Graduate Profile - Stephen Logan

When Stephen Logan was a boy he harboured lofty aspirations of becoming an explorer.

His reality as a young man is no less adventurous or intriguing.

Stephen, a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, has carried out fieldwork in the Solomon Islands and has spent about six months living in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville to work with speakers of the Hahon language.

Hahon is a member of the Oceanic language family, and has about 3000 speakers. Stephen's thesis will be a descriptive grammar of this previously undescribed language.

"I think it would be hard to underestimate what I have learned from the people I have worked with in Bougainville and the Solomon Islands, and how my experiences in those countries have impacted my outlook on life," he reflects.

"Our friends there trusted my wife and me enough to let us live with them and treated us with great respect and kindness.

Stephen Logan"While many aspects of the fieldwork were very challenging, we came to realise that our survival and happiness depended on other people and on the earth. Money, power, status and intellectual knowledge are all secondary to these basic foundations.

"Our experiences during the fieldwork have contributed to my feeling that there has not been a proper realisation of the injustices of colonialism nor of how its legacy continues today. The idea of 'cultural competency' that is making its way into institutional academic discourse seems to me to be an important step in the right direction. We need to reflect continually on our motivations for doing the things we do, and on how these affect others."

Stephen's tertiary studies began on a different tack.

 "I have always been interested in language and culture, but my undergraduate degree was in Spanish and English literature, not linguistics," Stephen says.

"When I finished that, I worked for a couple of years in the financial sector before returning to do a Masters in linguistics. It was during the Masters that I decided that I wanted to do fieldwork on an undescribed language and write a descriptive grammar.

"This seemed like something ethical, intellectually worthwhile and exciting."

And while Stephen knew he wanted to continue in academia, he was not keen on "being stuck in a library for three or four years".

Fieldwork-based linguistics provided the answer.

Stephen admits that Research Higher Degree study has been challenging in that it is largely self-directed and requires a great level of discipline and organisation.

"My supervisor, Bill Palmer, has of course been an influential person throughout my PhD," Stephen says. "He established the research group of which I am a part (Endangered Languages Documentation, Theory and Application), he is a very experienced linguist and has a wealth of knowledge about linguistic theory in general and Oceanic linguistics in particular.

"Catriona Malau and Ǻshild Naess have also been extremely supportive. Both are very knowledgeable linguists and are very generous with their time.

"And the resources available at Newcastle for RHD students are very impressive, especially when compared with the situation at many universities in Europe."

Stephen, who grew up in Dublin, is a proponent of Chinese martial arts and has just started salsa lessons with his wife, says he would like to continue working with Melanesian communities but is also attracted to the idea of living and doing research in Central or South America.

Stephen's message to prospective students is very much based on his own richly diverse cultural experiences.

"I would encourage students, above all, to follow their interests, and to have the confidence that they can find a path they will find stimulating and fulfilling," he urges.

"Sometimes it can be hard to imagine alternative futures, and it can feel like we are corralled into a certain way of thinking and being by society. I would encourage students to find ways to broaden their horizons – engaging with other cultures in a spirit of humility and curiosity is a great way to do this.

"And don't make the mistake of confusing education with intelligence. While completing a degree may well be something to be proud of, the knowledge that people have developed in other walks of life should not be disparaged or undervalued. A university education is just one of many ways of learning about the world."