The Underlying Hope of Anthropology: Reflecting on the Work of Jane Hill

This past week, the world of linguistic anthropology – and the world in general, though that world is presumably less conscious of the loss – lost a giant with the death of Jane H. Hill, Professor of Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Arizona. It is an odd thing in academia when a person whose ideas loom large over a field of thought passes away, much like the death of a more popularly influential artist makes some of us return to their work with a renewed sense of its meaning and impact on the world. I never met Jane personally, though my academic lineage traces back to her in a very short line (she was the PhD supervisor of my PhD supervisor). By all accounts I’ve ever heard, in addition to being a brilliant scholar, she was a wonderful human and mentor, and I can only imagine how that loss is felt by the people closest to her. At the time of this writing, her faculty page at the University of Arizona is still active, and on it, she invites students to “join [her] on the tightrope”, where, as she puts it

I attempt a precarious balancing act among diverse commitments: to the detailed documentation of languages and cultures and specialized expertise in technical tools such as comparative linguistic analysis, to the understanding of the scope and diversity of human history that is the glory of anthropology, and to using what I learn to advance social justice and mutual respect among human beings.

In a case of social media producing something right, anthropologist Anthony K. Webster (@ethnopoetics) suggested to the American Anthropological Association on Twitter that, in light of Hill’s death, the organization could provide access to her publications for free – and they did! For six months, any of Hill’s articles from the considerable library of publications housed at AnthroSource are available to access free of charge. Anyone interested in the broad areas of language, culture, and social justice should absolutely take advantage of this opportunity.

This blog is not really the best place for me to even try to highlight the value of these contributions (the upcoming AAA meetings in San Jose are sure to include many such reflections), but I will make a few recommendations about what to read, from that list, as well as additional work.

  1. The Everyday Language of White Racism – I am starting immediately with a book, which is not, of course, made accessible through AnthroSource, but which is too significant not to lead with. This is the book I always go to whenever anyone asks for the one recommendation from my field that I think everyone should read. Hill wrote this book late in her career, based on analysis of online discourses and commentary about various racial issues manifested in language, including slurs, appropriation, and “gaffes”. The title of the book makes clear what this is about – whiteness, and the quotidian ways in which a white racist social order is maintained. Now ten years old, it is dated only in some of the technological details, and I have found that the tools she uses with reference to US contexts are equally relevant for understanding racism in Canada.
  2. “Language, Race, and White Public Space” – American Anthropologist, 1999. This article previews some of the analysis presented in the book above, and fortunately is available for free online. Here, Hill focuses on how language is used not only to construct a negative racial view of non-whites, but also “whiteness as an unmarked normative order”. The discussion of “Mock Spanish” that originates here has become a staple of linguistic anthropology courses, especially in the US, because it so powerfully demonstrates the multifaceted political and social underpinnings of what is initially easy to dismiss as an offhand, casual joke.
  3. “‘Expert Rhetorics’ in Advocacy for Endangered Languages: Who is Listening, and What Do They Hear?” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 2002. This is the article that I refer to most in my own work – without checking, I would put money on it being probably the only piece of writing that I have cited in literally everything I’ve ever published. Hill started her career working with speakers of Mexicano (Nahuatl), and continued her work with Indigenous language advocacy in the Southern US and Mexico throughout her life. In this article, she takes a critical eye on how we talk about Indigenous languages, and how in our efforts to convince people that they should care about this sometimes difficult-to-articulate issue, we inadvertently reinforce colonial power structures and the very marginalization that we aim to counteract. This is an example of the best kind of anthropological critique, to my mind: while we can often become cynical or righteous in ‘tearing down’ the efforts of well meaning folks around us, a call to re-examine how we do our work, from a place of love and valuing of the goals of our advocacy effort, is often needed.
  4. “The Grammar of Consciousness and the Consciousness of Grammar” American Ethnologist, 1985. This one is for those of you who are fully on board the linguistic anthropology train already, as it includes a lot of theoretical discussion of how to think in relation to both structural grammar and political economy. It is, however, definitely one that is worth engaging with in order to gain a more advanced understanding of these interrelated systems of power, and it’s a reminder for those of us who are students of language, in whatever form (linguistic, anthropological, or otherwise), that our object of study is one that is deeply intertwined with a political world.

Hill’s writing is definitely with an academic tradition, but it’s relatively accessible. I’ve used all but the last of the above articles in my undergraduate classes, and even included chapters from The Everyday Language of White Racism in a first year course. Revisiting her work reminds me of why I do what I do, and to keep in mind the “balancing act” that she highlights, with a commitment to creating a more just world acting as the centre of gravity that orients my study of both linguistics and anthropology. The echo and imprint of her time in the world is a great one, and it gives me something to aspire to.

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Should you major in Cultural Anthropology?

A first-year student in my Anthropology 101 course emailed to let me know that they found the class readings intriguing and that they loved to learn about cultural values, stories, and traditions from around the world. Their email ended with a question: Can you tell me what kind of jobs there are for graduates of (cultural) anthropology?

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a student ask me this and I thought my first post on this blog (see the editor’s post about bringing a cultural anthropologist to the group) might address this question for anyone thinking of majoring in cultural anthropology.

There are lots of great resources out there that discuss careers for Anthropologists: such as the American Anthropological Association’s page on advancing one’s career, but few discuss tangible skills gained by students graduating with an Anthropology BA.

As a cultural anthropologist, I think anthropology graduates can do any job that requires  someone trained in the social sciences; that is, an anthropology graduate can think critically, wade through lots of data and identify the important information, they can communicate, they can problem solve, and have had experience working toward time/project deadlines. While cultural anthropologists study similar topics and fields to sociologists, we tend to receive more qualitative data analysis training, with a focus on ethnography, rather than quantitative training.

From my work experience in for- and non-profit organizations, I find anthropology graduates have the unique ability to appreciate difference (they can identify and acknowledge that there are different ways of living, leading, and learning, etc.) and, they have learned how to be self-reflexive – both skills are features of ethnographic methodology.

These skills have been discussed elsewhere as facets of a ‘Tolerance of Ambiguity’ (TOA). Psychologists DeRoma, Martin and Kessler (2003) define TOA according to Budner as “an individual’s propensity to view ambiguous situations as either threatening or desirable” (105). Put simply, if you have a low tolerance for ambiguity, you will not be comfortable with situations or people who are different that you. Likewise, sociologist Donald Levine argues that tolerance, and intolerance, are learned, context-dependent and something experienced ‘between people’. These theories signal the importance of being open to difference and acknowledging one’s own cultural context.

Important for our anthropology graduates, employers have identified the benefits of flexibility and adaptivity in their quest to hire university graduates with transferable skills. Minocha, Hristov, and Leahy-Harland 2018 argued that acquiring such traits create a global-ready workforce. In the recent study by Fewster and O’Connor, the authors found that “individuals who ha(d) a higher tolerance of ambiguity (would) be more productive and responsive in the volatile, uncertain and complex world of work, and experience increased job satisfaction, and overall well being” (2017: 2). In this report, the authors identify ‘cultivating curiosity’ as a trait individuals could focus on to develop their level of TOA. Cultivating curiosity is defined as:

“Cultivating curiosity in the workplace was also found to be a trait that people could focus on to develop their TOA. These behaviours centre around interacting with others and include effectively communicating and listening to co-workers; when problems arise, asking questions that encourage curiosity and if confronted with resistance from others, asking questions that lead to identifying possible solutions rather than dwelling on the past. Collaboration is also important including behaviours such as encouraging  participation from others, posing questions, creating strong professional relationships and networks for diversity of thought, sharing ideas and being open to connect the ideas of different people” (Fewster and O’Connor 2017: 9).

Anthropology graduates have spent their entire undergraduate careers cultivating such curiosity in their search to understand the ways in which human beings live their lives similarly and differently around the globe. Taking a holistic and comparative perspective comes naturally for our graduates, as these skills have been honed over time.

In The Teaching of Anthropology, Cora Du Bois argues that TOA is one of the attitudes that anthropologists as teachers need to foster in their  students (1963:37). She describes this attitude as “a capacity to entertain uncertainty, to cope with paradox, to allow for the indeterminate” (Du Bois 1963: 37).  There are many opportunities for anthropology instructors to facilitate and develop such skills in their students through in-class activities (e.g. through discussions that entice self-reflection) and through both summative and formative assessment strategies (e.g. comparative analysis, field prep tasks, etc.) throughout students’ undergraduate careers.

So what do Anthropology graduates have that other undergraduates might not? In addition to all those skills gained from a university degree, they have the unique ability recognize and appreciate difference, to critically reflect on internal logic (systems in place) and, to adapt to situations that are different from what they or their company may be used to.

But there is one caveat.

Cultural anthropology as a sub-discipline is pretty terrible at its Public Relations and it suffers from a bit of self-doubt among other established social science disciplines. Applied anthropologists (a group that I also identify with) tend to run in separate circles from cultural anthropologists (although I believe there is more of an overlap between applied and archaeology and biological anthropology) and therefore, not all cultural anthropologists working in academia are skilled at telling their students what their transferable skills are and how they can capitalize on an anthropology degree.

Employers want their next employee to have a university degree, and our graduates will need to tell them why a degree in anthropology has made them the better/best candidate.

Editor’s Comment: The Cultural One, Jennifer Long will write a future reflection on her experiences as an applied anthropologist in the areas of program evaluation, market research, and as a qualitative researcher-for-hire.

If any reader wants to know more about what applied anthropologists do, they could visit these websites:
https://www.applied-anthropology.com/

https://www.sfaa.net/annual-meeting/

These links provide a brief overview into the work of various applied anthropologists.

Assessing Value: Reflections on the Royal Alberta Museum

I spend a lot of time these days angry; there is so much to be rightfully angry about and I want to write about it all but don’t have enough fucks. Sometimes writing isn’t the best way to respond, however, in this case I know that the only way I might be heard is to write about it. So what has me so angry that I am actually writing about it? This “review” of the newly opened Royal Alberta Museum (a.k.a. the RAM). This opening was a much anticipated event; the original RAM closed its doors to the public after a wonderful 48 hour long celebration in December 2015.

My attention was first drawn to the opinion piece via Facebook, when many friends who had not yet visited the museum expressed their hesitation to visit after it received such a negative review. As someone who has eagerly awaited the opening, who also knows several people who work for the museum, and also has research communication, particularly that of cultural heritage, as an expertise I felt compelled to comment, which I did:

fb re museum

Now that I’ve visited the RAM I have much much more to say about the opinion piece and why I think it is unfair and misguided.

First, it is challenging to calculate and negotiate cost versus value when assessing cultural and natural resources. As I’ve been discussing with my Issues in Archaeological Methods and Interpretation (Anth395) course students, yes archaeologists are involved in assessing the significance of cultural resources and yes this should include considering the economic significance of said resource BUT it represents only one aspect, is one criteria under which significance or value is assigned.

Yes a museum is a building that requires raw materials, resources, time, energy, labour, and effort to build. These are costly and sure one could reduce them by sourcing alternative materials, cutting down on square footage, etc. BUT a museum is NOT just a building. It is a place. Yes the RAM is a beautiful building; I love its overall design and layout. It has great curb appeal with design features that connect it to other buildings in our downtown cultural hub (the Art Gallery of Alberta, the Winspeare, the Citadel Theatre, the Shaw Conference Center, Churchill Square, City Hall, the under-construction downtown branch of the Edmonton Public Library, Ice District, Rogers Place, MacEwan University); it just “fits” in yet is unique. But a building does not make a place – a place is made by people for people.

The RAM is all about people. I would encourage my colleagues at the museum to share their stories over the next few months and years; the public need to hear about how decisions were made, how much time, effort, and intellectual and emotional labour went into creating a place for everyone to experience – in their own way. Note that I say experience not “enjoy”. Some parts of the museum will not be enjoyed and are not meant to be enjoyed; the section on residential schools, for example, should make us uncomfortable (the part of the opinion piece on the residential school display is particularly problematic but I’ll return to that in a second). How you experience the RAM is up to you and this is a good thing. Other than having to enter or exit through the one entrance to each gallery, you can wander through each gallery however you would like. It also doesn’t matter which order you visit the galleries in. I was there with my five year old and so we just took in whatever caught her eye. I asked her what she wanted to do after reading the titles of the gallery. She made the decisions including when to leave each gallery (so we didn’t actually see everything but that’s what multiple visits are for). Having her take the lead, which she loved, worked because we weren’t forced to go in any particular order nor were there any narratives or descriptions that were unclear if you went through the “wrong way” or “missed” reading something else in the same space. I get that some people won’t like this – they want a “story” that has a start, middle, then end but this approach means telling only one story. How can the curators choose a single narrative? Which one is the “correct” one? Should they choose the “epic” or “dramatic” story as our opinion piece author implies ensuring that “colour” is added to keep the attention of the viewer?

What the author of the opinion piece misses is that this is a museum where the visitor can connect with the objects presented in a way that is meaningful to them. Instead the author states “The whole point of a provincial museum is to highlight the things that make Alberta special. Instead, most of the square footage is devoted towards cataloguing quotidian aspects of Alberta life that existed pretty much everywhere.” This is only one kind of purpose for a museum. Yes things that are special should be celebrated in a provincial museum, but as an archaeologist I also recognize that the “quotidian aspects” are ALSO very important when it comes to understanding and connecting with our past. As James Deetz (1977:161) argues

it is terribly important that the “small things forgotten” be remembered. For in the seemingly little and insignificant things that accumulate to create a lifetime, the essence of our existence is captured. We must remember these bits and pieces, and we must use them in new and imaginative ways so that a different appreciation for what life is today, and was in the past, can be achieved.”

It is in these small things, like the canning equipment, radios, and benches the author so disdains, that people connect with the past. For example, last summer when we excavated at Mill Creek Ravine we excavated three GWG buttons and, having owned an excellent pair of their jeans, I was SO excited. One can then imagine my delight in seeing a WHOLE room dedicated to this made-in-Edmonton brand! When my kid asked why I wanted to “look at clothes” I told her about the buttons we’d found (at a site she’d visited several times) and she became excited too. I can imagine other small and large things throughout their galleries that will capture the excitement of one individual and go unnoticed by another. AND THAT’S OK!

FYI: My kid loved the megafauna fossils and reconstructions, in particular the Giant Ground Sloth – after our visit she climbed the stairs in our house “like a sloth”. She also loved putting her face on rocks, playing with kinetic sand, and seeing the tiny baby bear that looked like a dog. We left when she grew tired but only agreed to leave when I promised we’d return again so she could explore more things.

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My kiddo loved this Mantis Shrimp, squealing with glee when it poked its head out to check her out.

Also the author’s suggestion that visitors “could have gazed in horror at a scene of a Cree village plunged into famine when those bison disappeared” is just gross (side note: if you want to understand the importance of bison, go visit Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a World Heritage Site). There are other ways to get at the horrors of colonialism without exploiting our indigenous peoples’ suffering and reinforcing colonial narratives at the same time. For example, my favourite part (aside from the GWG exhibit) was the respect and honour given to Manitou Asinîy and to the Elders who provided teachings on this sacred being. The intentional, consistent, and thoughtful recognition of indigenous peoples and being on Treaty 6 territory and the traditional lands of many indigenous people, the acknowledgement of the teachings of Elders that informed the presentation of items, and the use of indigenous language, images, and voices IS powerful and important. As I mentioned in my pre-visit Facebook post, the author also missed the point when they state:

Among the small number of artifacts chosen to represent the province’s gut-wrenching history of residential schools, one of them is literally a pile of the bricks used to build one of the schools. It’s not the only artifact on display, but it’s telling that bricks made the cut. It’s like representing a gulag by simply displaying a bunch of plates and saying “here are the plates that gulag prisoners used.”

In my opinion, residential schools should be physically reduced to a pile of bricks. This was an exceptional choice because it is not the building that is the focus but the stories of those who experienced them that is highlighted an emphasized. If the author was less focused on assigning dollar signs to “tacky kitsch, random antiques and straight-up garbage” they might have instead sat and scrolled through the haunting images present on the interactive displays or listened to the stories of resilience told by those who survived that can be heard in that space.

Sure, maybe the names of well known provincial figures Nellie McClung and Peter Lougheed are missing at the RAM (I didn’t see them but honestly didn’t look for them either). But that’s okay; they are present on buildings, schools, and/or statues/monuments and are part of the curriculum across the province so we won’t forget them anytime soon. They also are part of our colonial heritage – figures that have loomed large in a particular narrative about Alberta’s past – so maybe this new museum is shedding light on others that were previously made invisible by their absence from these kinds of spaces. This again is why the treatment of Manitou Asinîy is so profound and important – it can be visited by anyone free of charge; it is also explicitly described and presented as spiritually significant. It is an object, a being, a rock, a spirit, a story that cannot be assigned any monetary value.

Finally, this opinion piece fails to acknowledge the people – the curators, workers, consultants, teachers, Elders, designers, educators, etc. – who worked on this museum. Their labour is valuable and I bet their wages made up an important chunk of the budget. As previously stated I hope we hear more from them as the RAM settles into its place in our community. We need to make sure that funding for the RAM to grow and change, to represent different voices, and to share more of the small things that tell the stories of our province (see Dr. Shulist’s post on what is really lost when museums don’t get funded adequately and consistently).

So to those who hesitated to go to the RAM, I say go. Have your own experience – that is what it is there for – and assess its value in a way that is meaningful to you.

To the author of the opinion piece, I’ll acknowledge it as that – your opinion – but I’ve decided to not value it as worth the paper it was printed on.

Editor’s Comment: I’m glad to see the Archaeology One sufficiently fired up to provide us with a critical, engaging post after her long, but much needed, break from blogging. While I’m optimistic that we’ll hear from her again soon (maybe about her field work from this summer hint hint), I believe that rather than waiting for her next post at my desk with my red pen poised and ready to edit whatever swear-ridden rant she throws my way, I’ll take advantage of my downtime to visit the RAM and the other downtown places she mentions in her post. Well argued Dr. Biittner.

 

 

Reference Cited: Deetz, J. 1977. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Anthropology As Announcement: We Have a New One!

It’s been a busy start to the new (academic) year, despite the lack of actual visible activity on this blog, as we’ve had some behind-the-scenes action (which mean the editor actually did some entirely non-sarcastic work, check it out!). The big change we have is that we have a New One on board as a contributor to the Anthropology As Universe. Dr. Jennifer Long joined the MacEwan anthropology department in July, and because we knew she had a history of blogging, and was generally awesome, we basically made her join our team. Dr. Long will be “The Cultural One” around here, and will bring that perspective to her observations about, well, whatever she feels like observing about.

We’ve added an introduction to “The Cultural One” on the “About Us” page, where you can learn more about Dr. Long’s research and teaching interests. As we all do, Dr. Long has a few ideas in her head about topics to cover and her first posts will undoubtedly magically spring from her brain on to the virtual page any minute now.

We also remain open to guest posts from anthropologists and anthropology students, so if you think this might be a good space for you to mouth off in, fire us a comment here and we’ll talk!

 

On What Was Really Lost in the Fire

As everyone almost certainly knows by now, just over a week ago, the Brazilian Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro burned, with massive damage and the complete destruction of huge proportions of an extensive collection of irreplaceable artifacts, fossils, documents, and artwork. No one thinks this is anything less than a tragedy, though people have varying levels of anger about it – some seem to see it as an unfortunate accident, others (who know more about Brazil, including most Brazilians) are quick to focus rage on decades of neglect by a series of governments, who at best just didn’t care enough about maintaining this building and its contents.

I’m writing this to call attention to another level of anger, which is mainly being expressed by Indigenous people, and which I’ve briefly commented about on Twitter and elsewhere. This anger is about why we allow so much cultural knowledge and linguistic information, not to mention sacred and/or valuable artifacts, from Indigenous peoples around the world, to be housed in singular buildings run by colonial governments in the first place? Why do we accept the assumption that these organizations are inherently better at “preserving” this information than the communities themselves? Why do we uncritically act as though, despite the fact that anything in a museum is inherently removed from its context and active role in the community from which it was taken, this form of “preservation” is a priority?

Fire_at_Museu_Nacional_05
Photo by Felipe Milanez, Creative Commons License (source). In addition to showing the fire, the image includes the looming figure of Dom Pedro II, the last monarch of the colonial Empire of Brazil.

At this point it’s worth stepping back to ask who the “we” is in those above questions. There is only a certain proportion of “us” who have accepted or advocated for these things, or made these assumptions. Because as I noted, many Indigenous people reacted to this with one common statement – repatriate. Return museum materials to their rightful owners. Reprioritize – instead of emphasizing access for outside, mainly European-descended, people and some kind of ideal of “global human knowledge”, consider the needs and values of living Indigenous cultures and languages. The “we” in these discourses generally refers to white academics. So much of what was lost, the stuff that can’t be recovered (like the entire linguistics section of the museum, containing the only documentation of several languages that have no remaining speakers), was Indigenous knowledge. It’s one thing to lament the loss to our (there’s that word again) knowledge of language in general, and it’s completely another to consider what this loss means to the community that spoke that language and how devastating it is to see the elimination of essentially any chance at reawakening it.

I’m angry about this. I’m angry at governments who build museums to preserve and publicize knowledge and then neglect them. I’m angry at centuries of colonial theft that has built these museums, trapped thousands of different types of hostages inside, just waiting for the spark to light them on fire. And I’m angry at my disciplines, in which we continue to treat language documentation and preservation in buildings far away from the people who can or would use the language as a substitution for supporting reclamation and revitalization. Digitization is a major step forward, and documentary work can be done in a way that is profoundly community-oriented. But it doesn’t have to be, and there is plenty of academic reward involved in perpetuating the old “salvage” model of linguistics, the one that puts this information into archives and museums. The fire is really the logical end point of anthropology as colonial enterprise, in which we take Indigenous worlds, reduce them to paper, lock them away where they can’t be actively used, allow them to burn, and then feel sorry for ourselves because we lost that source of academic insight.

My anger is superseding most everything else as I write this, but I should say that I do understand the value of museums. Public scholarship matters, and museums serve as an excellent corrective to navel gazing research and publication circles in which we carry on an abstract theoretical debate with two or three other researchers over the course of our entire careers. Not everything in a museum, including not everything in the Museu Nacional, has been stolen from Indigenous people. I feel little guilt for deeply appreciating, for example, a museum filled with dinosaurs, and wanting to know more about the scientific discovery of knowledge about them. But at the same time, I think this conversation needs to move beyond how to create better fire proofing for a colonial museum, or how to ensure that governments care about museums in general. For some, the fire was the last stage of a loss that began a long time ago, and until it happened, too few of us in academia were engaging seriously with that loss.

Language is Social: A Quick, Slightly Angry, Introduction by Way of Media Response

A couple of articles have crossed my Twitter path in the last few days that are, from a linguistic anthropological perspective, shockingly ignorant. They come not from random people writing about language, but actually from prominent academics, including linguists. I’m writing this in response to those articles/discussions, first in order to give a very basic, accessible rebuttal to them, and second in order to illustrate a very frustrating pattern of thinking about language from a limited, asocial perspective.

The first example is really low-hanging fruit, come from Steven Pinker, who despite his status as a Harvard cognitive scientist, frequently demonstrates a remarkable lack of intellectual curiosity or willingness to engage beyond his assumptions. He tweeted:

There are several layers about this that are fundamentally incorrect, including the idea that Plato believed that words held limited power (Plato was in fact very concerned about the potential power of speech and art). It’s also highly debatable as to what one should call “the first insight of linguistics” — there’s no reason to discuss Plato as a linguist, or to dismiss insights about language that come from outside of a very limited conceptualization of what counts as a canonical tradition of knowledge. And at the core, the statement is a fundamentally incorrect one – the idea that words are conventions doesn’t nullify their power. Taboo words, ritual words, even everyday bits of interaction like ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ cannot be explained and expressed through a mere reference to conventional representation (a form of meaning we call “denotation”). The meaning of so much of language depends entirely on how it is used and what it does socially. In addition to really well known theoretical formulations of this concern (e.g. JL Austin’s How to do Things with Words), this premise drives almost the entire field of linguistic anthropology. Language isn’t made of ‘words’ detached from their use and effect in the world – rather, it is a social and interactional practice that has immense power, “magical” and otherwise.

This is in no way a new insight, nor a particularly challenging one – which brings me to my second example, an article that came in to my feed when it was tweeted by the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) entitled “Scientists Advocate New Approach to Linguistic Research”. This new approach? That context matters in understanding meaning.

I know. Shocking, right? The article gives the example that the statement “every night I drink a glass of wine before I go to bed” would be interpreted differently if the speaker is a ten year old girl (than if, presumably, it is an adult speaking). Which is to say – the meaning of language doesn’t rest strictly on denotative content of component ‘words’, but rather requires interpretation of information about speaker identities, interlocutors, setting, etc. It goes on to say that psychological research on the processing of meaning should look at more ‘natural’ use, recognizing that laboratory environments deliberately strip context from the situation. My problem with this, of course, has nothing to do with the content of the observation – this is all 100% true. My problem lies with the claim that this is new, because it’s literally the entire basis of more than one academic (sub)discipline (linguistic anthropology, sociology of language, sociolinguistics…), not to mention of any number of Indigenous philosophical frames of thought about meaning,

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Self portrait of the author when reading this article today.

language, and society. The article and the LSA has been dragged on Twitter pretty quickly for exactly this reason, and while it enrages me that there are apparently linguists who think a) this is insightful and b) the best collaborators for this project come from the disciplines of “neurosciences, psychology, …and biology”, it’s worth noting there are also plenty of linguists, including those in the non-socio subfields, offering this critique.

These two stories share more than just a mockability factor of 10/10, though – they’re both based in a view of ‘meaning’ that is about words and conventional ‘definitions’. This is a position that is really pervasive in Western contexts, reproduced in educational practice, and manifested in the relationship that people have to texts like dictionaries (note here that I don’t mean the goal of lexicographers themselves – the people who make dictionaries can be profoundly aware of the instability and complexity of the meanings that they try to reduce to a clear definition and a few example sentences – but rather to the way laypeople come to use the dictionary to tell them ‘what a word means’). It also emerges frequently in fields like developmental psychology, where discussions of toddlers’ linguistic practices centres on counting the words that they know and use (or, as Nelson Flores critiques so thoroughly, counting the words that their caregivers apparently expose them to). And, of course, it emerges in discourses about racial slurs, as prominent authors like Pinker are disdainful of the very basic idea that some words carry a great deal of power to hurt, or that the meaning of these expressions is fundamentally altered by the identity of the speaker using them.

Thinking about language as a socially situated practice is actually really important in any number of ways, but this basic insight can still be dismissed, not only by laypeople, but by academic researchers and policy makers. At the very least, getting angry about things like that helps to remind me why I do linguistic anthropology, and why it matters.

Student Guest Post: 10 things I wish I knew in my first semester as a first gen student

Editor’s Note: This post was sent to use by one of our Anthropology Honours students, Brieal M-T (@mxmoireabh for the Twitter savvy), who has been very open with us and with their classmates about the challenges they have faced in university as a result of multiple factors of their identity and experiences. Because they are a helpful soul, they are passing on what they have learned through several years of hard work here, and this is a great resource to send along to incoming students. In discussing academia, academic life, and things like the “hidden curriculum”, we often implicitly or explicitly exclude undergrads from the discussion, but in fact the challenges to accessibility and the hiding of the curriculum certain affect them, and deserve to be addressed in the conversation about how to support first generation scholars and otherwise marginalized folks.

If you’re into Academic Twitter you’ve probably seen the #hiddencurriculum hashtag making its rounds, but especially this past weekend. The first time I personally saw the hashtag was in reference to this Tweet:

https://twitter.com/travisclau/status/1021442146459684864

I was, uh, a bit salty about the language used that (to me) assumes horizontal networking begins in grad school, and immediately sent the Tweet to a group chat I’m in with some other anthropology students with the caption “Anyways I’m constantly frustrated by the idea that undergrad work isn’t academic work, thus we’re usually excluded from hidden ac talks, but anyways this is important.” Finding people with whom I can connect to as fellow students has been fantastic, and while the majority of this post was written as a personal exercise over a year ago I’m only able to share it now because I’ve been able to speak with other students and refine what all may be useful to others. While having friends who aren’t students is important as well, being able to connect with people who are experiencing some of the same stresses is invaluable!

Some backstory on me: I’m a white, queer, disabled, first-gen university student (there’s a lot of trades tickets and technical diplomas in my fam, but I’ll be the first to get a university degree), and I almost wasn’t even that because I dropped out of high school 3 semesters in primarily due to illness. While I eventually got my GED in order to attend a local technical institute, the entry requirements for the program I wanted to apply for (bakery sciences) changed literally the year I went to apply, and I’ve never actually been able to use my GED for much of anything except being proud that I eventually did get it (which is useful! I’m not knocking it!).

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s/o to my local WalMart for somehow having robes that semi-sorta fit me  [Editor: Aw, baby BMT!]
As a first-gen student hidden academia and hidden curriculum begins the moment we apply for university (ex. I applied to 3 universities between my first semester and the time I got into my BA program, and didn’t know those fees could have been waived/reduced had I contacted the respective registrar’s offices prior to my application). While there’s always going to be things I feel unprepared for moving forward in my academic career I can’t thank the mentors in my life enough for helping me wade through the muck. Being aware that there’s always going to be something I can’t be aware of is an unbelievably important skill that was unfortunately hard-won. Like the title of this post implies, here’s a few things I wish I knew before starting my degree/have subsequently stubbed my toes on a few times in order to learn…

Planning ahead:

  1. Assume that you’re going to get sick, and try to coordinate assignments accordingly.
    • Basically: sit down at the beginning of the semester with the syllabus and plan out how and when you plan to complete assignments. This is… honestly a slog… but it’s a slog that’s absolutely invaluable when it comes to actually getting your work done. Make sure you choose a calendar that you’ll actually look at regularly! I plan my assignments out using the default calendar app on my phone, in addition to in a bullet journal.
  2. Pick profs who you know aren’t assholes (this can be tough, especially if whatever you’re passionate about happens to be a department filled with assholes, BUT there will always be kind profs in any field–find them and stick with them as much as possible). Be mindful that not every prof fits every student, and speak to as many people about their experiences in someone’s classroom as possible!
  3. If your institution has an SSD (services for students with disabilities) office then go! to! them! Even if you don’t think your disability is “severe” enough to require accommodation it’s still a good idea to be assessed by a learning specialist and have them provide suggestions of how you may be better set up for success moving forward.
    • Sometimes people/things who are meant to help us end up hurting us, so can’t stress enough how important it is to find other people with similarly marginalized aspects of identity who have taken classes with specific professors (and also subsequently worked within your university’s structures) and talk to them about their experiences. Take them out for lunch, or grab a coffee together! Even if they can’t help you, at least you’ve made a friend!
  4. Campuses are awful! All of them! I would be shocked to learn of a campus that unilaterally supports every student’s transportation needs. To that end: When you settle on your classes each semester take the time before Day 1 to walk (as slow as is physically possible) between said classes to make sure you know where they are/will have time to get to where you need to be even on the worst days.
  5. Don’t live on-campus? Invest in a fucking locker. Yes, seriously.
    • In my first year out of campus housing I used my locker all of, maybe, 5 times? but those 5 times were so helpful that the locker cost was 100% worth it. I can’t stress enough: books are heavy, and your back WILL eventually revolt. If you can’t afford a locker on your own find a buddy to split the costs with! Apply for a remittance! Anything! Just save your back the trouble!

Find the things that help you succeed:

  1. Use whatever tech helps you, and don’t let profs tell you you’re doing it wrong.
    • I get wicked migraines, and have found that using a red screen overlay is an unbelievably simple (but effective) tool for preventing migraines/something that sometimes allows me to work throughout a migraine! Amber tinted glasses work in much the same way (thanks to Jamie for this suggestion)!
    • I use my phone for all of my digital readings, and on days where I can’t use my laptop for whatever reason for drafting as well (actually this entire post was written using my phone). Programs I find helpful for phone-study are Foxit PDF, Microsoft OneNote, Google Drive (suite), and both of my uni’s apps. I’ve also bookmarked the university login portal to my homescreen in case the app doesn’t work. Generally I download readings, then upload them again to my Google Drive for easy access.
    • I’ve found that sometimes writing just isn’t possible. Investing in a decent speech-to-text program can be invaluable. The program I use primarily is Dragon Naturally Speaking Home Edition 12 (my dad and I split the cost of an OEM edition so we could get multiple product keys at a discount), but honestly I’ve used the Android speech-to-text function on my phone and it’s functionable once you get used to it!
  2. If you study better with background noise: make a huge-ass playlist to turn to on the regular so you’ve got tunes on-hand and don’t always have to look for things to put you in a good studying headspace.
    • My current “Studytime” playlist in Spotify is almost 13 hours long, and primarily made up of intrumental video game OSTs, for example.
  3. Audiobooks are great, and an absolutely fantastic way to experience texts. Librivox is useful for public domain things (check Project Gutenberg for text versions), and Audible is worth it (ime) for novels. On occasion articles can be found being read aloud on YouTube from conference presentations (sometimes this means you’re missing some of the article, but in a crunch it works). Also don’t be afraid to contact the library about ordering materials in for you! Librarians are there to help!
  4. Talk to profs about handing in alternative assignments. This is something that goes with “research your prof”/”stick with who you know” but honestly if Twitter essays/podcasts/blogs/whatever are easier for you and allow you your highest chance of success then the risk in asking is worth it.
    • I’ve found that when I provide a portfolio/reference of my previous work in a medium profs tend to be more willing because they can then see how I’ve succeeded in the past. Keep track of your old notes and assignments! You never know when they’ll come in handy!

Finally:

  • Don’t give up. Or do. Sometimes people are unwilling to work with you, or your body really can’t take anymore, or whatever. Knowing your own boundaries/limitations is important! Listen to your body!
    • Note: I’ve unfortunately had to drop (without refund) an incredible number of classes because I tend to think with my good day brain instead of my bad day brain. The financial fallout from that has been fucking terrible, but overall it’s better than burning out and having to drop out entirely sans-degree. A few semesters ago I finally spoke to a case worker through my school’s mental health services office who was able to help me better plan my resources (including time!) going forward, and while the success rate with that isn’t 100% I’m still better off today for having accessed that resource than I would be if I hadn’t.

If you have the time and energy I can’t recommend reading through the #hiddencurriculum tag on Twitter enough. I’ve seen a lot of GREAT threads offering reading suggestions, and so many people offering their own personal narratives as insight (like I’ve [hopefully] done here!).

University is unnecessarily complex most of the time, so regardless of what you find works for you stick to it!(!!) Don’t be afraid to reach out!(!!) Kick ass!(!!) I believe in you!(!!)

I’d like to thank everyone who took the time to proofread this post for me, including: a few people who would rather remain anonymous, my friend Jamie Elyse, and my Mum (yes, really)!