Listening Back


Back in early 2008, my external hard drive died. I was in my 5th year of graduate school and just starting fieldwork for my PhD thesis. The following items were just some of the many files that were on that drive:

  • recordings of interviews with residents of Flagstaff, Arizona, recorded in 2002
  • recordings of interviews with Northern Arizona cattle ranchers, recorded in 2003
  • recordings of word lists and sentences read aloud by Twi speakers in Ghana, recorded in 2005
  • recordings of Condoleeza Rice from a project with Rob Podesva (et al.) that we’d started in 2006
  • recordings of participants in a Map Task from a project with Rebecca Scarborough (et al.) from 2007
  • recordings of matched guise stimuli for a perception experiment on /ai/-monophthongization that I never ran

and lots and lots of text-based documents in various formats that were all related to some aspect of my linguistics research (including the Plotnik-created vowel plot, above, which show the as-yet-unpublished and probably-never-to-be-published result that some urban Arizonans have a nasal /æ/ system).

Basically, those files comprised the entirety of This Is Your (Grad School) Life, up until that point. And they were gone… in an instant! Because no, these weren’t second copies, or back-up copies; these were the only copies. (PSA to everyone, everywhere: always back up your files!!! DO IT NOW!!!) Yes, the Arizona and Ghana interviews do still exist on tape or mini-disc; yes, my co-authors have copies of the Condi recordings and the Map Task recordings; yes, I changed my PhD topic for independent reasons and never needed those stimuli again. In fact, the latter three file types were much less important to me to recover than the first three, which I had so laboriously digitized in real time. And perhaps even more importantly, those text-based docs included countless hours of coding and writing. So, I paid the $1000, or whatever it was (the exactly price is blocked from my memory), to have my files restored. (The vowel plot above was one of those restored files.)

However, what I got back in return was a string of files organized only by document type and with no meaningful filenames. At all. So, for example, there was one folder with WAV files, and it looked sort of like this:

Some of the restored sound files from a hard drive that died in 2008.

This (blurry, sorry) image actually only contains the contents of a small subset of the original batch of files, because every now and then (since 2008) I’ve sat and sifted through those files, opening them one at a time and organizing them back into the right folders: an Arizonan here, a Ghanaian there… It is, in a word, ridiculously tedious. I do wonder if I should’ve just saved the money and redigitized from tape again. But it’s too late for that.

Today was the day that I finally finishing sorting the remainder of the unclassified WAV files. Yes, it only took me five years to finish! Because, you know, first I had a thesis to write. And then I guess I got distracted by the UK…? Anyway, hearing these voices today, voices that I hadn’t heard in five, seven, even ten years, was a remarkable feeling. Nostalgia, for sure, mixed with some wistful regret (“I haven’t done enough with these recordings”), but also mixed with a surprising degree of satisfaction (“I’ve done more work than I think I have”). In fact, the sense of accomplishment I felt was the same feeling I got the other day when filling out the paperwork for my annual review.

I know, “paperwork for an annual review” either sounds tedious or anxiety-provoking, depending on how you look at it. But trust me, pausing for an hour or so for reflecting can be incredibly motivating. “But I already know I haven’t done what I wanted to do” you might be thinking (because you, dear reader, are presumably my friend, and that is something I would expect a friend of mine to say, because my friends and I commiserate a lot).

Well, see for yourself.

Here are the main questions (edited a little bit) from the “Self Review Form” provided by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences:

A. Taking Stock

For Teaching, Research, Administration and Other activities (e.g., knowledge exchange, academic service):

  1. Briefly list the main goals on which you have focused. Start with the bigger goals first.
  2. Summarise your primary achievements in the last academic year.
  3. Briefly list any aspects in which you encountered difficulties, and how you tried to deal with those (if you did/could). This is where you should identify aspects of your work situation that may have hindered your career progression.

B. Planning ahead

For Teaching, Research, Administration and Other activities:

  1. Summarise your goals for the next academic year (and if you wish, for the longer term)
  2. List any areas you would like to develop or in which you would like to become involved (e.g., kinds of teaching you might prefer to do; new directions you might want to take your research; committee work you might prefer to engage in).
  3. Suggest if you feel you need any training, support or resources to help you in the future.

I invite you to try out these questions yourself! If you’re a postgrad/grad student, maybe you can talk through the answers with your supervisor, or another grad student. (In my department, junior academic staff are paired with senior academic staff to talk through the answers together.) Like spring cleaning, or laboriously sorting restored sound files into their proper folders, I think we can all use an annual review, whether we’re academic or not. New Year’s Eve and birthdays sometimes motivate reflection, but I find that it’s all too easy in those moments to focus on what’s been lost rather than what’s been gained.


This post might not have ended up the way you expected it to, being that it turned all self-help-y, so I’ll leave you with a short but funny little story about urban/rural dialect differences in U.S. English and the misunderstandings they can lead to. (Note: you might want to listen to this once through before letting the kids hear it…!)


This is just one of the gems I discovered today, and the last time I heard it was probably ten years ago!

Listening back on life is awesome.


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