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Piecemeal Comments on Language and Gender (or PCs)

I currently have the privilege of TAing Intro to linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto and in the previous weeks the students read and discussed connections between language and gender. As the course is a very short introduction to core concepts, students read a piece by Deborah Tannen in which the ideas about difference in childhood language socialization practices turn into consequential communicative differences in adulthood. Of course, for graduate students no reading can be complete without a ‘critique’. In Tannen’s successful attempts to bring the linguistic construction difference to popular audiences, some of the nuances and ambiguities in processes of social differentiation are lost. Normally, the much dreaded analytical move of presenting a “binary” makes any graduate sophisti-cat cringe, however two recent observations have made me call my own reticence into question.

My comments here are piecemeal. Fortunately, the forgiving genre of blogging allows for some discursive space to present thoughts unfolding. My PCs come from day to day observations in interacting with other students. Recently, I have been determined to gather the “pulse” of the study body in effort to prepare for my duties as Student Representative of the SLA to the student caucus of the AAA. I considered directly asking other linguistic types what issues matter to them as students, but then I recalled that I have a set of ethnographic skills that could tell me about what matters most, even without ‘interviewing’. Dubious perhaps, but acceptable under the banner of “preliminary fieldwork”.

PC #1: Process Content

If I had to categorize the content of brief exchanges among students, the overarching label I would apply would be ‘process’. This makes sense given our shared practice is the process of student-ing. We stop for a moment in the hallways to exchange evaluatives like “writing is going so slow” “these applications are never-ending” or “I am just the kind of writer who needs to move around a lot”. We give geographic advice such as “the coffee shop on Shaw Street doesn’t play loud music” or “the construction on the 11th floor of the library has stopped”. In these informal encounters we all stay well within the confines of talking about “working” but never cross over into talking about our work. Seldom do we struggle through a concept or share the subject of our current writing. The risk of saying what it is you do, and not just how you do it, is, to some extent, taboo. In longer interactions, and in smaller groups, this changes however; the bulk of informal talk is process, not product.

I can’t help but wonder, what is at stake in keeping our colleagues at bay when it comes to our thinking and writing? I have noticed that among male future-scholars this line of talk is far less common, with theoretical issues boldly being tabled even in short interactions. I asked a fellow male student what he made of my PC observation and he said it was a very “Canadian” thing. Hailing from the U.S., his observation of the local culture was summed up as: conflict avoidance. He illustrated with a joke, “Why did the Canadian cross the road? To get to the middle”. He felt conflict avoidance was intensified by the female dominant student body who are called to perform ‘congeniality’ in a particular way. Although I enjoyed the joke, I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the language-nation-gender nexus analysis as many of my colleagues are stuck paying international student fees. Perhaps it is just ‘politeness’, but it is worth noting who does the labour of ‘politeness’ at what cost to our own development as thinkers and as a community of knowers.

PC #2: Party Conversations

At a recent soirée for the socio-cultural and linguistic types, I was particularly determined to talk to the language folk about issues pressing to our sub discipline. On the whole, work from our department is characterized as a rapprochement between linguistic and socio-cultural anthropology. For many of us at the party there seemed to be some concern that our work was turning out to be “not that linguistic”. One dynamo from our department summed up what many of us feel by saying that even if the work doesn’t appear ‘linguistic’ in an overt sense; there is an influence, a carefulness, that is reflected in our writing. There is an embedded clarity on the role of language in the reproduction of difference and shaping of present and future experience. Even still, an anxiety persists. What if we are not linguistic enough?

My feelings aren’t that we are strictly consumed with our own future possibilities and the marketability of our knowledge making practices, rather there is a larger desire to have what one does be both ‘recognizable’ and distinct. Why do we believe we, more so than the other sub disciplines, are in jeopardy of not being able to achieve recognition/distinction? Is the investment in distinction necessary? I will say, we are all women (the students) which may or may not have something to add here. These observations are questions rather than conclusions.

Partial Conclusion?

Admittedly, this hasn’t helped me deduce what is on the minds of the student body at large, so I will have to ask you to fill in those gaps for me. Perhaps you have learned more about what is on my mind than anything else (note: not my dissertation). Thinking back to my Intro students and the Tannen article I felt was ‘reductive’, my observations force me to ask, as she does, are men and women, as graduate students, being socialized to and through talk in different ways and with what consequences? Deborah Cameron’s work has underscored the importance of noticing that insofar as men and women’s talk is different, it is also the same. Variability is important to attend to, but the big question is always how and when are differences made significantly different?

2 thoughts on “Piecemeal Comments on Language and Gender (or PCs)”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Piecemeal Comments on Language and Gender (or PCs) – Society for Linguistic Anthropology --

  2. As a European graduate student in the US, I have come to the admittedly unoriginal conclusion that it is practically impossible to have more than a very superficial conversation on theory or the content of our work with North American peers, male or female, Canadians included, and very easy to cut right to the matter with almost everybody else, male or female. The latter may be some effect of bonding by folks who have a similar experience of alienation in light of the former. However, I would tend to blame the reticence to say something substantial, or even controversial, on the fact that North American aspiring academics clearly have a very pronounced orientation toward competition in the labor market. Which would seem to run counter to Tannen.

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