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Why / how did you become an English Language lecturer?

I never studied English Language at secondary or further education…. there I’ve said it! My excuse is that it was never offered as an A-Level in the dark ages when I was a teenager and studying Linguistics at university was a specialist affair involving knowledge of lots of other languages for which my modest grades in French and German at school did not qualify me. Literature was much more my thing thanks to having my eyes prised open by texts such as Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ for my English Literature A-Level. These literary masterpieces showed me the power of language to open up challenging alternative ways of looking at the world and coincided with a love of song lyrics of the punk and post-punk era. ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ by The Jam was one such magical moment. My combined English Literature and Politics degree was chosen, if my memory serves me correctly, because of its centrality to all the music I was obsessed with at the time – Joy Division/New Order, The Fall, Buzzcocks, A Certain Ratio, Diagram Brothers (you probably won’t have heard of the last one!). My most inspiring lecturer was a chap called Anthony Easthope (look him up…) who gave marvellously entertaining and intellectually stimulating lectures on post-modernism and structuralism from a cultural studies perspective – which included lots of references to Monty Python and horror films. Looking back on it now I can see how this was the start of my interest in discourse analytical theory.

My first ‘proper’ job was as a local journalist (Northwich Guardian), and then I had a spell working in a typesetting and print business in Liverpool, before deciding to do a PGCE (post-grad teaching qualification) where I was given the chance to teach A-Level English Language for my placements. Luckily everything fell into place as I had both practical experience of working in the ‘language’ industry and some theoretical academic training. To cut a much longer story short, I taught A-Level English Language, studied for an MA in English Language and Linguistics, and achieved a PhD. This was probably an unconventional route into this brilliant job, but if you look at the kinds of things I like teaching, the clues are in the history.

What is a typical day at work for you?

The job involves a balancing act between extreme predictability and total randomness – which to be honest makes it my ideal job. The yearly teaching timetabled lectures and seminars are - like some kind of Dr Who theory – fixed and unchanging points in time. We also have regular office hours for tutorials, various marking period hotspots, and regular departmental and other meetings. A typical day might therefore involve some or all of these. As an early riser who commutes from the Salford/Manchester border, my typical day starts with driving to the office at stupid o’clock (often arriving at 6.30am) to enjoy the peace and calm, get loads of preparation and admin done, and have some banter with the cleaners. Other jobs, such as PAT meetings, writing and researching, Experience Days and Open Days are woven into the fabric of the days in some organised and some random ways.

Everything else – to use another Dr Who analogy – is fairly wibbly-wobbly in a timey-wimey kind of way. For instance, each seminar group is different and material that works brilliantly in one can fall flat in another on the same topic. You learn to deal with that. You can never predict how students are going to react to certain ideas and tasks. But thankfully, because I have such great colleagues, another typical moment of the day is banter in the tiny Rockmount kitchen – whereby sometimes up to five of us shoehorn ourselves in to have a good old gossip about the day’s events – occasionally outdoing the steam from the kettle in pressure-release.

What is your favourite part of your job?

Being able to sound off about all of my pet likes and dislikes to groups of students in lectures and seminars under the guise of the ‘curriculum’. Just to set the record straight, these things are actually part of the module content. So one of the joys is to have control over modules you have devised because you have a passion for the subject matter – in my case news discourse, language and power, conflicts and controversies in English – and try and encourage students to respond to them. Sometimes you are met with a sea of blank faces, especially when outdated cultural references are floated (see music likes earlier), but to have the opportunity to help foster a critical attitude to discourse in public life, especially the news media, is very rewarding, and if you can fit a few humorous anecdotes in along the way, the job’s a good ‘un. There is no better feeling than students admitting they cannot look at language in the same way again. This is not always a compliment from their perspective but in my head it is a ‘my work here is done’ moment.

What is the best thing about our English Language degree? 

Well, our module content includes anything from exploring the form and functions of ridiculous news front page headlines such as ‘Starker’s Orders – Jockey dwarf caught with pants down at arcade’ (Daily Star, 5th March 2019) to an acoustic analysis of the Voice Onset Time of a vowel in a particular regional accent or another language. So the best thing about English Language is its variety – combining a rigorous scientific approach (the study of syntax, morphology, phonetics, semantics, etc.) with its application in an almost limitless number of contexts. It’s a bit of a cliché but we do take language, like breathing, for granted. We can all do it but most of us don’t know how. Where you need an expert physiologist or surgeon to know about the heart and lungs, you need a linguist to explain (and sometimes fix) language use. Our programme impinges on loads of other disciplines – history, psychology, media studies, literature, computer science (e.g. corpus linguistics), sociology, politics, dance (well, the last one is what happens after the last exam). English Language is one of the most inter-disciplinary of all the academic subjects. I am particularly fascinated by the ways that various discourse types simplify the world into either/or binaries (‘for’ or ‘against’). These have a major influence on the ways we perceive the world and act in it. The obvious example is the way the EU referendum was posed as a stark choice between ‘in’ or ‘out’, when let’s face it most of the electorate and the politicians representing us had no real idea of what this would mean in practice.

One other best things about English Language at Chester is my amazing colleagues and the fact we all get on so well and share most of the same passions, which makes for a delightful working environment.

What has been your proudest moment while working at the University of Chester?

I don’t do pride very well as it usually precedes a Fall (who also just happen to be one of my favourite music artistes…). But special moments have to include writing the new English Language programme when I joined in 2009 with that particular brief. The publication of my monograph (research-based book) – Oppositions and Ideology in News Discourse – also ranks pretty high, as does co-organising a conference on social class and discourse at Chester a few years ago. But to be honest, the greatest pride moments are when students express gratitude or happiness at spending time studying on our degree.

Do you have any exciting upcoming projects?

I have a few chapters on news discourse in various edited collections about to be published. But the big one at the moment is a text-book based on a module I convene called Language Debates, now being co-authored with my esteemed colleague Dr Clara Neary. There is also an associated blog website consisting of pieces written by students on the module. The book has been in a state of preparation for rather a long time, and if the very patient Routledge editorial team are reading this blog, then yes, it is – ahem -  nearly finished….

I’m also speaking at a couple of international conferences later in the year on my latest obsession, the use of the terms ‘political correctness’ and ‘snowflake’ in the UK news press.

Do you have a life outside of University lecturing?

The boundaries between life and work are very blurred in academia. We often choose, for the ‘fun-of-it’, to undertake writing and research projects which we are not necessarily obliged to do from the university perspective, though the university is clearly chuffed to gain the prestige attached to us doing these things. So life when not teaching involves engaging in intellectual activities which you hope someone else will be interested in reading, and to me this is a luxury and a privilege I would not swap for anything. Also, as music obsessives, my wife and I can be found frequenting many Salford and Manchester music venues in our spare time. We even play in an electro post-punk band – called Factory Acts. I try and play bass guitar whilst she sings and plays keyboards and other gadgets. I have always followed football and live 10 minutes' walk from Old Trafford, hosting the team I have supported most of my life (many Man Utd fans are ‘local’ you know). However I am very much an armchair fan, because limited resources mean I have had to choose between gigs or Giggs and the former wins out every time.

Choose a movie title for your life

I’m cheating and choosing two because I am obsessive about binary tensions:

It’s a Wonderful Life & Apocalypse Now.

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