A PhD candidate’s reflections on IPRA 2021

By Agnes Löfgren, PhD candidate at Linköping University

The 17th International Pragmatics Conference (IPrA 2021) took place online between 27 June – 2 july 2021. This is a report from the conference, from the perspective of a PhD candidate, with a focus on the general experience of the conference and some highlights of topics I found interesting. I’m Agnes Löfgren, a PhD candidate at Linköping University, Sweden, working with multimodal interaction analysis on depictions in opera rehearsals. 

Participating in an online conference

I started my PhD in 2018 when the thought of a pandemic hitting the world was very far away, and I have been fortunate enough to attend both live and online conferences. IPrA 2021 is my second online conference, and far bigger than my first. The conference this year hosted as many as 1400 participants, which apparently is a record in the history of IPrA-conferences. Clearly, the online format, which allowed participants from all over the world to participate without travelling, is a virtue in that sense. 

Technical facilities

When it came to the practicalities, the interface of the conference was easily accessible and browsable, which was a plus when you quickly wanted to access a particular talk that you had found in the program. Unfortunately, the Exordo server became very slow when the presentations were about to start (probably because of a lot of people trying to access the same webpage simultaneously), which sadly made me miss the beginnings of several talks. When it came to the Webex platform, I found it pretty intuitive and straightforward. However, Webex proved to be less apt for showing video data, and for us in the EMCA community, this is, as you are all aware of, crucial. Due to ethical reasons, the alternative of uploading videos on the conference website is not necessarily possible (as in my case), which otherwise would have been a good solution. With this difficulty in presenting data, and also due to technical issues occurring on Monday, a lot of the talks migrated to Zoom instead. Migrating the talks to another platform also introduced the risk that conference participants might not get sufficient access to the online venue of the talks. Many panel organizers had solutions for this, such as having a representative in the Webex room to redirect participants to the Zoom-link. In the end, I found it fairly smooth to access the talks, whether on Zoom or Webex. 

Managing the schedule 

As this was one of the biggest conferences I have been to, the program was exciting yet overwhelming. When planning my participation, I focused on presentations that would be beneficial for my ongoing PhD project, thus almost exclusively attending panels and talks within the EMCA field. My experience is that it is unavoidable to miss out on several talks that you are really interested in when you participate in a conference, and this was no exception. Fortunately, a lot of the presentations were available online, which made it possible to watch them afterwards, and an e-mail after the conference announced that we will have access to them for an entire year! Despite sadly missing all the questions and discussions, this is clearly an advantage of online conferences, as real live event conferences normally do not allow you to be in two places at once.

Otherwise, I found the schedule very well planned, and especially appreciated the 30 minutes breaks in between some of the sessions, allowing for a stretch or a quick visit to my garden to regain some energy. We all know what Zoom fatigue is by now… Some days were more intense than others, schedule-wise, which also allowed for some rest and coming back the next day with renewed energy. 

Presenting my own work 

I was happy to be able to present my work as a part of a panel on ‘Non-lexical vocalizations and the sensing body’. Apart from the feeling of being a part of something bigger, especially important now in the time of the pandemic and conferences via distances, it was amazing to be able to make connections from my own work to the other presentations I heard during the panel. I’ve written a more detailed blogpost on the panel

Socials 

There were no social events hosted by the conference organizers, but there were options provided by other platforms. I was made aware of the social room set up on Wonder by the CORE-ILCA community, a very nice initiative indeed. I was able to join a few times for sympathetic conversations and debriefings about the conference. Thanks a lot to CORE-ILCA, and especially Marina Cantarutti who organized the social platform. 

Highlights from the conference 

I have seen so many interesting talks during the conference, and I have been so inspired! There surely is no room in this text to cover everything I have seen, but here are a few of the most exciting sessions I have been to. As always, the plenaries offered a nice possibility to take part of research that is not entirely within your own research field, but I mostly focused on the EMCA panels. 

I was really looking forward to the panel on ‘Meaning in interaction’, a very interesting subject that relates to my ongoing PhD project in many ways. Arnulf Deppermann first introduced the topic and described the background to the panel in the research project on Meaning in interaction led by Deppermann himself from the IDS-Mannheim, as well as a presentation of one of his studies on the German meta-semantic ‘was heißt das’ (what does that mean?) as a response to questions. One of the most interesting cases for me seemed to be when two sisters were redecorating a room, and a sister defined ‘fast painting’ by means of demonstrating it with the body. This neatly illustrates the situated meaning of words, and is a contrast case to some examples from my own work where initial depictions are instead defined through following lexical work. After Deppermann, there was a memorial for Jack Bilmes, a pioneer in work on meaning in interaction who sadly passed away earlier this year (see this ROLSI blog post). We were given touching speeches on his person and career, and it was very inspiring to hear about a researcher who, although originating in the EMCA-tradition, also went outside the frames of the field, thereby expanding it. His book, ‘The structure of meaning in talk’ is available as an online publication. The panel proceeded with many interesting talks, among them Lorenza Mondada on ‘descriptors’, using words to describe food and calibrating the knowledge of the same words through sensory work with the food in question; Paul Drew on ‘disclaimers’, speakers rejecting negative implications that may be implied by their subsequent or previous talk (a prototypical case being ‘I’m not a racist, but…’), showing how disclaimers can also be done through multimodal constructions; Henrike Helmer’s work on ‘occasionalisms’ – inventing new words and collaboratively establishing their meanings, a truly interesting phenomenon; as well as Leon Shor and Michal Marmorstein on downgrading by means of repetition of a lexical item, as a means for self-repair. 

I also enjoyed the panel ’Complex syntax-for-conversation across languages: Grammar, sequence and multimodality’. It hosted four entire sessions, attracted a crowd and generated some good discussions throughout. The many interesting talks highlighted the function of different grammatical constructions, and their relationship to accompanying embodied behavior. I particularly appreciated Susanne Günthner’s talk on the German construction ‘Wenn Ich ehrlich bin’ as a metapragmatic device for handling delicate actions in the sensitive context of a palliative care unit. 

I also had the time to briefly visit the ‘Talk about talk’-panel on bringing social actions to the surface by attributing social actions to a co-participant. We do not normally formulate what we do in social action, but what happens when we do so? In Emma Greenhalgh’s talk on formulations of learner talk in the context of English as a second language training, I found an interesting connection to my own project. The teacher in Greenhalgh’s data formulated a learner’s turn that included depictions with non-lexical vocalizations, a pattern that my presentation during the conference was essentially about. 

In the panel ‘The complex ecology of L2 interactional competence: language, body and the material world’ I was able to watch an interesting talk on depictive gestures during instructions by Niina Lilja and Arja Piirainen-Marsh. Further, I very much appreciated Sara Rönnqvist and Eveliina Tolvanen’s talk on L1 and L2’s speaker’s use of linguistic and interactional resources in conversations about art. 

To conclude my week, I attended the panel on human sociality in the times of covid 19, organized by Lorenza Mondada. The panel was very neatly organized, presenting many interesting tracks, from the ongoing research project on the same topic, in short forms. The panel sought to investigate how the pandemic has changed social interaction and how our understanding of these changes can reveal fundamental aspects of social interaction in turn. Talks ranged from negotiations of the wearing of face masks (Hänggi) to other corrections to achieve physical distance (Gauthier) and queuingqueing in the time of the pandemics (Tekin & Mondada). The project had been collecting data since the beginning of the pandemic, to see how social interaction changed over time due to the pandemic, a very fascinating and highly relevant project and panel, needless to say. 

A big thanks to the organizers of the conference for such a great opportunity to learn, meet people and discover possible tracks for my ongoing PhD-project, all from my living room!

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