Monday, August 31, 2020

Get back to work, you lazy slackers.

With the new academic year starting, I thought it might be a good idea to post a few short blogs. Today, I've been thinking about work and the Paper 2 Language and Occupation topic*. 

The lockdown has led to a lot of talk about how we work, what work means to us, how it oils the wheels of the economy and how it generates new language. So, while we've had lots of new expressions emerge from how many of us have had to change our working practices - WFH (Working From Home), Zooming (using the Zoom app to hold meetings), Zoombombing (like photobombing but with other people's Zoom meetings) and Toxic Productivity (the pressure to work at full tilt throughout the lockdown) - we've also seen a lot of language used to discuss and represent work. 

As you probably already know, all the topics* for Paper 2 (gender, social groups, ethnicity, region etc) can be as much about how language is used to represent different groups as it can be about how people use language. So, for example, when looking at language and gender, you might look at supposed communication differences between the sexes but also look at how language constructs ideas of masculinity and femininity; for language and social class, you might focus on sociolect and education, but also how language represents different social groups through terms like chav, posh, townie or pleb.  

Up until now, I'd found language and occupation a slightly trickier proposition for a representation focus than many of the others. There's always been discussion of business jargon and arguments about plain English in the workplace, and they've been set before as part of the AS exams already, but that's about all I could come up with. 

What's been interesting in recent months is how work, as an idea, has been discussed and represented. One good source for material is in the media coverage of the government's messaging about safety in the workplace (and of course, for teachers, catering staff, classroom assistants, students and admin staff, schools and colleges are among these places of work) and how that messaging has been pitched to represent work in different ways. Of course, a major part of this messaging has been about how safe it is (supposedly) to return to work, so there has been a lot of reassuring language used, but coupled with that has been a creeping implication that if we don't get back to the office soon, sandwich retailers and coffee shops will go bust, the economy will collapse and will it all be our fault. As the reassuring messaging about schools, offices, public transport and bowling alleys (?) is rolled out, other messages are fed to us too.

In many ways this is indicative of how I think a lot of government policy during the pandemic seems to have operated: first an idea is pitched to a sympathetic media outlet who run it and see what the reaction is; then the proposed policy is re-calibrated or pulled, depending on how it has been received. 

Try this tweet from The Sun, for example: 

Elsewhere, the return to work was described in various terms in other media outlets. Try a few of these for size...

  • ...the Government tries to entice people out of their lockdown habits and reboot the economy (the Daily Express)
  • "I think there's a limit, just in human terms, to remote working. And there are things where you just need to spark off each other and get together in order to make progress." (Government Minister Grant Shapps, quoted in the Daily Express)
  • ‘The UK’s offices are vital drivers of our economy,’ says Dame Carolyn, who speaks for almost 200,000 firms. ‘They support thousands of local firms, from dry cleaners to sandwich bars. They help train and develop young people. And they foster better work and productivity for many kinds of business. (Daily Mail)
  • The UK economy could lose almost half a trillion pounds of output if workers fail to return to their offices, a study estimates. (Douglas McWilliams, a former chief economic adviser to the Confederation of British Industry as reported in The Guardian) 
  • 'Go back to work or risk losing your job': Major drive launched to get people returning to the office. Ministers warn that continuing to work from home could make staff ‘vulnerable’ to being sacked (Daily Telegraph)
  • Brits must return to offices to stop city centres becoming 'ghost towns', CBI boss warns (Evening Standard)
What's interesting about these from a language analysis point of view is that we can see a mixture of positive representation of the office environment and thinly-veiled threats that not returning to work might result in being sacked. If you were pulling a few of these extracts apart, you might think about some of the following:
  • verb choices - entice, spark, foster - offering the language of encouragement and positivity linked to the office
  • semantic fields of financial cost
  • home working being represented as having 'limits' and 'risks'
  • modality doing a quite a lot of work about what might happen: could lose, could make staff vulnerable, must return
There are all sorts of good reasons why people might want or need to return to the workplace - doing things you can't do from home, mental health, the social side of the workplace, pinching other people's mugs and biscuits, the injection of money into the office economy etc - but I think we need to look carefully at the ways in which all this is framed and represented to us, and some focused language analysis gives us the chance to unpack some of the different agendas at work. Along with this, it's also very helpful for paper 2 if you want to think a bit more about how language represents occupation and its changing nature as a result of the pandemic. Maybe you could start to find your own examples to look at as part of a mini-study of the area, or even pick it up as part of a language investigation. It's unlikely that the data will dry up any time soon - furloughing looks like it will come to an end in October and different workplaces will be featured in various government campaigns and media onslaughts - so there will be a lot to look at and a number of different viewpoints to consider.

(*Topics are not really the preferred term here as they are all linked and related, but we often teach them as topics before making the bigger connections.)

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