bit more detail:

Coming from a background in sociolinguistics, my thesis was supposed to focus mainly on language policies. However, as we were concentrating on immigration and integration into communities and workplaces during a time when the provincial government was proposing a Charter of Values, it was necessary to expand the scope to include many different forms of government policy. Through interviews and journals, my participants and I examined the interplay of policy, ideology and practice. We uncovered ways in which these three do not always align.

Why should you care?

It’s easy to feel far removed from government policies; many legislative acts that are passed may not appear to have discernible impacts on our own lives. However, social policies like Quebec’s Bill 101 language laws can and do alter lives in the day-to-day, as well as potentially changing the course of someone’s entire life.  Conversations with participants like the ones in my thesis show us the ‘human side’ of policy making. Ideally, social policies should improve quality of life on both an individual and community level. My research helps us to measure whether this is the case as well as exposing unforeseen implications and/or unintended consequences.

For example, in my study I explored the concept of French as the langue publique commune (the common public language) in Québec. Government policies advocate this status of the French language (for example, in Bill 101 and other government papers) and state that it is a pillar of a cohesive Québécois society. In other words: to speak French (regardless of your background) makes you a Quebecer. However, this acceptance is not always afforded to those with certain religious, cultural, or ethnic characteristics (Piché, 2002; Oakes, 2004). Indeed, the participants in my study expressed feelings of exclusion or non-belonging based on factors such as religious dress, accent, lexicon, and appearance. All of this despite all women being competent and confident users of French.

When policy misaligns with reality to such an extent, we should be questioning the causes. My theoretical model of policy, ideology, and practice (inspired by Spolsky, 2004) allows us to explain how a complex theoretical system (a policy) functions in the real world according to people’s actions (practice) and beliefs (ideology). In the example from my research, we see that policies promote the use of French as a common language. In keeping with this policy, the women in my study all used French as a primary means of communication in most public settings. Despite this, the beliefs of many of their fellow Quebecers and ideas often perpetuated by the media undermined their status as Quebecers and indeed undermines the initial purpose of the policies themselves.

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You should care about this because it is too easy for us to be complacent about the implementation of social policies, particularly if we belong to a privileged social group. If you do not feel like your way of life is being threatened in any way, it is too easy not to care. Research like mine talks to those individuals who do feel that their way of life is being threatened. They show us the real human outcome of what can otherwise seem like empty political words.

Shohamy (2009) asked us to shift language policy research from a “bureaucratic field into a human one” (p. 186). This is important for the way we conduct our research in the first place, but I think it can apply to the way we disseminate it too. If only my colleagues and friends in the field read my research, then I’m simply preaching to the choir. By challenging ourselves to repackage research into blog posts like this, into three minute theses like Lauren’s, or into #emojiresearch we are making sure that the message goes further and hopefully reaches those who may not have otherwise cared or considered the human side of policy.

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Shohamy, E. (2009). Language policy as experiences. Language Problems and Language Planning, 33(2), 185–189.

Spolsky, B. (2004). Language Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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