Sunday, 1 November 2015

Ten days in Norway. Part 1: before the workshop

I feel privileged that I could spend ten inspiring and refreshing days in Norway. First I spent a week in Tromsø and then a couple of days in Oslo. This visit gave me a great opportunity for summarizing what I’ve already done in my Marie Curie project, and I also could make some plans for the future. The visit was focused around a two-day international research workshop ‘Contextualizing linguistic diversity in institutional settings’ I organized together with Prof. Hilde Sollid and Florian Hiss at the University of Tromsø – the Arctic University of Norway. In the first part of my post I share what happened before the workshop. In the second part I will write about the topics and discussions of the workshop, and I will write about my Oslo experience as well.

Tromsø harbor

How we prepared the workshop
As I wrote in one of my previous posts, I established contacts with Tromsø colleagues in 2013 when I attended a great international conference on diversity there. The whole conference was great, and we had especially exciting conversations with Prof. Hilde Sollid; we happened to sit around the same lunch table and during our chat, we found that we had so many common topics of interest that we should definitely do something together in the future. Last year, Hilde invited me to her thematic panel on language ideologies in the classroom at the Sociolinguistics Symposium 20 in Jyväskylä, and around December we started to exchange emails about future plans, including a workshop on diversity. We wanted to create an event which gives plenty of space for discussion and self-reflection in connection with researching diversity. There are so many research projects focusing on diversity. But what does this notion mean to us and why do we find it important in our work? Of course there are no final answers to these questions: what we found important was to exercise self-reflection and share experience with colleagues with similar interest. Hilde invited her close colleague, Florian Hiss into the organization of the workshop.
For me it was the first international research workshop I have ever initiated and I was excited at every point of the preparation of the event. I took part in organizing conferences, but it was for the first time that I was among the chief organizers. I think it was a very useful experience for me. It was a great feeling that I could attend an event which has been custom designed by three of us. I can say that the workshop went as fine as we planned, or even better.
One of the great advantages of the workshop was its size: it was an event for about ten to fifteen people. We gave 45 minutes for each presenter and we had one hour for general discussion at the end of the day – I think this design has established a very relaxed working atmosphere. Another great thing was the variety of accompanying events. One of the invited speakers of the workshop, Jürgen Jaspers gave the annual Sommerfelt lecture in the evening before the workshop so the post-lecture reception gave a good opportunity to meet the workshop participants. (The series of Sommerfelt lectures are organized in memory of Alt Sommerfelt who was a major figure of Norwegian linguistics. Two guest lectures I gave and a data seminar were also linked to the workshop: they were ideal to initiate discussion about methodological and theoretical questions that could be discussed later, during the workshop, in a more extensive way.

Tromsø city library: a scenic view from the reading room

Interviewing children: a discussion of methods and principles at a research meeting
On Tuesday 6 October I attended a research meeting of Hilde’s research group where we discussed how to interview children about linguistic diversity they encounter in their everyday life. Hilde’s group will record interviews with children so I hope I could help their future work a bit. I was invited to give a guest lecture but what actually happened was a very interactive and deeply engaged discussion about involving children into research. I brought my examples from three studies. I showed a longer excerpt from an interview with an elementary school student, a 9-year-old boy. This interview is part of the corpus I collected for my dissertation. With this very example, I demonstrated how metalinguistic comments emerge in interaction. My point was that ‘opinions’ and narratives we collect change as the context of the conversation changes, so the analysis should consider what has been discussed before in the interview (I analyzed some parts of the same interview in one of my Hungarian papers). In my talk, I also built on our joint studies with Kinga Jelencsik-Mátyus on the development of school metalanguage (we presented a paper with a similar focus at the Sociolinguistics Symposium 19 in Berlin). The third source of the presented data was my fieldwork experience in Hungary in March.
While sharing my experience, I emphasized how important it is to be flexible during the fieldwork, treat the children as equal partners in the recorded interviews and give space for exercising their agency in the preparation and the implementation of the interview. One of my favorite cases happened during my fieldwork in March. Well before arriving to the research site, I informed all prospective participants, including the children, about data collection and handling, with a special attention to securing anonymity. Basically, such information letters are quite boring, but in one school many children found one part of the letter especially exciting. In a particular paragraph, I wrote that I would refer to every participant by pseudonyms in my papers, and I offered them an option to choose a pseudonym for themselves. This option boosted the children’s fantasy and, adapting my future practice, they already started to call me by pseudonyms. Calling others by fictitious names made the research situation part of a role play which was funny also for me. These fourth graders were really cute and I enjoyed being called by names such as Sanyi, Roland or Pista. In other cases, children significantly influenced the topic of the interview or the activities we participated together. In terms of flexibility in conducting fieldwork, I learnt a lot from Alison Crump’s and Heather Phipps’ paper – I recommend reading it for all interested in conducting research with children.

A nice house in a Tromsø street: I liked its atmosphere
Wonderful materials about materiality: a data seminar on visual methods
On Wednesday, we had a very stimulating full-day data seminar. As part of Hilde’s research project on children’s competence of diversity, Hilde and her colleagues visited kindergartens and schools in Northern Norway around the Sámi awareness week (the week of the Sámi National Day, 6 February). The research investigates how Sáminess is constructed semiotically in these institutions. I gave an opening lecture about Pictures as data. As a continuation of the train of thoughts started in my post about the Linguistic Landscape Workshop in Berkeley, I summarized why it seems to be a good idea to use visual data in applied language studies. First: what is our goal with taking photos? Do we want to document the research site; remind us to the context; enhance the interaction we are recording; support our arguments; or conduct systematic semiotic analys? (Or something else?) In cases where research participants are also present during the photography of the environment, visual data are not collected but rather generated; that is, the research participants actively influence what becomes part of our photo collection and what does not.
Because Hilde’s research group works with photographs, I also gave examples of interpreting such visual material. I demonstrated how important it is to consider the wider semiotic context of the artifacts we document (e.g. the central/peripheral position of an artifact as well as the surrounding artifacts may be important in analysis). I suggested making use of local community members’ narratives in the analysis of the pictures. We can learn a lot about the (claimed) purpose and history of the observable material environment with the help of walking tours lead by students, teachers and/or parents. I’m happy that such tours have been recorded by members of the research group so they could apply some methodological ideas I proposed in my recent paper on schoolscapes.
I greatly enjoyed the relaxed and eye-opening discussion of the photographs taken by the members of the research group. For me, taking insights into the life of Norwegian kindergartens and school was an exciting experience. Since the institutions were visited around the Sámi awareness week, a rich variety of ways through which people construct Sáminess has become visible. Karola Kleeman’s telling example has especially grabbed my attention. In certain Norwegian kindergartens, there are two departments: a Sámi and a non-Sámi. In many cases, after the establishment of the Sámi department, all symbols and objects considered being ‘Sámi’ have been concentrated into the Sámi department, meaning that some objects have been replaced from other parts of the building and reinstalled in the new department. Although the visibility of Sáminess has significantly increased in the Sámi rooms, Sámi language and culture has become virtually invisible in other parts of the building. For me, this example which resembles other cases presented in the data seminar teaches a lot about the implementation as well as the planned and not planned consequences of local institutional language policies.
The discussion of the examples has raised numerous questions. Without listing all of them, I highlight some of the issues that are important in my work as well. First, I liked the idea that we shouldn’t concentrate only on ‘exotic’ scenes but rather, we should record and analyze the ‘obvious’, the everyday segments of school life as well. Diversity in the school does not only mean the display of Sámi clothes: differences and similarities between the local community members’ practices can be studied through anything, for example through the way they store and change their clothes or how they eat, etc. In this regard, we talked about how we select and deselect some scenes for photo documentation; that is, the photos we haven’t taken are also important in understanding our work. However, it’s a bit more challenging to analyze them, in contrast to those that we have actually taken.

The Sámi house at the university campus: we had a really enjoyable reception around the campfire after Jürgen Jaspers' Sommerfelt lecture
Jürgen Jaspers: Sociolinguistics idealized
Jürgen Jaspers gave the annual Sommerfelt lecture the evening before the workshop. I really liked his self-ethnographic approach: he used his e-mails in the reconstruction of cases when journalists have written about his work in mainstream media. For me, it was especially exciting to listen to his thoughts about how journalists and scholars and dependent on each other’s work. First, journalists need an ‘expert’ who helps them in the creation of media contents that attract people and help to sell their journal (or increase the number of views on the internet). Second, scholars need journalists who efficiently disseminate the results of their work and thus enhance the emergence of societal impact. However, scientific research is often misunderstood or misinterpreted, so it is important that scholars keep some control over the materials referring to them. I think I’m quite lucky because when I write popular articles, I am the journalist and the scholar in one person and this combination reduces the risk of communicating misinterpreted results to the general public. (You can read Jürgen’s abstract in the booklet of our workshop.)

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