Sunday, 26 August 2012

Implicit learning and social media

A while ago I noticed something happening on my children's Facebook accounts (which I carefully monitor).  Despite my having merely logged them on to the format, they had rapidly acquired a new way of writing, a 'syntax' if you like (though I do realise the controversy about whether I should really call it this).  For example, they began using a *correction marker for a previous spelling mistake.  This got me thinking about my own social media use.  I have been very inspired, not least by @deevybee, to 'spread the word' of Twitter amongst colleagues as a breakthrough in academic (and for some friends, commercial) resources. I have run research workshops @citylcs on how to use Twitter effectively and have had numerous conversations with colleagues about its potential.  But how do I even know how to use Twitter and other forms of social media?  I have never been on a university training course.  I have not read a Twitter manual.  But I have spent long enough on Twitter to implicitly learn some of the rules.  Like most social environments, there are formal rules and informal ones.  For example, the hash tag 'official' function is easy to explain - it's a cataloguing or tagging system that hooks you quickly into the topic of interest e.g., #slpeeps which is a well used tag in speech and language therapy.  However hash tags such as #shouldntreallyadmitthatoutloud clearly have a different pragmatic function.  Authors of these hashtags are under no illusion that someone will search for this term, or that there are other people using it.  Instead it acts as a sort of Shakespearean aside.

I only know this because I have observed it occurring and have implicitly extracted this 'rule'.   
It got me thinking that degree of implicit learning skill might be related to social media use.  To my knowledge, and following a quick and not at all comprehensive search of the literature, this specific link has not really been investigated.  But it would explain a couple of bits of anecdotal evidence: Firstly, in general, older folk are much less inclined to take up my enthusiasm for Twitter  - is this because they have poorer implicit learning?  Maybe, but mainly because they are not willing to spend enough time on social media to learn the rules, and without these rules, Twitter doesn't make much sense. So a circularity is created. Similarly, some friends appear to have taken much longer to pick up the conventions, and have needed the rules to be more explicitly outlined than others. Second, there is increasing evidence that people with language impairment are not particularly helped by new media such as texts and emails. This may be circumstantial evidence in support of some prominent theories around procedural or implicit learning difficulties in people with SLI

So social media, and perhaps Twitter in particular, is not only a great resource in itself, it also offers a potential window into the emergence of new implicit social and 'language' rules and for exploring which skills and difficulties are most reflected in this 'Brave New Media'.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Qualia and Emotional Health

Apart from the Easter Egg hunt, it seems that one thing this blog is great for is expressing my opinion on things I know very little about, so here I go again...

For a while now I have been interested in the idea of emotional cognition.  My 4th year undergraduate project involved very crudely measuring the reaction times of people's ability to conjure up an image in their head relating to a specific time when they felt a particular emotion.  So called 'basic emotions' were indeed significantly faster than non-basic ones.

Recently though several sources including David Lodge's book 'Think' (which I am only a little way through), and Twitter discussion with @keith_laws and colleagues @cityLCS among others as well as an article here about basic emotions not being so uniform across cultures,  has made me think about Qualia - the sense of what something is, and whether we have common experiences of generally agreed terms.  Guilt in particular fascinates me.  As I age, I become increasingly convinced that guilt is not only felt in differing degrees by different people but is also particularly susceptible to qualitatively different experiences across individuals.  Women especially (including myself) often seem to take guilt on as some kind of clingy overcoat, obsessing and ruminating about relatively small issues or conversely wide and uncontrollable events.  Men appear to be more able to work with guilt and shrug things off, sometimes to the frustration of the women around them!  Perhaps this is all just down to levels of trait anxiety, or locus of control. But on the other hand maybe we are experiencing different things and calling them by the same name.  When your partner, colleague, friend or mum says 'they feel bad about it' or 'angry' or 'delighted' do they actually experience the same emotion or something quite different?  Behaviourally there might be clues to support quite marked individual differences...the person who can fall asleep immediately after an argument; those people who seem happy to create a reason for an error, true or otherwise, without apparently internalising the mistake; individuals who cannot contain their excitement.... We tend to explain away these differences as variation in executive processes - control of emotions, inhibition of anger etc.  It seems equally possible though, that the quality of the emotion felt is in fact different and therefore requires or leads to that alternative response.    Thus, if we are working with individuals who find it difficult to control undesirable emotional reactions , it may not (just) be a matter of 'managing' the behaviour or lessening the emotion, but instead actually changing the nature and quality of this experience.  

Language might have a part to play in this.   At an @ESRC Festival of Social Science event we ran a few years ago, staff working with deaf children talked about emotional literacy in sign language.  The children they worked with did not have enough emotional language to express the feelings they were experiencing. Particularly with anger this caused a major problem, since the most effective way to express all kinds anger was to externalise it with aggressive actions. They reported that introducing a wider vocabulary of signs went a long way to decreasing unwanted behaviour.  Other individuals with developmental language difficulties such as VLBW and language disorder also experience increased risk of emotional health problems.  But maybe even within the general population we are also doing ourselves a diservice in not thinking carefully enough about the language we use to define and describe how we feel.  Maybe the assumption that the terms 'guilty' 'sad' 'angry' 'happy' 'frightened' and 'disgusted' are common ground, is actually causing more confusion and less progress in our emotional lives.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Easter egg hunt for all those secret Easter Bunnies out there!

1.             Solve this puzzle!

Jane’s kitchen has one door which goes into to

the lounge

       The bathroom has doors to 2 bedrooms

The lounge only has doors into the kitchen and the bathroom

The hall only has a door to Jane’s bedroom.

Which room has 3 doors?

2.          Write the first letter of each answer to find your surprise!

A small green vegetable

A country where you would find Denver and New York

A type of transport that goes on rails

A cold pudding!

A fruit and a colour

3.          My first is in cap but not in park

My second is in animal and also in bark

My third starts a rabbit and also a race

If you have the answer go to that place!


4.             We like to eat and have some fun

This one is in the ___________ buns

5.             Find the first letter of each picture to solve this

one!   {setter needs to find pictures of these on web and insert}


6.          Use the code below to find the next clue!

a=2, b=3, c=4, d=5, e=6, f=7, g=8, h=9, i=10 j=11, k=12, l=13, m=14, n=15, o=16, p=17, q=18, r=19, s=20, t=21, u=22, v=23, w=24, x=25 y=26 z=27

10, 15      21, 9, 6    8, 2,19 ,5 ,6,15

Friday, 9 March 2012

What puts women off returning to work?

Today on Radio 4's PM programme I heard a letter from a listener calling for recognition that the cost of childcare is not the only factor that prevents women from returning to work. Hear, hear! However the letter continued to read that some carers choose to bring up their own offspring, rather than ask others to do so.....Now, I realise that I speak as someone who has had the luxury of working flexibly across time and location, especially during the period in which my 3 babies were really little, since I was an RA with a fantastically understanding (female) boss and was not a full blown academic. Nevertheless, I feel this dichotomy is not so sharp. Below, I have identified a few of reasons that influence women (or main carers, but these are still mostly women) in their career choice.

1) How much does it matter *where* you are doing the work? In many cases, not a lot. Yet some organisations appear to be especially obsessed with the workforce being visibly 'at work' to their managers. Where is the evidence that this makes an efficient workforce? Obviously for some professions e.g. surgeon, teacher, production line worker, the need to be in a particular place might be paramount. For many others, an insistence that paperwork is done in an office prevents mothers working flexibly alongside their children's lives. Many times I have heard professionals say things like 'she is not the same since she had the baby' perhaps implying some sort of cognitive malfunction. More accurately they should say ' she hasn't been the same since we created a forced separation between her and her baby despite the fact that most of this could be done at home'.  Increasing travel costs, lack of space and advanced technology should make this even more sensible, but flexible working often means one can come in at 10 and work til 6 instead of 9 to 5 rather than something more substantial.  Joint working on particular roles also works very well for Mothers-who-Work because they can cover for one another at meetings if a child is sick, or in a school play (see below), but this is also discouraged by some managers.

2) How much does it matter *where* the childcare is? Quite a lot. For the the roles and parts of roles that require child free or on-site participation, would it not make more sense to have nurseries that are actually accessible to the parent?  Most people leave their children several miles away in childcare making it stressful and difficult to return if there is a problem, and stressful even if there are no problems. Furthermore, it completely negates the possibility of a mix and match style. Nurseries within the workplaces (and I mean in the actual building) would mean that parents could attend a two hour meeting, have lunch with their child, return to work, have a quick afternoon stroll with their child, and then return to work again. This is much more akin to the extended family model of childcare, without actually requiring a family member to be present.

3) How much does it matter that people recognise what being a mother entails? A lot. There seems to be a prevailing mentality in some organisations that having a child is a little a kin to having a pet - it needs looking after, can't be left on its own, needs feeding at regular intervals etc. and so you can just pay someone to do all that and return to work. If women are to return to work with fervour, it matters that employers understand that women have opened up an entirely new set of demands on their out of work time. If you are a woman who is good at her job, it is also likely that you will be under pressure to a) run the local playgroup b) organise a fundraising event for school c) be a school governor d) do the parent rota at Brownies/Cubs or e) all of the above. Even if you are not recognised as a high flier you will still be expected to f) organise a social calendar of play dates g) bake cakes or provide raffle prizes at a moment's notice h) attend parents' evenings, plays, literacy workshops and assemblies also usually with less than two weeks' notice and my favourite of all time i) dress your child up (ideally better than the other children) as a mini-beast, book-day character, victorian, anglo-saxon, pudsey bear (we have done ALL of these) on top of the play outfits and themed non-uniform days, and again (you guessed it) with a few days notice. Parents should receive this wardrobe requirement list at their antenatal class or perhaps even during sex education classes just in case they are feeling poorly skilled in this area. Following this your child will then need ferrying to and from various clubs, playdates and school events.   So this is partly a note to schools as well as employers that a month or two's planning wouldn't go a miss for Mothers-who-Work.

One of the major issues with all of these factors is the very fact that people assume that Mothers-who-Work are either workaholics who barely see their child, will never make any of the child-based activities and who cannot cope with working flexibly. Or that you are an earth-mother who spends every day just waiting to make that next costume. Most of us are a healthy mix.

I realise that some women with children and some employers will baulk at the ideas above especially 1) and 2). But there are more intelligent, efficient and creative models that could be applied to encourage a balanced workforce and to prevent loss of highly valuable female potential and training. Importantly these alternatives do not mean poorer productivity or output, just change.   Until we consider that possibly and as long as we continue working in the current model, women with children will always make different career pathways for themselves compared to their male counterparts.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Plural nouns and identity

Recently, there was an interesting Twitter conversation about the use of the term 'autistics'.  I have to admit complete ignorance prior to this discussion, in not realising that for many people with autism this is the term of choice.  As co-editor of a journal that insists on person-1st language (e.g., people with autism), I was genuinely shocked that in trying to ensure no one is offended by terminology, we may have managed to do just that by appearing to 'avoid' the term 'autistic' as if it was a taboo.  And I wholeheartedly apologise if anyone has been upset by that - in the UK at least, 'people with autism' is the not only 'recommended' terminology, but is also advocated by many parents who are offended by the term 'autistics'. 

Now firstly, there is some confusion over whether we are saying 'autistic people' or 'autistics' and whether they are interchangeable.  I understand the argument for the former, in that it expresses the fact that autism is not something you 'have' but something you 'are', as has been pointed out to me on Twitter by some autistic people.  But the question was raised as to why the latter might offend people.  This is a puzzling issue.  Is it because of 'subjective social stigma' as one Tweeter suggested?   I think its not quite that.  On reflection I think it has to do with the pragmatic use of (plural) nouns for (groups of ) people in English - I tried to think of examples when we do this and found 3 groups:

1) Occupation, function and role: the most common use seems to be to group people by occupation or task.  So we might say 'teachers' or 'helpers'.  There is also a whole group relating to a role in something else e.g., advocates for; supporters of.  But in all these cases the usage denotes a quality wholly separable from the individual which is what those preferring the term 'autistics' are trying to avoid.

2) Medicine and psychiatry:  It is not uncommon to hear medical texts refer to aphasics, asthmatics, diabetics. 

3) In order to denigrate:  I tried really hard to think of examples where positive attributes were used as nouns (not adjectives) to describe people.  The closest I could get were 'philanthropist' and 'lover' but both of these are usually qualified 'good lover' 'real philanthropist' and they are also usually used in relation to an 'act' of philanthropy or love.  I guess we might want to consider 'babes' or 'cuties' but these do have a slightly patronising tone.  And uses such as 'cook' and 'artist' denote function or occupation unless they are also qualified (he is a good cook; she is a talented artist). Far easier to think of were more negative examples such as 'flirts',  'do-gooders', 'busy-bodies' 'rogues' and 'miseries'.  I don't think we ever say anything in English like  'artistics,' 'clevers', 'beautifuls', 'slims' 'sensitives' 'compassionates' etc . I would be delighted to hear of positive examples of this language use.  One exception might be gender - it seems okay to refer to 'women' and 'men' (although less so for 'females' and 'males') but whilst gender terms can be used as positive or negative, they seem to me more neutral.  Also interesting is that in other languages the use of plural nouns for people's qualities may be more widespread.  My limited knowledge of French, for example, suggests that 'les beaux' and 'les grands' (cf 'powerful people' in Maupassant) are pragmatically ok.

And so, when faced with the term 'autistics' I would argue that many people (myself included) are subconsciously primed for these pragmatic uses of plural nouns in English and that is why it sounds difficult.   I am not autistic, and so some may argue I don't have a voice here.  I certainly applaud those people who are autistic and who are fighting to make terms such as 'autistics' acceptable, but because there is litte or no precedent in English for using plural nouns in this way except for medical or negative purposes, it concerns me that the result will be opposite to that intended.  That is, its use will serve to re-medicalise autism.  And that would be a shame when so many have done so much good work in advocating the strengths and community of autistic people in recent years.

Time for a blog

I have just set up this blog, because following enjoying Twitter, I have realised that sometimes I have slightly more to say than 80 characters!