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How to Talk about the Work You Do

on April 06 at 02:38 PM

Anna Marie Trester, PhD is the creator of Career Linguist, a blog and resource center for career exploration. Author of Bringing Linguistics to Work, she has worked with hundreds of linguists to find professional expression of their skills and training.

When it comes to career conversations in the academic context, talk tends to be marked more by what is NOT said than what IS. This here about questions that don’t get asked, for example. As a linguist, I describe such silences “noisy nots” because they are essential conversations and the solution is simple: we need to be having more conversations about careers.

In this piece, I explore three aspects of language which can be used for engendering more exploration through conversation: referring terms, questions, and stories.

Referring Terms

I begin with referring terms, because here is where much career exploration begins (and ends) – “I want to be an ‘X’,” for example; for those of you currently getting your PhD, you very likely use the phrase, “I want to be a professor.”

Referring terms are bits of language that are used to refer to things, so in this example “professor.” Analysts of language are interested in them because of possibilities of variation.

Any time anyone refers (or does anything with language, really) it involves a choice (a choice to say it this way and not that way, a choice not to say something else). The bottom line here is that there are so many different ways that we could be talking about work in the academy (as in all worlds of work), ways which would better reflect the true nature of its diversity and multiplicity, so the first change we could be a part of is to stop thinking and talking about work exclusively in terms of title.

“How can we do this?,” you ask – well, questions are a great place to start!

Questions

There are so many questions we don’t tend to ask, but really need to be asking about work, including: “What are the tasks, duties, and responsibilities that comprise this job?” “What skills get used regularly?” or “What makes someone successful in doing this work?” Such questions bring differentiation to the knowledge, skills, and abilities needed, to how success is understood and measured. Questions are a flexible and multifaceted tool that can be brought to thinking and talking about all work – including academic work – to elucidate and educate ourselves about the realities, the pros and the cons.

I recently explored questions in “The Work Interrogatives” series on WaLK (What a Linguist Knows). These comprise the WHO (including for WHOM and with WHOM), WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW of work. Such questions can be a tool for thinking – for example to help engender reflection about the WHY of work, I describe an activity that asks you to name three people whose work you emulate, and then reflect on WHY you emulate it? Asking yourself questions like these start getting you to reflect on the problems out there in the world that you wish to devote yourself to solving.

When we ask more nuanced and differentiated (AKA better) questions in contexts like networking and informational interviewing, and eventually in job interviews, we find our way to jobs that are better suited to our interests and values. Questions also help build relationships, as it is through asking that other people get to be generous, even as you simultaneously educate yourself about where your skills and training are needed and valued.

So ask. Keep asking. Including for stories.

Stories

And so finally we come to stories! My “ask” when it comes to stories is that you simply start paying more attention to the stories that you and others tell.  I call this practice “story finding.” A story audit can make you more conscious about the stories that are being told - and crucially those which are NOT. If you are currently surrounded by academics, the stories of work that you are likely telling and are being told focus on research, administration, and teaching in the academic context, thus reinforcing the idea that “being a professor” is the only path worth pursuing. You simply don’t hear many stories about the day-to-day of user experience research, or advocacy, instructional design, or entrepreneurship, and so “the professoriate” gets storied as the only professional pursuit of merit, possible interest or value.

Crucially, you aren’t likely hearing and telling enough stories to stimulate your creativity and problem-solving about the multifaceted challenges out there in the world that will require nimble and agile thinking (and thinking about thinking), problems which will require a familiarity with navigating overwhelming amounts of data, familiarity with looking beneath the surface and challenging assumptions to think critically, the ability to evaluate the quality of a source, comfort in patterns in chaos and arguing, supporting, and defending a non-traditional point of view. Is any of this starting to sound familiar? (hint: you have these skills, and you have honed them so fully, you don’t even know that you have them anymore since they have become like breathing to you!).

Talking Beyond the Professoriate

This is why conferences and communities like Beyond the Professoriate are so very important. Jen Polk and Maren Wood have created contexts for exploring widely and for asking questions, contexts for telling stories. interactions where asking is normalized and stories get shared about the exciting challenges that the majority of us PhDs are pursuing as part of truly meaningful and impactful work off the tenure-track.

In supporting their work, we support contexts that engender the transformational conversations we need to be having about the PhD – conversations which typically DON’T happen otherwise.

So check out their upcoming conference, and use it as an opportunity to bring questions to the panelists that deconstruct monolithic conceptualizations about work and show the different worlds of work that are possible. Feel the power and potential of your community by participating in it by asking for things including for more stories about the many ways of finding meaningful application of your skills and training.