Odd Jobs

Life in the linguistics lab.


Image via Giphy

In August 2009, I took a job as a “confederate” at the “MIXER” project, run by the linguistics lab of a university in the Philadelphia area. The goal of the MIXER project was to gather recorded interviews for a database of conversational American speech. Over the previous five years, the lab had recorded thousands of speakers; having secured a grant from an undisclosed sponsor, they were gearing up for another year. For three hundred dollars a week, my only responsibility was to receive the participants that came to the lab and to get them to speak.

The interviews were conducted in a recording booth known as the Mermaid Lounge, so named for the amphibian girl and paint-by-numbers fish characters painted on the far wall. Inside the Lounge was a single desk where two computer monitors sat head-to-head, surrounded by cameras and all kinds of microphones: clip-ons, standalones, condensers. At the other end of the hallway was the HIVE, a seminar room that served as base of operations for the MIXER-6 team—me, a secretary, and the lead confederate, who liaised with the sponsors. The lead confederate on MIXER-6 had participated in every study so far except MIXER-4, which she’d missed due to dental surgery. Now, after several complicated adjustments, she wore an elaborate dental fixture that rendered her effectively mute. She typically relayed messages through the secretary, Stabler, a burly little man with golden-blond hair and a bushy beard. Stabler was responsible for outreach; that meant flyering, Craigslist ads, and organizing participant data. Unfortunately, he was hamstrung by his terrible stammer, which was particularly pronounced whenever he spoke on the phone: “Hello, thank you for c-c-calling the l-l-ab … Are you r-r-responding to the a-a-ad?”

As a confederate, my responsibilities consisted of escorting the participants to the Mermaid Lounge, fitting them with a small, sensitive mic, and seeing them through three “sessions.” The first, the Prompt Session, was scripted. Participants read through a series of warm-up phrases as they scrolled across a monitor. These were mostly binomials like riff raff, hip-hop, flim flam, willy nilly, etc. Once the articulatory mechanisms were sufficiently exercised, I moved onto the Natural Session, during which I conversed with the participant on a topic of his or her choice. If necessary, we could discuss the algorithmically generated topic of the day, which might be Netflix, or terrorism, or gun control. Finally, after fifteen minutes, the participant put on a pair of headphones for the Noisy Session. An automated voiced counted down to zero, and then a steady stream of white noise came through the soft earpieces while I continued to converse with the participant.

Because the study offered the participants three hundred dollars without requiring them to ingest any disruptive substances, the schedule filled quickly. The respondents fell into three groups: recent college graduates, retired Philadelphians, and veterans from a nearby recovery center. Sessions with the graduates were more or less indistinguishable from the conversations I would have with my friends after work—and that made me uncomfortable. I found myself more at ease with the retirees, who were so grateful for a break from the drudgery of retired life that the fifteen minutes were quickly filled with enthusiastic monologue. One of the first participants, Tutu S., a former high school principal dressed all in cranberry—cranberry corduroys, a cranberry-striped collar visible beneath a cranberry sweater—chattered about the topic of the day (gun control) without so much as pausing for breath. Another retiree, Alex K., arrived at the lab in camping gear, dragging several tote bags behind him. “Oh, oh, what an interesting opportunity this is!” he sighed. The fluorescent light of the Mermaid Lounge reflected on his bald head. Standing in the door of the HIVE, he kept telling us what an interesting topic we had chosen. Eventually, the lead confederate escorted him out.

Of course, not every session went so smoothly. Jonathan C., another early participant, blocked every attempt at natural conversation. He read through the prompts with all the petulance of a child put on time-out. “Hee-haw, hurdy gurdy, hoosie-whatsit,” he pouted. His sheepish, confession-booth eyes scanned across the monitor. I noticed that there was a perfectly oval birthmark right in the center of his forehead.

“What do you do?” I asked.

“I’m an attendant at a fur coat storage facility,” he replied.

I grasped for a segue: “What’s the temperature like in that storage facility?”

“It depends.” He paused. “It depends on the coat.”

Thankfully, Jonathan became more candid during the Noisy Session. As soon as he heard the hiss in the headphones, he began to yell out unprompted: “BECAUSE MY FATHER IS A FAILURE … BECAUSE HE GAVE ME A BAD EMOTIONAL BLUEPRINT! … ” while the staff at the HIVE looked in on the session impassively, ticking off notes on a clipboard.

Far and away the most courteous—if not necessarily the most forthcoming—participants were the veterans. Recruited from two recovery centers in North Philadelphia, they had heard that the study was funded by the Department of Defense, so many of them would frame their participation in terms of responsibility and duty. “We like to help out when we can,” one participant explained to me. Another, Rachel S., imagined that the study would be more formal than it was. Seeing me in the doorway of the HIVE, she burst out laughing. “I thought you’d be some Pentagon guy,” she explained.

A tall, fit man named Oscar M., who limped into the Mermaid Lounge with a brace on his leg, told me that, before the service, he worked as a window cleaner on the skyscrapers in the financial district. Looking through the lounge’s picture window, which looked out onto Center City, he named every building in the skyline. According to Oscar, the daytime head on the Cira Center was so intense the cleaners couldn’t work past ten A.M. When the Noisy Session began, he began to reminisce about his time in the service. He told me about how he finally earned “Shellback Status.” When I said I had no idea what that was, he flashed a nostalgic smile. As his ears flooded with white noise, he described to me the hazing process he had endured. “MAKE YOU SWIM THROUGH GARBAGE, OIL, SPIT ON YOU, PISS ON YOU,” he shouted, trying to make himself heard over the noise. “JUST KEEP SWIMMIN’!” The hiss cut out, signaling the end of the session.

Afterward, I told the lead confederate that it was “interesting” to have so many retirees in the study. “Oh, good!” she said, or tried to say, hindered by her shiny green braces. “I’m glad they’re signing up because a lot of them fit the target demographic.”

“What demographic?” I asked.

There was a loud snap; she clapped her hand to her mouth. Something was wrong with her braces. After standing for a moment, her face twisted into an expression of bewilderment and discomfort, she picked up a pen, scratched something on a Post-It note, and handed it to Stabler.

“Th-the sp-sponsor d-d-doesn’t want y-y-you to kn-know,” he read aloud.

My final participant, Sinclair O., had signed up at the beginning of the study, but he had had to cancel because, as he explained, a trolley had run over his foot. Beneath his large sunglasses, I noticed a cluster of red pimples around his nose and mouth. His whole affect was one of profound irritation.

“Name?” I asked.

“Don’t you already know?” he snapped.

“It’s only a preliminary question,” I said. I saw my reflection in his glasses, sitting behind my monitor, the open window glaring behind me.

Sinclair’s annoyance only deepened during the binary prompts. “Flim-flam, riff raff, hoosie whatsit,” he shook his head. “What is this?” I wasn’t sure how to explain. He laughed nervously. “What are you doin’ with this?” he asked. “Now, now—are you gonna discredit me?”

“Trust me, this isn’t a test,” I assured him. I rushed through the prompts to reach the Natural Session sooner, but that went no better.

“So you’re from Philly?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow, just above the rim of his aviators. “I’m definitely not from Philly,” he said sharply. “I came here just to see my brother. Here I am one year later, tryin’ to go back to Oakland.”

I tried to change the subject. “How’d you find out about the study?”

“Because I’m tryin’ to get out!” he snapped again. “Enough of this place. It’s all the same here, man. People, they can move to Germantown, but it’s the same shit—you just in Germantown now. People think they can move to South Philly, and it’s the same shit—now you in South Philly.” He worked his way through the map of Philadelphia until, all of a sudden, he pointed at his nose. “Man, see this?! I don’t get this shit when I’m in Oakland. This shit on my face is because of Philadelphia.

When the white noise began for the Noise Session, Sinclair immediately pulled off the headphones. “No way,” he said. “Not doin’ that.” This was the first time a participant reacted negatively to the noise. “How ’bout you man?” he asked. “Why you workin’ here?”

“I applied for the job,” I answered weakly.

“Why here, though—I mean, who are you?” He rubbed the clip-on mic between his fingers.

“Well,” I said, trying to remember, “one of the lead linguists here offered me a job. I met him when I worked at a coffee shop.” This was Mark M., who walked around with an ostentatious-looking African cane and tied his stringy white hair together with a headband. “I was reading this book about linguistics and I wrote a word—”

“What word?” Sinclair interrupted.

At this coffee shop, Mark M. had spotted my notebook, where I had written down the word clitics. “Do you know what clitics are?” he’d asked me. I didn’t, and still don’t.

“I don’t remember what word,” I told Sinclair.

The headphones went silent, so we returned to the HIVE in order to sign release forms. Sinclair continued to press me.

“I mean, really, what’s this for?”

“Speech recognition,” I explained. This was the response we had been trained to give. “They’re trying to improve speech recognition.” Sinclair’s face twisted with suspicion. “Listen, I can delete it,” I offered, “but then you won’t get paid.”

“Well,” he countered, “you can say you’re going to delete it, but you might really be saving it somewhere.”

“No, really, I can show you.” I retrieved the microphone on which the conversation had been recorded and showed Sinclair the trashbin icon on the microphone’s interface. Admittedly, it looked dubious.

It can say it’s deleting it,” Sinclair went on, “but it could really be sending it off somewhere and savin’ it for later!”

For a moment, I worried that Sinclair was going to rip the microphone from my hand and smash it on the ground. Instead, he took the confirmation papers from me and calmly signed them. His signature authorized the recording to be used for “any future research.” Below his signature, he added, in florid script: “Remember, be nice!

Timothy Leonido is a writer based in Philadelphia. Other work can be found in Gauss PDF, and is forthcoming in Triple Canopy and Lateral Addition.