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SLA Endowment for John Gumperz Annual Graduate Student Essay Prize

The Society for Linguistic Anthropology is pleased to announce, through a very generous gift from Jenny Cook-Gumperz, the establishment of an endowment fund in honor of John Gumperz (1922-2013) that will provide the prize awarded annually to the winner of the SLA’s graduate student essay contest, now renamed the John Gumperz Annual Graduate Student Essay Prize.

The SLA has initiated a fund-raising campaign to raise the endowment to an amount sufficient for its interest to provide for the essay prize.  Contributions may be made via the following link:

Dedicating this fund to recognize graduate student work is an especially fitting way to remember someone whose mentorship is so deeply valued, as can be seen in the tributes below.  Your support for this project is deeply appreciated. *****************************************************************************

Tributes and memories from students and friends, in alphabetical order:

James Collins: John Gumperz is justly renowned for many contributions to sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology. Two things stand out in memory: He had a notable intellectual alertness and engagement, a questing mind; and he was open to people of differing backgrounds, interested in those around him, willing to talk, lacking academic standoffishness.

Susan Gal: John Gumperz was a teacher and scholar of unusual warmth and an amusing absent-mindedness that never stopped him from coming through for students in a powerful way. He was responsible for the important intellectual continuity between European dialectology and American ethnography of communication, with a focus all his own on the situation of linguistic minorities and on questions of power. How everyday practices are inevitably linked to the great questions of the day — that is what he taught us and himself explored with great insight.
Monica Heller: It is so fitting that John should be remembered through a graduate student prize: he was the world’s best mentor. He always had a key text to pull off his shelf to help you through a particularly knotty theoretical or methodological problem, or to give you a comparative ethnographic illumination of your own work. He read our work carefully and critically, in the most constructive sense of the term. He held us to the highest standards of socially engaged scholarship.

Judith Irvine: I was never officially John Gumperz’s student, since I studied at Penn rather than at Berkeley, but I always considered myself a sort of step-student, if I may put it that way. I was deeply influenced by his work: the theoretical pieces (in the “green book,” for example – Directions in Sociolinguistics, 1972), the pioneering study of language use in a single community in North India (1958), and the many writings on language in social interaction in the U.K. The first time I had an extended conversation with John was, I believe, in Australia in 1982. After a conference in Canberra, we were on a plane flying up to North Queensland to join Steve Levinson and Penny Brown who were doing some fieldwork there. It was a memorable trip; John treated me warmly, as if I were a friend and an intellectual colleague, not just a negligible beginner. I was very flattered when he invited me to join the editorial board of a new book series at Cambridge University Press. Years later, one of the things that most impressed me about John was that his work continued to evolve – to be fresh, important, cutting edge – throughout his long life. May we all stay intellectually alive for so long. He is much missed.

Marco Jacquemet: After helping me get into the graduate program at Berkeley, John disappeared, leaving me to fend for myself while he was in Cambridge for two full years. It was after I returned from the field (with more than 900 hours of recordings) that I finally got to experience how powerful a mentor he could be. He was sharp, incisive, always questioning, fully engaged with my data. He went on to support my budding career with the full force of his academic stature: sharing his resources, advice on publishing, and academic connections. He remained a constant presence in my life, involving me in writing projects, agreeing to participate in conferences I organized, calling me at night to share his disgust for conservative political positions. The John Gumperz Annual Graduate Student Essay Prize could not be named after a better mentor!

Stephen Levinson: John Gumperz was a wonderful PhD advisor.  With strong ideas of his own, he was nevertheless always interested in the ideas of his graduate students, and enthusiastic about their data and what it could potentially show. Such encouragement took his students through the inevitable self doubts that accompany the long road to a PhD. We can hope that the new Gumperz essay award will give some of the same encouragement to further generations of graduate students.

Sarah Michaels: John Gumperz was my primary mentor in graduate school at U.C., Berkeley.  But he was so much more than a teacher and scholar.  He was an amazingly generous human being.  He knew how to build a vibrant community of learners around him — over many years — and that has had a profound impact on my life.  He inspired generations of cohorts (who have remained life-long friends, collaborators, and engaged scholars) and he taught us how to build compassionate, critical, and engaged intergenerational communities in our own spheres.  I feel so privileged to have been a part of this activist and social-justice oriented community building with John, and work really hard every day to pay it forward.

Celia Roberts: John was always generous with his time and a great collaborator both with old friends and new researchers. While being modest and unassuming, he made an enormous contribution to our understanding of language and society – showing their pervasive interconnectedness. He linked macro issues of inequality, institutionalisation, urbanisation and discrimination and sociological notions of ethnicity, social identity and gatekeeping with micro features of discourse coherence.  He showed that small differences could have large consequences. And he translated this theoretical innovation into practically relevant understandings for gatekeepers and students. With his love of engaging students in the ideas he developed over many years, he would surely be pleased to know there was a graduate student essay award in his name.

 Deborah Tannen: I can’t imagine having done any of the work I’ve done, had it not been for the perspective I learned from John Gumperz.  I continue to be inspired by his combination of broad social theory and microanalysis of real interaction; his view that what linguists had dismissed as “marginal” features of language are actually “core” to communicating meaning; and his deep humanity and generous spirit, untarnished by the personal ordeal he experienced as a Jew who narrowly escaped from Nazi Germany.

Kathryn Woolard: Naming this particular award after John Gumperz seems especially fitting to me for two reasons. First, John more than any other of my teachers at Berkeley was always working with an expansive cross-disciplinary network of graduate students, who through him also came to work with each other, and who all shared John’s commitment to understanding language not just in, but as, social action.  The second reason is that John once confessed – or complained – to me when he was trying to complete his 1982 book how hard it was for him to finish a big writing project, and how he envied others who seemed to do it easily. But he did finish it, and with that as with all his work he made an enormous impact on our field. What better model for grad student writers?