Reading into Oblivion with Elephants


A lecturer earlier this week told me that he hadn’t read anything without an index for about a decade. I laughed. He didn’t.

It’s no surprise that a Ph.D involves reading. A lot of reading.

Huge amounts.


The issue I’m experiencing throughout this process is to do with reading, funnily enough. Okay, I only started a month and a half ago, and things are coming along nicely, but here’s where it all starts to get a little bit scary:

The overall, extremely broad area of topic for research is linguistics. Getting more specific, I’m looking at the linguistics of British Sign Language, and even more specifically than that, I’m looking at aspects of discourse and meaning-making in the language. Already the path seems to be narrowing, so it seems like I could pick and choose readings around this area, right?


In order to progress through a doctorate, particularly one of research, it is necessary (to paraphrase my University’s description) to have a working, critical knowledge of the area in which you are studying. That means not only discourse, not only meaning/semantics, not only the methodology I’m thinking about using, and not only the linguistics of British Sign Language… I need to be on the ball for these areas AND MORE.*

So how do I improve my knowledge? By reading, of course! But, again, other problems come from this seemingly easy action:

You read to improve your knowledge and, if like me you’re reading a totally new topic (Systemic Functional Linguistics, to be precise, so if there’s an expert in this area who happens to be reading this right now, get in touch!), then you’ll be looking at several sources. In academia, not everyone is going to agree, because different point of view never encompass the entire view. In other words, you can read several books on theory, application and critique of said theory, but it’s possible that individual takes on the theory are opposing, so you don’t really know who’s got it “right.”

I use “right” in speech marks as this is a tricky term. Can you really get things right in academia? Sure, you can get things wrong (“A banana is theoretically a variety of kettle and it rhymes with ‘omniscient'”) but there’s a problem with trying to get things spot on when you can’t investigate the thing you’re looking at as a whole, which is often the case in academia. A reworked example of a small situation explains this nicely:


3 blindfolded people are led towards an animal that they have never heard of before, but it is what we know as an elephant. They were positioned, one by one, at the front, side and rear of the animal, given a few minutes to feel the area in front of them and then describe what it was. The first person said an “elephant” was a long, hose-like thing, the second person said it was a flat, curved thing, and the third person said it was a thin, whip-like thing.

The answer, as we know, was a combination of all three responses and more that was not accessible to us at the time. When conducting research, stand by your part of the elephant and you describe what you can, while understanding that others will see the elephant in a different light, and thus describe it differently.

My one gripe with this, however, is that my elephant is called linguistics, and it’s a pretty big elephant to try and deal with! I fear that in order to understand it as much as possible, the reading will have continue, as discoveries, alterations and refutations are made, and I shall drown under a pile of books and journal articles.

(And don’t get me started on how I’m going to be able to recall all of this in the future…)


*Okay, just so I don’t get arrested by the hyperbole police, I doubt that I’ll be expected to know every tiny detail of all linguistic practice across the full spectrum of the discipline. Even a human with the cranial capabilities of Google would find that a challenge!


One thought on “Reading into Oblivion with Elephants

  1. At one time, deaf people in Northern Ireland used to be divided on sectarian lines. Most Protestants used British sign language, while many Catholics looked south and used Irish sign language. I’m sure sign language is a fascinating subject but believe me, by the time you’ve finished the PhD you probably won’t want to hear the words ‘sign language’ (or see them?) again for at least ten years. That was my experience, anyway! It’s a great thing to have done, but not a great thing to do … 🙂

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