On Saturday 11 March (2017), some of the LDNA team took part in a Showcase as part of the University of Sheffield’s Festival of the Arts and Humanities. The event took place at Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries, allowing members of the public to discover different aspects of humanities research presented through exhibitions, activities and short presentations. Visitors found information about literature or archaeological findings, had the possibility to try out different instruments or take an implicit bias test brought in by the Philosophy Department. We asked Sheffield postgraduates Nadia and Winnie to reflect on their experience preparing for and staffing a stall as part of their MA work placements.
I prepared a handout using data from Ways of Being in a Digital Age (WOBDA). The process—zooming from abstract trios extracted from a dataset to see the patterns they made in a small extract of text—was fascinating. At first I was worried about how well the concept would translate to a non-specialist audience, but then I realised that involves negative preconceptions about what a non-specialist audience is: somehow less interested or capable of critical engagement than a specialist one. I therefore decided not to “aim” anything “at” anyone, but instead tried to summarise trios in a way that made the most sense to me as a newcomer to Linguistic DNA’s methods. I chose a single pair (internet + craving), made up a colour-coded table of the items that formed trios with it, and then put this alongside highlighted examples of trios in a journal abstract.
This turned out to be really useful because people were interested in the project from all kinds of angles, some of which changed how I thought about what LDNA does. Fiddling with data on the placement meant I’d got sidetracked in a sense into thinking about WOBDA as a technical exercise, but the Showcase helped me see the bigger picture. Visitors were intrigued by Linguistic DNA as a name; one person was interested in whether the project was making any claims about genetic hard-wiring. Another, an IT professional, was interested in the double helix visualisation on the website, and said it would make him think about his own designs. I particularly remember a conversation with an artist who was interested in researching discourses around disability. We talked about how to query corpora, which tools were available and easy to use, the advantages and disadvantages of the BNC versus the web as corpus, how the age of the BNC might affect the language it contained, and the difference between collocations and discourse concepts as shown in WOBDA. She was also interested in word clouds; the idea of extracting implicit relationships in language and making them visible seemed to be something that appealed strongly to both adults and children who stopped at the stall.
To prepare for this event, I mostly focused on the YouTube data. I prepared an informative and colourful poster with prominent examples, including images of Beyoncé (left) and the video game World of Tanks, to attract visitors and to suggest that we conduct contemporary research. I also searched our data for some prominently occurring words.
Because we do not yet have representative results for the Militarization 2.0 work, I often pointed to the Linguistic DNA research as the mother project of the YouTube project. The examples proved very useful since they complemented the information given on the posters. The audience was provided with representative examples from the Linguistic DNA project for them to look at and take away. Moreover, people had the chance to play with word cards and group them together according to their own individual word associations (right).
I observed that many people grouped together words with a similar meaning (such as ‘succeed’ and ‘win’), whereas others clustered together words according to very personal associations. An 8-year-old girl was fascinated by the cards, pairing ‘victory’ and ‘win’; we looked at how these words appear in our given examples and the advantages of having a computer that counts words as lemmas. One visitor told us about his aphasia and how it changed and affected his use of language, which made me realise that next to the Linguistic DNA we are researching, every person has his or her own, very personal linguistic DNA. Another visitor was inspired by the YouTube project and connected language use to social issues, such as the omnipresence of on- and offline violence, providing food for thought for all participants of the conversation.
From my point of view, the event was a success. Many visitors seized the opportunity to have a chat with us, which led to various stimulating encounters and conversations. It was intriguing to see that numerous people were willing to share personal stories and views on language and its importance. The public seemed to engage and identify with our project on many different levels, which confirms how important this kind of research is—not only for the academic community but also for the public.
Also participating in the Showcase were LDNA Research Associates Seth Mehl (below left), who delivered a bitesize talk asking “What can computers teach us about meaning in early English books?”, and Iona Hine (right, during her bitesize talk about “Luther’s Language”).
(Photos courtesy of @DHIShef and D. Clark.)