The PIXI Project

An apprenticeship in academic research activity

By Gordon Tucker (Cardiff University, UK)

©inTRAlinea & Gordon Tucker (2018).
"The PIXI Project An apprenticeship in academic research activity"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

For Guy Aston, il miglior fabbro

1. Guy Aston and the PIXI project

I first came across Guy Aston – during my ‘lettore’ days in Italy in the early 1980s – when he was pointed out to me at a British Council convention in Bologna. I had heard of him as the editor of a series of publications, which, if I remember rightly, was entitled ‘Papers on Work in Progress’. Keen to write and publish something on language myself, I approached Guy and enquired, “What kind of articles do you take?”. Without even the faintest hint of a smile or any gesture that might have indicated friendliness, he replied tersely, “Good ones!”. And that was the entirety of my first encounter with him.

Arguably, that first brief, awkward – at least for me – encounter marked the embryonic beginnings of my career as a serious university researcher and teacher in the field of linguistics. And it was perhaps the image of that encounter with an august and austere Guy Aston that enticed me to accept, albeit with a degree of trepidation, an invitation to join my close friend and colleague at the University of Pisa, Susan George, as co-researchers on his new PIXI project, for which he had obtained Italian Government funding (Aston, 1988)[1].

Guy brought together a talented group of collaborators from universities across Italy, the prospect of working with whom I immediately found daunting. With no previous experience of working in a research group, in the presence of a number of scholars, many of whom had already made their mark in their respective fields of expertise, I was initially unsure of the potential validity of anything I might contribute. Moreover, I was, and still am, essentially a systemic functional grammarian, and it was difficult to imagine how I might fit in with a group of conversation analysts, pragmaticians, text-linguists and pedagogical applied linguists.

The experience, however, proved to be overwhelmingly positive, due in large measure to Guy’s leadership and guidance as principal investigator. More importantly, particularly for me, it was the immeasurable influence and impact that involvement in the PIXI project had for my own academic career, both as a researcher and teacher. It is not difficult for most of us to identify those individuals - especially teachers, colleagues, friends - whose influence on our careers, or on our thinking in general, has been substantial, both directly and indirectly. In my case, I would have to put Guy extremely high on my list.

So what is it that Guy and the PIXI project taught me, and which shaped my own academic career? In the next few paragraphs, I will attempt to outline some of the attributes that, through his leadership, were key in the activity of the project. I will discuss them under separate headings, and in no particular order.

 2. Data

It is now generally established in most areas of linguistic investigation and theorising that ‘real’ data are paramount. And if we wish to understand how language is organised and how speakers use it to make and exchange (social) meanings, then we must start from data, the data being a record of language in use in context.

The area of social activity providing the focus of the PIXI project was the public service encounter (PSE) in Italian and English, and more specifically customer-assistant encounters in departmental bookshops. The first lengthy, time-consuming stages of the project were (a) data collection, the audio recording of a number of encounters in large departmental bookshops in South-East England and Northern Italy, and (b) their detailed transcription using a modified version of Jefferson’s conventions (Jefferson, 1978), designed primarily for Conversation Analysis (CA). Subsequent work, on the project, on the nature of this kind of service encounter arose out of many hours of discussion of, and attention to, both the recordings and the transcripts. Importantly, the transcripts of the data, constituting what became known as the PIXI Corpora, were published by Gillian Mansfield and Laura Gavioli (1990), thus making them available to the wider research community.

For most of us on the PIXI project, this was our first taste of anything resembling emergent corpus linguistic methodology, with the use of novel computer programs for data analysis, such as the Oxford Concordance Program, albeit at that time only available on university main-frame computers. Certainly, my own research on Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG) at Cardiff University has drawn on and informed by corpus linguistic research (e.g. Tucker, 2005). It is also unsurprising that much of Guy’s subsequent work at the Scuola Superiore di Lingue Moderne per Interpreti e Traduttori (SSLMIT) in Forlì, post-PIXI, has concerned student corpus-based language learning.

3. Inclusivity and Interdisciplinarity

We have often seen a rather exclusive approach to all kinds of linguistic research. By this I mean the exclusive use of a given research paradigm, such as Conversation Analysis or Critical Discourse Analysis, in investigating language.

Despite Guy’s personal preference in the analysis of linguistic phenomena, he brought together as a team, a group of researchers from differing and contrasting theoretical paradigms. As a consequence, discussion and interpretation of the service encounter data were not constrained by the theoretical and descriptive precepts of any given paradigm. In our PIXI discussions, no approach or interpretation was either strongly prioritised or marginalised. Insights from Conversation Analysis, Pragmatics, Systemic Functional Grammar, Intonation Theory etc. could therefore all contribute. The result was not only a far richer understanding of the phenomena under attention, but also a greater understanding on the part of individuals in the group of what approaches other than their own preferred approach could bring. Again, Guy was more than instrumental in not wishing to impose any given paradigm on the research.

4. Shared, equitable collaborator contribution and division of labour

Despite the different competences of PIXI group members and their different status within the Italian university hierarchy, everyone contributed to the same range of tasks, particularly in respect of the lengthy and challenging work of transcribing data. There was therefore no sense of an established hierarchy within the team, which I experienced subsequently in other research projects, where ‘junior’ research assistants carried out most of the work, with ‘senior’ colleagues taking much of the credit in any published work.

5. Presentation and publication of research findings

Those of us who engage in academic research are required to present our findings at national and international conferences and have them published. And for most of us, competence and skills in conference presentation and academic writing have to be learnt and developed, and for that to take place, there must be both opportunity and necessity.  The PIXI project provided us with precisely that. For fledgling researchers, such as myself at that time, oral presentation before our peers is a daunting experience and academic writing is not something that comes naturally. The PIXI research was presented widely and published extensively. And rather than this activity being reserved for those in the group who already had extensive experience, it was shared by all, as chapters from all PIXI group members in Aston (1988) testify. On Guy’s part there was even one immense act of generosity in sending Laurie Anderson and me to present our group’s research to the 1986 TESOL Annual Convention in Anaheim, California – for me, my very first, exciting transatlantic trip to the USA and to a massive international conference, and for Laurie (and me) the opportunity to stay with her parents in nearby Pasadena. Given that project funding constraints permitted a maximum of two colleagues to travel to California, this was truly an act of generosity and selflessness on Guy’s part, who, as principal investigator, would have been unquestionably entitled to travel himself.

6. Collegiality and conviviality

All collaborators played their part and engaged seriously and intellectually in helping to deliver useful and important outcomes from the project. At the same time, despite weekends of intensive discussion and analysis together, with a good mixture of agreement and disagreement, time was also given to traditional Italian conviviality, and after work sessions, we had immense fun together as a group of friends. And rather than the ascetic atmosphere of university rooms and buildings, many of our communal sessions took place in Guy’s home, halfway up an Apennine mountainside, in the Province of Bologna. Our evenings were bucolic, gastronomic and at times perhaps a little too bacchanalian. In winter months, a large fire blazed in Guy’s fireplace, both during daytime project sessions and evening relaxation. The feeling of warmth was both physical and metaphorical; friendships were consolidated and strengthened, and new ones formed.

7. A debt of gratitude

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to that extremely tall and seemingly austere Englishman I first met in Bologna, who became a dear and loving friend and far from austere. It would have been easy for me, in those Italian ‘lettore’ days of the 1980s, to concern myself almost exclusively with university politics and teaching without any contact with or involvement in the world of academic research. But thanks to Guy, and to everyone in the PIXI group, I was given the opportunity of a true apprenticeship in that crucial aspect of university work. When I returned definitively to the United Kingdom in 1986, it was that experience and what I learned from it that provided me with a sound basis for my engagement with linguistic research and, importantly, research-led teaching in the Centre for Language and Communication Research at Cardiff University. 


Aston G. (ed.), (1988), Negotiating service: studies in the discourse of book shop encounters. Bologna, CLUEB.

Gavioli L. & Mansfield G. (eds), (1990), The PIXI corpus: bookshop encounters in English and Italian. Bologna, CLUEB.

Jefferson G. (1978), Explanation of transcript notation. In Schenkein J. (ed.), Studies in the organisation of conversational interaction. New York, Academic Press.

Tucker G.H. (2006), Systemic incorporation. In Thompson G. & Hunston S. (eds), System and corpus: exploring connections. London, Equinox.

About the author(s)

Gordon Tucker, since retirement, is Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University. His research over the past 30+ years has been centred on Systemic Functional Grammar, specialising in corpus-informed approaches to lexis and phraseology.

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©inTRAlinea & Gordon Tucker (2018).
"The PIXI Project An apprenticeship in academic research activity"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL:

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