My internship with James Murphy

by Joshua Twinn

Over the past six weeks, I had the privilege of working with Dr James Murphy on his election night project. The aim of the project is to look at all the BBC election night broadcasts from 1955 all the way up to the most recent one this year and see if opening questions to interviewees change over time and throughout the night. As you can imagine, with that amount of data we weren’t going to be able to find a solution in six weeks, but I did my best to make the gargantuan task a little less daunting. In reality though, there is emphasis on ‘little’ as I only scratched the surface!

The first step in the process was to master the program ELAN. I am glad I did. Initially, I had the choice of ELAN or just transcribing simply into a word document. ELAN is a professional tool for the creation of complex annotations on video and audio resources. Learning to use a new program seemed the more complicated option to begin with, especially when it became very apparent from James that this would probably be the only time I would use it. In my life. Ever. But the time it saved in the long run was fantastic and who doesn’t want to learn a new skill?

Using ELAN I was able to segment the video into small snippets and transcribe the speech within. To transcribe, James decided we should use Jefferson’s transcription conventions but tweaked slightly to match what was easily available on a keyboard. We also quickly decided to type the speech in standard spelling unlike Jefferson who attempts to spell every word as it was pronounced. That style appeared unnecessary and overcomplicated, the symbol allocation already providing a small margin of subjectivity.

Getting stuck in, I soon found out when to expect an easy time in interview transcription (David Dimbleby <3) and whom I would have to grit my teeth and just power through with. Originally, I didn’t think it could get any worse than trying to accurately transcribe the overlaps between Andrew Neil and his interviewees (most notably Paddy Ashdown, who I am still waiting on some hat eating footage from) but that was before I started to segment the sharper, interrupting tongue of Jeremy Paxman challenging a loud mouthed Ann Widdecombe. However, as frustrating as that may have made it sound, my built in nerdy attention to detail kicked in and I relished the challenge of getting the transcription as accurate as possible. For anyone that enjoys looking for the minor details as much as me then this is the kind of internship for you. There is no sense of achievement quite like completing the transcription of a three minute conversation that took you three hours to get through.

I was also supplied some pieces of literature to read through to help me recognise any particular patterns in the data or techniques the interviewers used. It proved a nice break between transcriptions! I would meet up with James and discuss the points I agreed or disagreed with and anything I had noticed so far. From there, we would plan where I needed to be heading and things to look out for, along with being set some additional, more entertaining tasks like redesigning various Linguistic department posters. So if you see this guy around…

jm poster

You now know why.

One of the best parts of the whole experience was being treated as an equal. From experience of previous jobs, in my mind going into it I thought I might be making tea for everyone and pretty much being James’ lackey! This couldn’t be further from the truth. My opinions were encouraged and more astoundingly, they even helped!

At times it was difficult finding the motivation to listen to another politician make more excuses about their party but with so many things to work on it was easy to tackle something else for a bit before coming back to it. Furthermore, as someone who had only a basic understanding of politics beforehand, not only did I learn a lot linguistically but also politically. I have now discovered a new interest and have found myself looking at political news reports in my spare time, which was unheard of before!

It may not be the same for every internship opportunity but with James it was a fantastic experience and I’d like to thank him again for the opportunity. At the end of the day, it was very much one of those experiences where you get out what you put in. I regularly found myself working outside of the expected hours out of choice (nerd alert) because I was on a roll and enjoying it. It has provided a great insight into an academics life and even given me an idea to investigate for my own language project in final year.

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