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An AUK Faculty Member Sharpens Her Focus

Quechee Gorge Vermont June 2017Interview with the 2017 AUK Faculty Fellow, Dr. Inas Mahfouz, about her research in linguistics

What got you interested in linguistics?
     As an undergraduate, several linguistics courses ignited my passion about language and its analysis. I took a course on phonology and pondered over the systems of sounds in language. As a multilingual person, I compared how sounds are combined in Arabic, my native tongue, and English, my second language. Courses in morphology and syntax further excited my curiosity about linguistic analysis, as did courses in pragmatics and discourse analysis. The magic of language and how the meaning of the same utterance can change from one context to another intrigued me. A simple sentence like "This room is very hot!" can be interpreted as a statement of fact or an implicit request to open the window depending on the relationship between the two speakers and the context in which they interact. I watched TV ads and tried to analyze how figurative language is used to convey meanings and create images in the mind. In my PhD dissertation, I built a Database to automatically disambiguate verbs depending on cues from both micro- and macro-contexts (http://www.isfla.org/Systemics/Software/Corpora.html).

What are you working on this summer at Dartmouth?
     I conducted research comparing the writing of freshman students at Dartmouth and AUK. With the support of the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric (RWIT), I compiled a 1.8-million-word learner corpus of the essays of students at both institutions. I am currently analyzing meta-discourse features used by the students. I also participated in the annual Dartmouth Summer Seminar for Composition Research, "Data-Driven Inquiry: Process, Methods, Results," where I discussed my research with scholars from different US institutions.

How is residency at Dartmouth helping you with your work?
    Inas Mahfouz presenting at conference After teaching First Year Writing (FYW) for several years, I started to be preoccupied with these courses. Before coming to Dartmouth, I wanted to write a book on FYW courses across cultures and compare the writing of Kuwaiti with American students. Dartmouth has inspired me in different ways and on multiple levels.
Baker-Berry Library has been my home over the past few weeks. It has provided answers to all my questions and empowered me to overcome challenges. Whenever I faced a problem, I searched for a reference. All I had to do was click "Find It," record the call number, and go to the right stack. Furthermore, the availability of a wide range of online databases made my life as a researcher better because, in that case, I could download the source and start reading. Baker-Berry Library has not only provided shelter in terms of books and references. It has also provided me with advice from excellent scholars. After grabbing the references from the library, I would go to Baker 204 and read quietly, surrounded by Dr. Donahue and her team at RWIT. My weekly meetings with Dr. Donahue in Baker 208 ensured that my research was on the right track, and I integrated changes.hand cranking ice cream at Billings Farm
     My initial project of writing a book on FYW was transformed into a clear, focused paper on engagement markers. I engaged in conversations with renowned professors in the field of rhetorical analysis such as Norbert Elliot, Chris Anson, and Neal Lerner, to name a few. It was through these discussions that I took a step back and looked at the bigger picture of FYW across cultures. It made me view the essays written by my students from a different perspective.
My time at Dartmouth has almost come to an end. The experience I am having will leave an enduring impact on me both as a researcher and a professor. As a researcher, I realize that reliance on quantitative techniques alone fails to capture students' writing. A combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis unravels hidden features that otherwise may pass unnoticed. As a professor, I am aware that culture affects students' writing, but its effects should not be exaggerated; it offers a different way to convey meaning. If we want our students to write like academic writers, we should teach them the language-level patterns used in this type of discourse. This can only be done after identifying the patterns that students use to modify them to match those of expert academic writing. Now I can proudly say, "I am a researcher who teaches!"
     I am especially grateful to the Dartmouth-American University of Kuwait Program, led by Dr. Dale Eickelman, and ably supported by Beth Hindmarsh, and the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, led by Dr. Christiane Donahue. I am returning to AUK, the university that facilitated this life-changing experience and opened new horizons in my career.

Last Updated: 10/13/17