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Review of  The Interactional Organization of Academic Talk

Reviewer: yang linxiu
Book Title: The Interactional Organization of Academic Talk
Book Author: Holger Limberg
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.3640

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AUTHOR: Holger Limberg
TITLE: The Interactional Organization of Academic Talk
SIBTITLE: Office Hour Consultations
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2010

Yang Linxiu, Foreign Languages School of Shanxi University, Taiyuan, Shanxi
Province, P.R.C.


The monograph entitled “The Interactional Organization of Academic Talk: Office
Hour Consultations” is one of the series, “Pragmatics & Beyond New Series”,
published by John Benjamins Publishing Company. The book sets out to investigate
a particular type of talk: the “academic office hour”, or consultation hour.
Drawing mainly upon conversation analytic tools within an institutional setting
and with the help of data-driven methods, the book aims to describe the inner
workings of office hour consultations and to identify an overall structural
organization of talk in this setting. The analytical focus is on sequential
activities, such as how participants (i.e. professors/instructors and students)
open an office hour interaction, establish an agenda, manage advice-giving, and
close the consultation.

In Chapter 1, by first presenting a short excerpt from an office hour
interaction, the author introduces the reader to the microanalysis of office
hour talk. Then, when introducing the layout of the whole book, research
questions are raised according to the content of each chapter. For example, the
questions for the advice-giving part are as follows: How do participants
discursively construct the request for as well as the delivery of advice?; How
do students respond to teachers’ suggestions and what does their response
behavior tell us about whether they are likely to implement the teachers’
recommendations?; What are the contextual as well as interactional constraints
on this activity and how are situations managed in which no advice can be given?

Chapter 2, “Office hours in a theoretical context: Organization and
institutional foundation”, serves as a theoretical basis for the whole study by
describing, defining and contextualizing office hours as a situated event in the
university. Through a review of previous research concerning office hours and
similar academic consultations, the author aims to show that the office hour
constitutes an open platform to consult with professors or instructors in order
to address any academic concern. First, based on German university data, this
chapter describes the practice of office hours, including how they are locally
organized, as well as institutionally implemented. Second, this chapter
illustrates questions such as the extent to which office hour consultations can
be considered as a form of institutional talk and how they differ from other
types of talk in academia. Third, the chapter offers a research overview, which
discusses observations and findings from previous studies, thus allowing the
reader to identify the points of overlap with existing studies and to appreciate
the contribution this book tries to make to studies on academic discourse. By
addressing these three issues, this chapter lays a foundation for the following

Chapter 3 presents and discusses the methodological framework of the present
study, which mainly draws on the analytical tools from the field of Conversation
Analysis. The focus is on the overall structural organization of an office hour
talk, including the turn-taking mechanism of individual sequences at certain
stages of the interaction. Furthermore, the author talks about the research
design, including the corpus, data transcription, and some analytical concepts
such as speech acts, preference organization and discourse phases. After
clarifying the methodology and research design, the author comes to the
structural organization of the talk and investigates the interactional
activities carried out by the participants during the consultation. The
empirical investigation of the interaction type is detailed in the following
five chapters.

Chapter 4 discusses how an office hour consultation at a university is usually
opened. The opening is very important, as it establishes the fact that the
office hour is an institutional student service, which includes the actions
necessary to recruit a party for a consultation and to show mutual attentiveness
to the interaction. In order to explore how office hour consultations are
opened, the author divides the opening into two parts: “preliminaries to the
opening” and “opening a consultation”. As for the former part, the data analyses
show that verbal routines from ordinary conversations are employed, but possibly
adapted to institutional circumstances, in order to establish the
“preliminaries” of the talk, such as by scheduling a meeting before or after
class, via e-mail or phone, or signing in on a sheet outside the door and then
waiting outside the
office until the teacher calls. After the pre-beginning phase comes the phase of
“opening a consultation”, which includes two phases: a “How are you?” sequence,
and identity construction. The purpose of this phase is to establish the
framework of the interaction and it includes such points as how to exchange
greetings and how to construct identities. In this part, the author also
discusses the omission of “How are you?” exchanges in office hours, which
implies that a personal relationship between the speakers is not relevant to the
task orientation of the interaction.

Chapter 5, “The agenda: Co-constructing the academic concern”, is devoted to how
students outline their reason for coming to the teacher’s office hours and what
they want from the teacher. It shows how participants co-construct an agenda for
the office consultation, which involves two main sequences. First is the
‘request delivery’, which may involve different kinds of strategies and
mechanisms, such as a prototypical opener, a less conventionalized topic opener,
or topic preemption. For example, in the topic preemption strategy, teachers
often take over the floor after the opening sequence and express their
expectation about the students’ concern, just as in the example given by the
author, “You want to pick up your term paper, right?”. In addition, request
types are also divergent, i.e., there can be requests for verbal or non-verbal
actions, requests for advice and assistance, or for specific information.
Secondly, the overall sequential structure in which the request turns are
embedded and by which the request is “internationally constructed” is flexible.
It is subject to variation in the local context of a consultation. For instance,
the most frequent structure of students’ presentations consists of two parts: a
request action in the base sequence, and a sequence of actions preceding or
following the request. The analysis shows how the participants agree on an
appropriate office hour and how they deal with different academic concerns.

Chapters 6 and 7 concern the body of an office hour consultation, which involves
all kinds of tasks to be performed across different sequences. Chapter 6 deals
with the treatment and discussion of the concern. Based on exemplary case
studies, it analyzes the sequential unfolding of the discussion and discusses
how a certain kind of academic concern translates into a routine sequence of
actions and how said sequence can be used as a resource to move the consultation
forward. For instance, the author shows that when the student requests a
reference for an application to a foreign university, s/he often names a general
topic area of concern as part of the pre-sequence of his/her presentation before
moving to the specific topic. This chapter also looks into the interactional
trajectories of consultations, i.e., consultations with multiple concerns and
consultations with multiple students. These two kinds of organizations may have
ramifications for the course of office hour talk.

Chapter 7 is specifically devoted to one of the essential activities of an
office hour consultation, advice-giving. Its importance lies in its guide to
socializing students into the academic community. In this chapter some generic
features of advice-giving are summarized, concerning such issues as the delivery
of advice, the response of students towards the advice, the constraints on
advice-giving, and feedback of advice-giving. For example, in “repetition of
advice”, the author distinguishes two types of repetition: reiterating the
advice utterance verbatim in order to increase its uptake and support students’
comprehension; and rephrasing the advice utterance in order to modify its
normative force.

The final analysis chapter (Chapter 8) deals with the termination of an office
hour consultation. Just like the conversational openings, closings are composed
of routine actions that are adapted to the local context. In order to find the
routine actions of the closing of an office hour consultation, the analyses
focus on points such as how to initiate the closing of a topic discussion, what
to perform before saying goodbye to each other, and the relational implications
of these closing mechanisms. For instance, in the corpus, almost every office
hour interaction ends with an exchange of passing turns, consisting of
pre-closing items (e.g. “okay”-“okay”) followed by an exchange of farewells
(e.g. “bye”-“bye”). These pre-closing items initiate a closing phase.

In the last chapter (Chapter 9), the main findings and implications of this
research are first summarized and reviewed. Then, some limitations and prospects
for future research are pointed out.


“The Interactional Organization of Academic Talk: Office Hour Consultations”
provides interesting and critical insight into the genre of office hour
consultations. It is of both theoretical and practical importance for teachers,
students, and researchers who study talk-in-interaction.

Theoretically, due to the fact that a great deal of research has focused on
written academic discourse or on spoken discourse in the classroom, the book has
filled a gap and opened avenues to studying the non-teaching environment. Its
analyses about how participants organize and construct talk in an office hour
consultation represent pioneering work and will provide methodological guidance
for the study of other institutional talk, as we see in the following comments
by Neal Norrick in this blurb for the book: “This book provides an excellent
example of how practitioners of discourse analysis can meaningfully address
important topics relevant to the daily lives of those around them”.

At a more theoretical level, this study opens up a number of promising questions
concerning office hour consultations: What role do other academic activities
besides advice-giving play in the process of office hour consultations?; What
would research results look like if other theories and approaches were adopted?;
What would the differences and similarities be if a comparison were made between
office hour talk in German and other, foreign universities?; All of the previous
questions leave plenty of space for further work concerning office hour
consultations and other academic talk.

Practically, this book is beneficial to all teachers and students who interact
with each other face to face in the daily routine of university life. For
students, the study will serve as a guide to seeking advice and receiving
information from professors, instructors and tutors. Also, teachers can use it
to assist them in going about informing, socializing and advising students about
general academic concerns, specifically during office hour consultations.

All in all, this book, which is the first on office hour consultations, is worth
reading for its theoretical and practical merits. There are multiple reasons why
the book can be recommended to a range of readers. It not only can serve as a
course and reference book for students and researchers interested in the
subject, but also sets the scene for further studies on academic talk.

Yang Linxiu is currently an Associate Professor at the Foreign Languages School of Shanxi University, China. She obtained her PhD in July, 2009 from Xiamen University. Her current research interests include functional linguistics and discourse analysis. She has published over 10 academic articles in the areas of discourse analysis and functional linguistics in venues such as the Journal of Pragmatics, and Discourse Studies.