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“Teaching to Advance Social Justice”

Author with students and community partners at course event

By Lynnette Arnold

At the start of every semester, I find myself pondering again the significance of linguistic anthropology. In my introductory courses, students are often encountering the field for the first time, but even conversations with students who have taken many of our classes prompt me to reflect on how linguistic anthropology matters now, to these students, and to the world that they are inheriting.

It is clear that we live in an era of rampant injustice and increasing inequities on a global scale, often fueled by hateful rhetoric that portrays particular groups as inherently different, and therefore dangerous. My research with Central American migrant communities has led me to grapple in particular with the ways that xenophobic discourses motivate and justify increasingly inhumane immigration policies, but in my classes, I see my students facing the harmful consequences of many forms of damaging rhetoric on their families and communities.

Linguistic anthropology matters now because it can give us tools for understanding how language and communication reproduce inequities, while also shedding light on how these same semiotic processes can contribute to social change. Making this significance clear to students means using our teaching as a means of advancing social justice, which I understand not as a pragmatic challenge but rather as an existential problem. As the editors of the new volume Language and Social Justice in Practice write, realizing social justice will necessitate “the radical reimagination of alternative worlds.”

In conceptualizing linguistic anthropological teaching as a means of advancing social justice, I build on the legacy of activist work by scholars of language and social life, in particular Ana Celia Zentella’s sustained calls for an anthro-political linguistics. I am also inspired by my engagement with the Language and Social Justice Committee (LSJ), a standing committee of the SLA. Since its inception in 2008, members of this group have developed public campaigns that use disciplinary tools to advance social change work around issues such as refining US Census categories pertaining to language, challenging pernicious notions of the “language gap,” and supporting efforts to change racist sports mascots and media use of the term “illegal.”

Efforts to connect social justice concerns more systematically to our teaching are beginning to emerge. I outline briefly here some of the ways that I have utilized my teaching as a form of social justice, in the hopes that these ideas may be fruitful not only for the practice of individual educators, but also for inspiring larger conversations about pedagogical practices in our field. The strategies I describe below emerged during my two-year tenure as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow with appointments in the Department of Anthropology and Swearer Center for Community Engagement at Brown University, and before that, through my involvement with community teaching and social justice as a graduate teaching fellow with the SKILLS Program.

One way to incorporate social justice into our teaching is through “critical service learning” – now often referred to as “community engaged learning.” For instance, I teach a Language and Migration course in which students spend at least three hours each week with local organizations working with immigrant and refugee communities. These concrete experiences of social change work led to deep in-class conversations about how linguistic anthropological tools matter. Many campuses today have service learning or community engagement centers that can help faculty develop such courses, build relationships with local organizations, get access to resources, and find support for navigating the complex challenges that community engaged learning presents.

Moreover, these centers also function as hubs that provide training for students doing work in the community. All such work involves communication across many lines of social difference, and yet these centers rarely offer any language-specific training. Linguistic anthropologists can contribute their disciplinary expertise by teaching stand-alone workshops as part of the community engaged training students receive. I have led two such workshops, and have found that co-facilitating with faculty or students makes them quite easy to pull together. Such workshops take our teaching beyond the classroom, allowing us to reach students who may otherwise not encounter linguistic anthropology.

Beyond incorporating service learning, we can advance social justice through careful attention to the pedagogical practices we use in the classroom. We can find ways of using language and structuring communication in our courses that challenge inequities and imagine new forms of college education. I have advocated for the creation of brave learning communities by accompanying our students as accomplices, a process that involves learning alongside them about what it means to be committed to social justice as a scholar of language and culture.

In all of our courses, we can incorporate social justice concerns through readings that connect linguistic anthropological concepts with current inequities in the world. Here, the writing done by members of the LSJ is a crucial resource, as it includes many popular press pieces written for a general audience. Language and Social Justice in Practice, the new book mentioned above, contains 24 case studies on topics related to race, education, health, social activism, and policy. I used this volume as the textbook for an introductory course on Language, Power, and Social Justice and found that these accessibly written pieces consistently sparked deep conversations. We can also bring in multimedia examples of discursively driven injustice to help students explore how linguistic anthropological tools can provide new perspectives on these issues. The teaching page of the SLA website is now available with a searchable database of such resources (with thanks to SLA web editors past and present: Leila Monaghan for spearheading the original compilation and Elizabeth Falconi for reviving these materials on the SLA site). To keep the database current, SLA members can contribute any examples of classroom materials by filling out this form.

Of course, these pedagogical strategies are as varied as our identities and practices as educators, so advancing social justice through our teaching ultimately means learning from one another. In this spirit, I encourage SLA members to attend the LSJ business meeting at the AAA meetings in Vancouver (on Friday November 22 from 12:15 to 1:45) to continue these important conversations about language and social justice.

Lynnette Arnold is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and currently serves as co-chair of the Language and Social Justice Committee of the Society for Linguistic Anthropology.


-Arnold, Lynnette
2019   Accompanying as Accomplices: Pedagogies for Community Engaged Learning in Sociocultural Linguistics. Language and Linguistics Compass 13(6): 1–20.
-Arnold, Lynnette, and Paja Faudree
2019   Language and Social Justice: Teaching about the “Word Gap”. American Speech 94(2): 283–301.
-Avineri, Netta, Laura R. Graham, Eric J. Johnson, Robin Conley Riner, and Jonathan Rosa, eds.
2019   Language and Social Justice in Practice. New York, NY: Routledge.
-Charity Hudley, Anne H.
2008   Linguists as Agents for Social Change. Language and Linguistics Compass 2(5): 923–939.
2013   Sociolinguistics and Social Activism. InOxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics. Robert Bayley,  Richard Cameron, and Ceil Lucas, eds. Pp. 812–832. New York: Oxford University Press.
-Fitzgerald, Colleen M.
2010   Developing a Service-Learning Curriculum for Linguistics. Language and Linguistics Compass 4(4): 204–218.
-Zentella, Ana Celia
1995   The” Chiquitafication” of US Latinos and Their Languages, OR Why We Need an Anthropolitical Linguistics.
2018   LatinUs and Linguistics: Complaints, Conflicts, and Contradictions – The Anthro-Political Linguistics Solution. InQuestioning Theoretical Primitives in Linguistic Inquiry: Papers in Honor of Ricardo Otheguy. Naomi L. Shin and Daniel Erker, eds. Pp. 189–207. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

From the editors of JLA:

The co-editors-in-chief (Das and LaDousa) of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology are proud to feature three outstanding articles contributing to the analysis of pedagogy and classroom interaction, including Davis’s 2012 article on the sociolinguistic inequalities naturalized through the Sri Lankan national curriculum in a girl’s college, Meacham’s 2013 article on the co-construction of meaning enabled by reading practices in a Boston middle school, and Wolfgram’s 2014 article on the role of gesture in the instruction of implicit mathematical theory in a Midwestern high school.

– Davis, Christina. 2012. “Is Jaffna Tamil the Best?” Producing “Legitimate” Language in a Multilingual Sri Lankan School. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology22(2): E61-E82.
– Meacham, Sarah S. 2013. “Temporality and Textual Engagement in a Middle School English Language Arts Classroom”. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology22(3): 159-181.
– Wolfgram, Matthew. 2014. “Gesture and the Communication of Mathematical Ontologies in Classrooms.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology24(2): 216-237.