Leslie Tjing’s course of study at Haverford illustrates the advantages of the College’s curricular relationships with Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore. A double major in linguistics (a Tri-Co department) and growth and structure of cities (a Bryn Mawr department), her joint thesis, “Hedging Discourse: Implications of Federal Reserve Policy Rhetoric,” was advised by professors from each of the College’s partner schools (Bryn Mawr’s Gary McDonogh and Swarthmore’s Ted Fernald).
“My interdisciplinary academic background has set me up for an interesting path down the road,” says Tjing, who is now working in investment services at Brown Brothers Harriman. “I’m constantly seeking to connect the things that I learn, and completing the thesis was a defining experience in my college career that challenged me to do just that.”
What inspired your thesis work?
I’ve always been fascinated by communication. How do we choose and decide what we say? What are the implications of our decisions? While thinking about a joint thesis topic, I became interested in the role of language as a policy-planning tool. Specifically, I wanted to study “purposeful discourse,” where language is, itself, considered an event and where language is heavily regulated. I chose to analyze Federal Reserve policy rhetoric to understand how the Federal Open Market Committee, the Fed’s policymaking body, uses language to communicate its monetary policy decisions through verbal and written discourse. By studying language in this context, I learned about the extent to which language can be controlled to communicate policy and used to condition policy interpretation.
What are the implications for your research?
Transparency in communication is an issue of broad and current interest in today’s increasingly complex world. Since no economist can forecast the economy with 100 percent certainty, economists generally speak with cautious rhetoric and hedge when making economic forecasts. While hedging in academic contexts has been extensively researched, less has been done to critically locate the role of hedges in economic rhetoric, such as economic policy statements. My research builds off a shared concern, which is that inherently conditional predictions are subject to nuanced interpretation. I believe that linguists play a critical role in connecting language and economics. My findings contribute to the larger undertaking of linguistic research on economic policy communication, an area that welcomes, if not demands, further development and research.
What is your biggest takeaway from the project?
My biggest takeaway is that there is more to language than meets the eye—or ear. In certain cases, language can be manipulated and even regulated out of the public eye. Only those conditioned to parse “Fedspeak” are aware of the layers of complexity embedded in what is being communicated. Therefore, it is necessary to question how is language made implicit [or] explicit? Asking this will help you better understand economic statements stories with multiple layers—[which is] far more interesting than thinking of economics as just graphical representations of the world we live in.
Photo: US Federal Reserve
“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.