Robert Poole’s Corpus-Assisted Ecolinguistics

Robert Poole received his PhD in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching from the University of Arizona in 2015 and his MA in TESOL from the University of Alabama in 2011. His research primarily concerns corpus-aided discourse study, using corpora in language teaching and learning, and ecolinguistics. His most recent book, Corpus-Assisted Ecolinguistics, was published in 2022 by Bloomsbury Academic, and he has recent articles in Applied Corpus Linguistics, Corpora, the Journal of Corpora and Discourse Studies, and the Journal of World Languages. When not on campus, Robert enjoys gardening and hiking with his dogs, Egan and Maru.

What sparked your initial interest in looking at the world around us through language by using corpus-aided instruction?

I was introduced to corpus linguistics by Dr. Dilin Liu at UA during my MA studies and was immediately captivated by the approach and what it made possible for so many domains of applied linguistics. From my first corpus searches, I enjoyed seeing patterns of language use that contradicted my intuition or were completely unexpected. During that period, for my MA thesis, I evaluated whether corpus information would help language learners acquire and produce a word more effectively than simply providing a dictionary definition. And it did! Learners who were in the corpus group retained more words and produced them in sentences more accurately than their counterparts who only were given definitions. From that point, all of my research and much of my teaching have incorporated corpus linguistics in some form.

Concerns of time and workload are the most common obstacles to corpus instruction. What are some of the ways instructors can combat those & incorporate corpora into their classrooms?

These are obstacles that I’ve thought about a great deal and have informed much of my work in corpus-aided language teaching and learning. It seems for years there were many publications extolling the virtues of corpora for language learning but few, if any, actually showing people how to implement such pedagogy in the classroom. This shortcoming was the primary motivation for my first book, as I wanted to basically provide ready-to-go corpus activities for the classroom. I hoped that if a teacher implemented these activities, they would see the affordances of such an approach. More importantly, those activities from the book could then become the foundations for new lessons and activities as teachers then adapted those original lessons for their contexts or began to design their own. Along with my book, there are now several other resources that also provide sample lessons. I hope that as more teacher and learner-friendly resources are available that the approach will become more accessible and popular, as the obstacles you mention will be reduced. That said, the commitment to learn any new technology for use in the classroom requires time and energy, and I don’t think these obstacles are constrained to corpus use.

Why is contributing to the expansion of ecolinguistics, particularly to corpus-assisted approaches to ecolinguistic analysis, such an important area of research to you?

I have long been inspired by M.A.K. Halliday’s assertion that ecological degradation, species loss, etc. are not concerns for only biologists, chemists, or physicists but that applied linguists also have a role to play in addressing our ecological crisis. Indeed, applied linguistics as a discipline seeks to address real-world problems in which language is implicated. Despite the innumerable challenges we face, it seems, in my opinion, none is more severe and deserving of collective attention than the climate crisis. Applied linguistics broadly and ecolinguistics in particular can make valuable contributions to the formation of more ecologically sustainable and just societies.

To the corpus-assisted part of the question…The majority of corpus-assisted work in this space has been focused upon “greenspeak”—language use specifically about the environment, e.g., representations of climate change in the national media of a particular context. That’s valuable research, of course, but I feel corpus-assisted ecolinguistics can do much more. In my view, it is critical to reveal and critique or praise and promote those patterns of language use in prevailing discourse that mediate our perceptions and shape our actions toward the physical world and its many inhabitants. Yes, environmental communication is a critical site for investigation, but I contend that it is in prevailing discourses patterning more broadly where attitudes and beliefs about the environment are normalized and (re)produced. Those are the spaces where corpus-assisted ecolinguistics can be productively pursued.

Your book shows that corpus-assisted ecolinguistics can be extremely helpful in dissecting and analyzing the effects of language in the world around us. What are some of the best ways readers can use corpora and have success in their areas of interest and expertise?

I think more people are starting to see the value of a corpus-aided approach for a range of endeavors. It’s not uncommon for me to see an article that applies corpus linguistic techniques in some way but that may not actually say the words corpus or linguistics. I’m constantly inspired with how my students exploit corpora in their projects. I’ve had students build and analyze corpora of Star Wars scripts, first-year student writing, representations of obesity in media and so much more. I think there are so many applications. And it’s not about becoming a corpus linguist—it’s about complementing what you currently do and perhaps asking and answering questions that your current approach may not be well-suited to address. I believe corpus analysis is a tremendously useful skill and many students could benefit from learning the basics. For example, if you were a student in a technical writing course, it seems eminently useful to build a corpus of the sort of texts you will be asked to read and produce. That would be a great resource to have. Indeed, we recognize the power of models. See the Wavelength Collection in the UA First-Year Writing Program. That’s built on the premise that seeing accessible models will be helpful for developing writers. We recently launched the Wavelength Corpus, so the collection is now searchable in a variety of ways.

In the book, you discuss how stories of the past can be nostalgic & sentimental. We need new stories to live by, more accurate portrayals of nature, especially in the form of words. What are some of the challenges of changing or redeveloping inaccurate language?

I think the most challenging obstacle to overcome is the popular notion that language captures an objective world. Yes, people generally understand that language changes, but they may not appreciate how language use mediates our perception and attitudes and shapes our actions. Take for example the frequently used collocation “illegal immigrant.” This pairing goes largely unquestioned in popular discourse, as if it were a natural pairing. Corpus data can quickly demonstrate that this collocation is a rather modern one. It’s not natural; it’s not given. It pervades our political discourse, but it actually has a rather short history. In contrast, the collocation “undocumented immigrant” produces a clearly divergent framing of a person’s status. The challenge though is that even those who hold positive views of immigrants and immigration primarily use a collocation that frames the issue in a way that works against their actual goals and desires. The dominant discourse presents “illegal immigration” as natural, making other options seem therefore unnatural. It’s difficult to unsettle those patterns of language use that have become so normalized and sedimented within prevailing discourse. It’s possible, and we have examples of successes, but it’s not a simple task.

Your analysis of humorous language in reports of animal escapes from the book also shines a light on the power of words and perception. How do we work in becoming more responsible stewards in terms of ecolinguistics and the way we talk about the world around us?

I think it starts by being more mindful of our language use and then trying to integrate more ecologically-sensitive ways of speaking into our own practice. For example, I was hiking with a friend recently when he described an area of his home state as “a wasteland.” When I asked him about it, he commented that there were few towns and “just not much there.” So, as the area had not yet been developed, it was therefore, a “wasteland.” That’s clearly a problematic anthropocentric framing of physical space that erases the intrinsic value of nature. I think of such anthropocentric framings often—they are quite common. Perhaps the most obvious is the term “weed.” We label a word as a “weed” based on its utility to humans. Can we eat it? No. Does it make a flower we find aesthetically pleasing? No. Then it’s a weed—poison it! And dictionaries generally define animals or plants based on their taste and utility to humans. I think as we start to see these anthropocentric features of language use then we start to become more mindful of these language choices and their consequences.

Chapter 3 discusses the term “wilderness” and its evolution. What are some other words/phrases the audience may have seen a similar shift in meaning with?

You will have to read my next book to see! As noted previously, diachronic language change is my primary area of interest, and I’ve published recently on the changing representations of trees and forests in Applied Corpus Linguistics and the shifts in stance features (e.g., may, probably, clearly) in IPCC Climate Change assessment reports in the Journal of Corpora and Discourse Studies. Ecolinguists have also investigated words such as green, sustainable, and development as well as the shifting discursive representations of animals. There’s a recent book from Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy titled An Ecotopian Lexicon that is quite interesting. I’ll certainly be following some of those words to see how/when they enter the discourse.

You mentioned that each of the studies contained in the book emerges naturally from spaces in which you have a particular interest. Are there other areas you plan to explore through corpus-assisted learning and research?

I plan to go further into these same areas and hopefully contribute further to their development.  Eco-stylistics (sometimes applying corpus techniques) is experiencing a great deal of growth; there are regularly eco-stylistics talks and panels at major conferences, and Professor Daniela Virdis has a new book out titled Ecological Stylistics: Ecostylistic Approaches to Discourses of Nature, the Environment and Sustainability that is really wonderful. I am not a stylistician, but The Overstory was such an obvious text to try to develop corpus-assisted eco-stylistics. There’s a line in the book where a character states, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story” (p. 336).  That so perfectly captures the heart of ecolinguistics; when I read that line, I knew I had to explore the text further. If another book similarly presented itself, I would like to continue that work. Mostly though, I’m interested in diachronic language change of ecological relevance. Following the book, I’ve had a few articles in this area, and I’m beginning work on a book project that will explore language change more deeply.

Other than Richard Powers’s The Overstory, what are a few other works readers could look over and analyze from an ecolinguistic perspective?

In Adam Trexler’s Anthropocene Fictions (2015), he identifies more than 150 works of climate fiction (cli-fi); this number has surely grown since then. I have read loads of climate fiction, but as time passes, I am less interested in novels such as Nathaniel Rich’s Against All Odds. It’s an entertaining read as are many texts of the genre, but personally, I have grown a bit tired of cli-fi novels in which cascades of catastrophic events occur. I think the sort of apocalyptic scenarios they produce are less interesting from an ecolinguistic perspective. As we seek new stories to live by, new ways of being, I’m more intrigued by the sort of world building in novels such as Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water, or Ken Stanley Robinson’s Aurora. Robinson’s Aurora is shaped by climate change, but its story is not set amidst rising oceans and burning landscapes as found elsewhere in climate fiction. Instead, it portrays a group of people—I suppose we could call them climate change survivors—searching the universe for habitable places. I think these stories are immensely valuable and are deserving of attention from a sort of integrated stylistic and corpus-assisted ecolinguistic approach. How are these worlds built? Are they reproductions of present systems that have contributed to the climate crisis or do the authors present new systems and new ways of being? How does the hope for the alternative futures they represent potentially motivate readers to engage in sustainable actions in the present? I feel these are interesting questions to explore from an ecolinguistic perspective.

Apocalyptic works permeate various forms of media. How can the worlds they represent motivate readers to engage in sustainable actions in the present?

Initially, I was most drawn to cli-fi novels that portray a recognizable near-future in which apocalyptic climate change scenarios are depicted. As I read more of these novels or watch this sort of movie, I’m increasingly skeptical of their ability to motivate sustainable actions. Take the well-known cli-fi movie Day After Tomorrow. I think too many people think that is what climate change will actually look like. They imagine the sort of dramatic sequence of events in which New York City floods and freezes in the span of the day or hundreds of tornadoes devastate Los Angeles. The climate crisis is now. Maybe one day those catastrophic cascades of events will happen. I think though that those texts and films actually move us away from recognizing the slow, persistent reality of the climate crisis. I think sustainable actions are motivated when we are able to see alternative futures. Those show us the possibility for new systems, new structures, and new ways of being. Perhaps those films and texts motivate some, but I worry they do more to promote hopelessness and despair.

Ecolinguistics is a relatively new field in academic publishing & research. How exciting is it to lead part of that charge?

It’s exciting to be part of the growth that the field is experiencing. I maintain the bibliography for the International Ecolinguistics Association (IEA) on Zotero; there are now greater than 500 citations that focus on ecological discourse analysis, and the number is growing quickly. Language & Ecology has long published research in this space, but ecolinguistics research can increasingly be found in a number of journals. For example, the Journal of World Languages has a recent special issue on ecolinguistics and Text & Talk just released a special issue on ecolinguistics as well. Ecolinguistics studies can be found in venues such as Critical Discourse Studies, Corpora, Journal of Corpora and Discourse Studies, Discourse and Communication, Environmental Communication and many more. I think this growth will continue. Additionally, the international ecolinguistics community continues to grow with active regional organizations in Europe, China, Brazil, and Nigeria—I hope the community in the United States will expand as well. I feel the work is urgent and important, and I’m happy to contribute to the field.

As you mentioned, good stories inspire ecological connectedness and awareness. What ecological experiences have played the biggest role in motivating your research today?

I think there is an assemblage of moments, both big and small, that contribute to my research today, but I generally think of the following two experiences. In my early 20s, I climbed to a peak in the Kanuku Mountains of southern Guyana. It was an absolutely stunning climb. On the final night, we camped on this precipice with views out across the Rupununi and off into Roraima state of northern Brazil. Late that night, while looking out from the peak, the full length of the horizon was a line of fire. I asked my guide, “Why all the fire?” and he responded that they are burning forests to make more pastureland for grazing cattle. It just felt so tragic. That image of the horizon of fire is still clear in my mind two decades later. A few years after the Kanuku experience, I canoed for several days on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The guide would often pause and talk about the wildlife we encountered. We noticed a bird pass overhead, and he told me how this particular bird was well known, for it would catch a certain kind of snake and place it in the nest with its eggs and hatchlings. The bird would feed the snake just as it fed its young offspring. Because the snake was being fed, it would stay in the nest and protect the eggs and hatchlings. This account makes me think about the stories of competition (“only the strong will survive,” “survival of the fittest”) that so permeate our culture. I think our obsession with competition prevents us from seeing cooperation and interconnectedness. Those are two brief stories, and you can see I am not the best storyteller. They mean a lot to me though.

How long did it take to find your ecosophy? What has been the hardest part of living that experience? The easiest?

That’s an interesting and also quite difficult question. I was fortunate to be able to live and travel internationally quite a bit, and I have always been more keen to climb a volcano than to explore a city. I have had some amazing experiences: trekking to Uchi Falls on the Guyana-Venenzuela border, climbing volcanos in Nicaragua, canoeing parts of the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and hiking the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. I suppose during all of those trips that I was developing an ecological ethic and awareness. I never planned to be here doing this work, but it also feels rather obvious and logical that I am. Putting my ecosophy into words on a page took a great deal of time, but I was aided by writings by eco-philosophers Arne Naess and David Abrams and most significantly by ecolinguist Arran Stibbe. My ecosophy is deeply informed and shaped by their writings.

What are you currently working on? What kinds of research does the future hold for you ideally?

My research in corpus-assisted language teaching and learning and corpus-assisted ecolinguistics used to be rather separate tracks. In recent work though, I’m starting to bring these together, as I’m working through developing corpus-assisted activities that can promote environmental awareness and ecological consciousness in a range of educational contexts. I’ll continue pursuing those synergies, but I’ll continue as well within corpus-assisted ecolinguistics. As I’ve noted, I’m most interested in diachronic language change of ecological relevance—though in a rather nascent stage, that’s the topic for my next book.

–Travis Turner