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Developing Expertise

By Mark Allen Peterson (MiamiU)

Journalist Alix Spiegel’s feature story “When Did We Become Mentally Modern?” on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered in August 2010 raised a wide-ranging discussion on the Linganth listserv about the expertise of linguistic anthropologists. While a well-intentioned effort, its descriptions of language and semiotics were… simplistic—to be generous. The story claimed human language was “entirely composed of these arbitrary symbols”—even when many of the examples used were non-arbitrary indexes.

Spiegel did interview an anthropologist—Dr. Allison S. Brooks of George Washington University, a respected paleoanthropologist who often contributes to debates on when homo sapiens originated. It is no doubt her public voice on this issue that led the media to invite her to discuss the nature of language and semiotic systems—issues that are central to anthropological linguistics.

Lumping all signifiers together as arbitrary symbols is not only an empirical error but can undermine an understanding of the roles language may have played in the emergence of a “modern” human. These are issues linguistic anthropologists can speak to—but we are not asked.

One thing is painfully clear: Linguistic anthropology has a public relations problem. The media does not come to linguistic anthropologists. Our expertise on language, collective and individual, is not established. What do we do about this?

Many of us have found letters to editors and producers ineffective. Most media organizations choose letters from the topics that attract the most interest. More importantly, media organizations rarely choose experts from letter writers.

Media organizations get their “experts” primarily from three sources: people with whom they’ve worked before, people recommended, like by university public affairs offices, and by searching the Internet.

Kerim Friedman, writing on the Linganth listserv, suggested an experiment: “pick five or six keywords related to your research and try searching for them on Google. Be sure to use search terms that a non-specialist would use to find information on this topic. Do you see your name on any of the top search pages?”

If not, there are fixes. Google and other search engines are not magic. They prioritize hits on the basis of very specific criteria.

First, maintain an updated home page with links to full-text PDF files of your journal articles (or to abstracts and to publisher’s web sites), your syllabi, and accounts of your ongoing research.

Second, blog. A blog is an incredibly powerful tool for creating a presence on the net. If you are not sure what to blog about, try writing short accessible versions of your articles or books, discuss conferences or other speaking events you’ve attended, write informed commentary on current issues in the news, and start conversations with colleagues on key topics by inviting them to guest blog or to comment. Of special value are issues that have wide public interest like sign language, language evolution or English-only legislation.
Flog pieces that might be of general interest to your university communications office, and any media outlets you think might be interested (including alternative media). Also publish these pieces here on the SLA Blog.

Update Wikipedia pages with anthropological content. Add your knowledge to topics, and insert your publications as references in relevant articles. Link it to the journal website or other on-line archive where your paper can be found. Some professors assign wikipedia edits as part of course homework, both to increase the value of articles and to teach students how such articles are produced.

Use social media. If you have social media accounts with sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Linked-In, Tumblr or Posterous, make sure you regularly post updates of your work, your blogs, and links related to your research. Consider joining academic social networking groups like Academici, Methodspace and MyNetResearch.

Add content to User-generated multi-media content such as podcasts and videos are increasingly popular and there are several academic channels maintained by universities and academic publishers.

In all of this, use the link economy. Most search engines use the number of links on a web page to prioritize the sites they display. Link your web pages, blogs and other pages to each other and to those of as many respected colleagues and organizations as possible (especially to!).

Expertise is not just an achieved status we have as scholars and researchers; it is also a discursive construct whose authority is rooted in specific communicative genres: not only scholarly publications but quotations by others as signs of recognition. The Internet is an powerful indexical interweaving of quotations—and if you wish you can make many of those quotations direct searchers to your expertise.

You can hear (and read) the NPR story at

(This is an expanded version of the Jan 2011 SLA column in Anthropology News)