Ep 8: Lauren Gawne on Funding Fieldwork

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Martha Tsutsui Billins host – Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins,  and today’s interview is with Lauren Gawne. In this episode, Lauren and I discuss her take on applying for funding to do fieldwork in what Lauren quite aptly describes as, “this really uncomfortably competitive grant funding world.” Lauren has experience as both a successful applicant for fieldwork and research funding and also on the other side of the process as an assessor on various grant committees. Before playing the interview, I want to mention that on Twitter we asked researchers how they fund their work and I curated those responses in this episode’s blog post which you can find at fieldnotespod.com. If you have any resources to add or any comments about this topic, you can tweet at us @lingfieldnotes.com or you can comment on the blog at fieldnotespod.com.

MTB: Okay, so today I would like to welcome Lauren Gawne onto the podcast. Thank you for coming, Lauren.

Lauren Gawne: That’s ok, it’s lovely to be here.

MTB: To start, I would like to read a short bio. Lauren Gawne is a linguist focusing on evidentiality and gesture with specialization in Tibeto-Burman languages. She completed her PhD at the University of Melbourne and has held postdoc positions at NTU Singapore and SOAS University of London, and is currently a David Myers Research Fellow at La Trobe University. She co-hosts the podcast Lingthusiasm with Gretchen McCulloch and runs the generalist linguistic website Superlinguo. So, that’s Lauren. 

Lauren Gawne: It’s lovely to be here.

MTB: Thank you. So to start, how did you get into what you do now? How did you start working with Tibeto-Burman languages?

Lauren Gawne: I, like many people, stumbled into linguistics as an undergraduate. I had an extra subject to fill out my timetable for the first semester of my undergraduate degree and by the end of the degree I was majoring in it. I had just found something I really enjoy doing. I did what’s known as an honours year in Australia, so a fourth year, researching gesture with English speakers. Then I took some time off and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and had coffee with my supervisor, Barb Kelly, who I blame for a lot of this in the best possible way. She was starting a large research project with some colleagues and was looking for a PhD student to work on a Tibeto-Burman language because they have really interesting features around grammatical structures known as evidentiality. As soon as she said that they had this project going, I was like, that is what I want to do. It turns out that it’s probably not the best idea to start a fieldwork project and also start learning a major contact language as well, but during the PhD I learned to speak Nepali and ended up working on the Yolmo language, which is a Tibeto-Burman language in Nepal.

MTB: Can you tell us briefly about your fieldwork in Nepal?

Lauren Gawne: Sure. So for the PhD from 2009 to 2013, I worked with a variety of Yolmo that is spoken in a district called Lamjung. The majority of Yolmo speakers live in a district in the Helambu Valley area which is just north of Kathmandu, which is the capital. I ended up working with a group who had migrated away from there a couple of centuries ago, so a slightly divergent dialect. I am still really close to quite a few people who I spent time with and still occasionally do a bit of recording with them, but mostly just a lot of catching up with people. All these tiny babies who were tiny babies when I started and are now such big children. I started working in Lamjung kind of by accident. I didn’t think I was going to work on Yolmo, I thought I would like to work on a language called, well at the time it was called Kagate, now it’s more well known as Syuba. So, I wrote to a linguist who had worked with the Syuba community in the 1970s, and said I was going to Nepal and if they still knew anyone I would really like to connect with them. I didn’t hear back from her for a long time and in the process ended up working with the Yolmo people. She eventually got back to me and when I was there in Nepal I started making contact with the Syuba speakers, and after my PhD they were really keen to have a linguist to come and work with them to record. So most of my postdoctoral work has been based on working with that community.

MTB: Oh right, ok. Turning to the main topic of how to fund fieldwork, I know that you’ve been quite successful in being able to fund your work. Can you talk a bit about how you’ve managed to fund your fieldwork and what grants you’ve received so far?

Lauren Gawne: Sure. I think it’s worth saying at the top though, in an ideal world if I ran the world we wouldn’t have to make really often upsetting decisions about what research we are going to fund. I read so many grant proposals as either drafts for friends or as assessor on various grant committees and it just strikes me how much amazing work is being done that we struggle to fund. It amazes me how imperative a lot of this work is and in an ideal world I would love to see it all funded. Unfortunately, we live in this really uncomfortably competitive grant funding world. I think if you look at when I started my PhD, there was still this turn of the millennium, or the end of this phase of around the late 1990s early 2000s, there was this real explosion in language documentation work and in funding for that work. So you had things like the Volkswagen Foundation who were funding endangered language documentation work. The Endangered Languages Documentation Program is still going, but that had a really big and exciting mandate at the time. So, there were all these funds around for documentation and it seemed to be a burgeoning industry. If you look at it now, it’s a really tight and competitive space and there is also so many more people doing amazing work in this space as well. So, kind of with the caveat that in an ideal world I would love to see so much more work funded and I wish there were more opportunities, in my personal experience, you can categorize funding into larger groups. One type of funding I’ve had has been institutional grants, where a research institution may advertise for postdocs or PhDs. A lot of PhD students are funded this way where you propose a project, your salary is included for one to four years, I’ve heard of five year postdocs, but frankly they sound like a dream, and you have your funding covered and some of the project covered. That was my postdoc in Singapore, it was funded that way through Nanyang Technological University’s own funding. My La Trobe position at the moment, the David Myers Research Fellowship, were set up by La Trobe and funded by La Trobe. There are also possibilities for institutional grants that are minor just to cover specific projects. Whatever university you’re at, it always really pays to look through what funding opportunities there are. So I teamed up with some colleagues at NTU to set up a project with the art department to make picture books; so we got some extra money to help fund my fieldwork that way. At La Trobe I have funding from La Trobe Asia to run an experiment at the moment. A perception experiment that we are doing both in Nepal and in Australia. At Melbourne University I made a lot of use of the travel scholarships that were available for PhD students. So, they are the institutional grants that I’ve had. I’ve also had grants through granting bodies, so the Endangered Languages Documentation Program, or ELDP, funded my postdoc at SOAS. So it wasn’t SOAS paying my salary, they were just administering the project and it was ELDP funding it. That was a major grant and I’ve had smaller grants from funding bodies including from an organization called Firebird, which is interested in oral literature. For most of these I’ll put the links in the show notes for you. Firebird doesn’t pay a salary but they will pay fieldwork costs. So I used that to fund a season of fieldwork in Nepal to really start the work with the Syuba community that I’ve gone on to do through ELDP and La Trobe, subsequently. Sometimes these smaller grants can just help fund that extra season of work that you really want to do. I also have a kind of small set of slightly quirky grants. I think one of the important things is to always think really laterally and think about opportunities and how you can use them. During my time working with Syuba speakers, the organization Stack Exchange that do those question websites had a bunch of thousand dollar grants for small projects. I applied for one and requested an audio recorder and a computer so that people in Nepal could do some of the documentation work themselves. Similarly, I got some funding from the Awesome Foundation in the Ottawa Chapter to get some materials and support for people who wanted to do documentation in Nepal as well. So these kind of small, you know, only $800 or $1,000 are useful just to get some extra resources. One of the other things that’s good about applying for these small grants is that there’s this really unfortunate thing where funding bodies like to throw money after money. So, if you have demonstrated that you can get smaller grants, you’re more likely to be given larger grants. It’s kind of paradoxical. Ideally, people who don’t have access to funding through one channel will get funded through another, but what often happens is one person will get multiple grants because funding bodies want to back winners, is the kind of uncomfortable reality of that. I also have some experience with crowdfunding, so in my podcast that I do with Gretchen McCulloch, Lingthusiasm, we use a crowdfunding model for that. That’s obviously a very different type of project to a language documentation project but I think there is a potential opportunity to ask people to support the kind of work that we do. I think it’s still imperative that governmental and philanthropic organizations step up and support this work but people are generally interested in the kind of linguistic diversity of the world, and it’s a great opportunity to invite them into that.

MTB: Mhmm. I like that you mention getting funding for resources for the community to do their own documentation. So often it’s easy to forget that that actually opens up an avenue for a lot more work to be done, if you can just get some money for an extra recorder or an extra laptop computer. 

Lauren Gawne: More work to be done but there is also this additional uncomfortable reality that a lot of language documentation is still done by outsiders coming into communities… 

MTB: Yeah, definitely.

Lauren Gawne: …and that it has this kind of extractive vibe, and I think that definitely hits home a lot when it comes to grants that cover salary. Because ELDP disclose on their website, and fair enough, how much they fund projects, I’ve had some uncomfortable conversations with people about the fact that my salary is being covered to do this work. My salary, which in London didn’t really leave me with a very glamorous lifestyle, is a very serious amount of money for someone in Nepal. There’s an entire conversation to be had about decolonizing language documentation and I think there are things we can all do to drive that agenda more. One of the really frustrating things with a lot of these grants is that they often don’t leave scope for things like that. So, there’s not often a lot of opportunity or resources to train language documentation skills with the people that you’re working with unless you go above and beyond and do that yourself. There’s almost never resources for helping people publish materials in their language or use the materials that you’ve created to do additional work, and that’s something that’s really frustrating about a lot of these grants and why some of those smaller grants allow a bit more latitude in that regard.

MTB: Yeah. Can you talk a bit about any grants that you applied for or maybe reapplied for and they weren’t successful?

Lauren Gawne: Yeah, that’s a really good question. The ELDP project that I had was the second time that I had submitted that, and in fact, a couple years earlier we had written a small grant proposal that had been rejected. So, it was really the third time that we had submitted that project that I’d finally got proof of the community’s interest, proof of my skills and commitment and relevant interests, and also just finally won that reviewer lottery. I also have a long list, like anyone else, of things that I’ve applied for and been rejected for, and that includes tenure track and temporary jobs in the US, Australia and the UK, and government funded grants in the UK. I’ve also been pretty open over the last six months about being rejected for the Australian government’s Early Career Researcher Awards, a granting body that funds basically all social sciences and humanities research. In Australia, they only offer 200 postdoctoral fellowships a year, which sounds like a lot but you’re competing against often 2,000 people. That’s not a really great acceptance rate. That’s kind of been my last opportunity to continue working as a research fellow in Australia, unless I can find some other alternative source of employment or grant. So yeah, I think I’ve been pretty realistic about the fact that it’s not anything to do with me or the quality of my work, or my commitment to the community that I work with, it’s just that we’re in a very overly-competitive and under-resourced environment at the moment.

MTB: Yeah, I feel like it’s so easy to get caught up in what others are doing and other researchers’ outward success with grants and jobs, but like you said, everyone gets rejected and there is such an element of “right place, right time” involved.

Lauren Gawne: Yeah, and that’s kind of a good way to look at it. That maybe there are good reasons why this year wasn’t your year. Definitely either use the feedback that you’re given from those rejections or ask for feedback if you’re not given it, to put towards future applications.

MTB: What would you say to someone who has a project or community in mind that they want to work with and they’re looking for funding to do fieldwork? What are your main tips on how to find grants to apply for?

Lauren Gawne: I think a lot of that comes from asking people and just having conversations, and asking how they’re funded, and what is available in the areas that you work in. Obviously we’re all in the same pool for the same funding, but I try and operate under a theory of we’re not really competitors, we’re all just operating within the same overly constricted environment. So I try and be open with people about what resources are out there and what I’ve used. Looking online, there are some databases for grants, there are some research funding kind of aggregates. Things like Linguist List for linguists will post when particular grants are available. One convenient source of looking for funding options is to look at acknowledgement of grants in research articles. So, whenever you read an article for your research, just kind of peruse that acknowledgement section and see how those people have been funded.

MTB: That’s a really good tip. What are your suggestions for how to build a really strong application for funding for fieldwork?

Lauren Gawne: In terms of putting together the strongest application you can, a lot of this is just really unglamourous advice. I think some people just hope that there’s some magic bullet, that if they do X, Y, and Z, that will be the winning combination. You see these little mini fads in grant applications where for a few years everyone will be like, “the way i’ll be the most competitive is to promise to make a dictionary or make a particular resource or start a website”. I think the tight rope that you walk here is balancing what actually reflects the work that you want to do and how that fits with what the grant body expects. One of the first and foremost important things is just to read the instructions. This advice definitely comes from my proofreading and my reviewing experience as much as my own grant writing experience. Read any supporting documentation that they have, read the questions, think really hard about what they’re asking from a reviewer’s perspective, and then have people proofread your application because they’ll see things and inconsistencies or incoherent parts better than you can in your own work. I’ve developed a really great little circle of colleagues and friends now who will read my grant applications and I’ll read theirs. Someone who doesn’t work in your particular area will notice things that you’ve assumed as general knowledge in a grant application. From then on, I think it’s important to tell a coherent story. So if you promise to do a dictionary at one point, actually make it clear how that’s going to happen in the timeline. That’s partly coherent, that’s also partly feasibility. I think we all suffer from this idea of expectation inflation. If you look at earlier applications for grants, as time goes on those expectations of what you should be able to do in two years get bigger and bigger and you feel the need to kind of over-inflate what you think you’re going to do. The problem with this is that you need to be competitive but you also need to be realistic about what can be done, especially when a large time of fieldwork is involved.

MTB: Yeah, definitely. Turning back to more general fieldwork experiences, can you tell us if you’ve had any data loss horror stories and what that was like?

Lauren Gawne: You know that I do… and it’s such a terrible story that I will now share with everyone else because it’s part of my ongoing cautionary tale which happened before I was a linguist. Well, it happened before I was a fieldworker but I think it speaks a lot to why I am so interested in data loss management now. It was the year after I finished honours, and I had all of my research, my honours thesis, all the primary data for the thesis, on a laptop and someone broke into my house and stole my laptop and a bunch of other stuff. It was very upsetting at the time and I was still kind of recovering from being a broke student and couldn’t really afford to buy a computer and it had all my data on that computer. So that was really upsetting. Thankfully, I’m really good at making backups, so I had a thumb drive that had all of my documents backed up on it in my handbag. It was great because my handbag wasn’t at home. The person who went through our house didn’t steal my handbag or my data, so I had it all there. Except I went out that Friday night after the very traumatic week of having my house broken into and while I was at a bar, someone stole my handbag. So I lost the second backup. Thankfully, I created an additional backup on an old thumb drive that I didn’t really use that much anymore and had put it behind all the books on my bookshelf. So I was like, well that’s fine, I’ll pull that out and make a backup of that now because I’m down to my second backup and need to make another copy. Except that thumb drive corrupted because it was so old. By this point, I had two backups of the primary and they were in different locations, I was like, I’ve done as good as I can do. I guess, all of my undergraduate work, all of my highschool essays, I guess that can all be lost. There’s no great loss to humanity if that data is gone. I was a bit upset about the honours work though because I had hoped to do something with it. About six months later I was at my parents’ house moving a box of books that like everyone, you kind of hoped your parents would just hold on to for you. In the box of books I found a DVD which was a copy of my entire harddrive. So, at some point I had made a third backup and left it in an offsite location. Thanks to that, I managed to retrieve my honours data and it eventually became a publication. I feel like that encapsulates why I am so observant of good data management and backup practices. 

MTB: Yeah, that’s such a good story to really demonstrate how important it is to make so many backups and put them all in different locations for when the worst strikes.

Lauren Gawne: And check on them. The problem is not having multiple backups, the problem is making sure you can actually access them.

MTB: Yeah, definitely. Can you talk a bit about what major equipment you use when you’re on fieldwork? Like video and audio recorders?

Lauren Gawne: Sure. If you’d like to know more about this it’s all listed on the data archive for the Syuba corpus, but it is also in a corpus explainer paper I wrote for language documentation and conservation.

MTB: Ok, I’ll link that.

Lauren Gawne: When I saw this question, I just went straight to that article and copy and pasted it. I use a Zoom H4n for audio, it’s what I’m using right now. It’s what I do all my podcasting with. This is a really unpopular opinion but I just don’t have a lot of feelings about microphones. I know a lot of linguists get really into them, but if I’m in the field I’ll kind of just take whatever microphones are available through my department’s infrastructure. If it’s a good mic, it’s a good mic. I’ve used Sennheiser Omnidirectional Lav mics which are really beautiful for cutting out a lot of peripheral noise. I’ve used an Audio Technica AT8022 which is a nice little cardioid microphone, but really I don’t have any strong feelings about those. Once you get up to a good enough quality they all seem to be good enough as far as I’m concerned. Then for video because a lot of the work I do is video recording as well because I am interested in gesture and whole communicative experience, I use a Panasonic HC-V720 which is amazingly portable. Videos cameras these days are just so great. It’s so portable, it’s so light, it shoots absolutely beautifully. I’ve had documentary filmmakers turn that footage into beautiful short films and it looks amazing. It really has good colour balance, I’ve never had to do too much brain work, it just seems to work for me. So I really love that camera. I use a Rode Pro Shotgun mic on top of it just to give myself an additional higher quality audio backup because I’m all about those backups and redundancies.

MTB: Great. Lastly, what advice would you give to someone who is about to go into the field for the first time? When I was going to go into the field for the time you gave me such insightful advice. What would you say to someone who is just starting out?

Lauren Gawne: I think my answer to that question is kind of coloured by the fact that I recently had a baby, and so I feel like my advice to someone going into the field now is the advice that a lot of people gave me about kids. Which is just to make the most of the experience. Five months in the field, or a year in the field, or five weeks in the field, might seem like a really long time and sometimes it really is when you’re stuck in the middle of it, but it’s also really fleeting and magical and beautiful as you start to build these, what are hopefully, ongoing and meaningful relationships. So, kind of just taking the chance to look around you and appreciate where you are and how privileged you are to be able to be doing this. With that, just take twenty times more photos than you think you need to take. I’ve also always had a personal journal that I’ve kept alongside all the general journal taking and note taking that I do when I’m in the field because I think it’s just an opportunity to reflect on what you’re doing and the experiences that you’re having.

MTB: Yeah, that’s great. Thank you Lauren so much for coming on to the podcast. I really appreciate it.

Lauren Gawne: Thanks for having me on.

MTB: You’re welcome. Where can our listeners learn more about your work and more about what you’re doing?

Lauren Gawne: My website is laurengawne.com. I have all of my academic research links to the archives of the language documentation projects that I’ve done. There’s also my blog, Superlinguo, where I write about my research sometimes and other cool linguistic stuff, and my podcast, Lingthusiasm, in which Gretchen and I are enthusiastic about all of linguistics.

MTB: Great, thank you so much Lauren.

Lauren Gawne: Thanks for having me on, Marti. 

You’ve been listening to field notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

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