April 10th, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; pragmatics; an audience of surgeons...

In a recent comment, beckyzoole asked me why I had found a seminar audience composed of roughly 700 surgeons more terrifying than an audience of 700 somethingelses.

The answer is that with 700 surgeons I knew in advance that the overwhelming majority of those present in the audience would be touch dominant; if I'd had to make a wild guess, I would have guessed that at minimum 500 would be touch dominant. That's because surgery is one of the very few high-status high-paying careers in U.S. society where touch dominance is not just a major asset but almost an obligatory job qualification, and for which there is also a substantial demand. (Sculpture has high status and sculptors can earn vast amounts of money, but the openings are very few.) And this situation put me, pragmatically, in a bind.

I had to choose between talking for the touch dominant majority -- which would make the minority perceive me as unqualified to lecture for MDs at all -- and talking for the rest of the group, which would make the seminar far less useful for the majority and would (in my worldview) be blatant elitist discrimination on my part for the most selfish of reasons.

I compromised. I spent the seminar code-switching between Academic Regalian (Medical Substream) and touch language (medical substream). And I was fortunate; I got away with it. A few participants turned in evaluations with complaints like "The presenter's language was excessively colloquial" and "I do not think that the presenter's folksy manner was appropriate," and "Surely Professor Elgin does not really consider the word [X] appropriate in the context of a medical seminar," but the positive evaluations put me in the high 90s.

I was invited to do the seminar again the following year, and by the time I had to do it again I was prepared.