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Strengthening Social Justice Pedagogies: Creating Space(s) for Dialogue

Lynnette Arnold and Anna Corwin

Lynnette Arnold is Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. She has served as co-convener for the SLA Language and Social Justice Committee, and currently serves as an elected member-at-large on the SLA board.

Anna Corwin is Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Spirituality and in Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

If teaching is on your mind as we approach another academic year, you are not alone. The April 2022 SLA Conference included five sessions dedicated to pedagogy, with a total of 40 panelists and discussants. Clearly, there is significant interest in conversations that can help linguistic anthropologists develop insights into the unique challenges of teaching and learning in our field. In this blog post, we report on themes that emerged from our experience organizing and participating in two of these conference sessions and we call for more accessible spaces for field-specific discussions of pedagogy.

All of the conference panels emphasized a shared commitment to teaching linguistic anthropology in ways that take seriously the role of pedagogy in social change work. Panelists grappled with social justice issues in teaching including the implications of assignment design, grading and assessment, and participation policies and practices. We shared specific practical strategies, including the use of multimodal teaching aids, autoethnographic assignments, and hands-on projects.

Several panelists spoke about incorporating tangible skills for job readiness in the undergraduate classroom, a pedagogical practice with two social justice aims. Firstly, explicit skill-building supports students as they bring language and social justice practices into their future non-academic work. It also makes visible the “hidden curriculum” of professionalization practices, supporting students from diverse backgrounds in their post-graduate careers. These questions of who we are training, what backgrounds and skill sets they bring into the classroom, and what we imagine their futures to be resonate with conversations on disability and equity in the classroom.

Insights from linguistic anthropological research can also be productively applied to enrich teaching for social justice. For instance, Abigail Mack (University of Virginia) talked about turning our descriptivist perspective on language to student writing and other work, moving away from narrow prescriptivist norms in our evaluations. Elizabeth Redd-Kickham (Idaho State University) discussed how we might use the tools of interactional analysis to grapple with the hierarchies that can emerge in our teaching and to develop pedagogical strategies for juggling how and when we claim expertise or deny it.

Beyond these specific pedagogical issues and practices, the conversations prompted two interrelated insights into what teaching for social justice might entail within linguistic anthropology.

Firstly, many panelists emphasized the importance of understanding our teaching as always situated in particular institutional and historical contexts. Here we draw inspiration from work on raciolinguistics that urges scholars of language to think through the ways linguistic practices are deeply rooted in colonialism and white supremacy. Similarly, our pedagogical practices are situated within scholarly fields and institutions of higher education that have benefitted from and often continue to perpetuate interlocking inequalities. Naming this reality pushes us to carefully examine how our curricular design and pedagogical practices may involve both complicity and resistance to these historical and institutional contexts. Continued reflexive attention to our own intersectional positionalities as instructors, including vulnerably grappling with our mistakes, is vital to such considerations.

While fostering deeper understandings of inequality within ourselves and among our students is a vital pedagogical goal, it is insufficient for creating social change. For decades, scholars of language and social life have worked to disrupt the dominant language ideologies that harm so many, but these beliefs continue to reinforce inequality in education, politics, media, and many domains of social life. Thus, our pedagogical practices must also encourage students to put new awareness into action to work for social justice in concrete ways. Panelists shared a range of community engaged projects — working to create Mixtec-language materials during the pandemic (Guillem Belmar, University of California Santa Barbara) or collaborating with youth in the Dominican Republic to investigate local issues of language and social justice (Molly Hamm Rodríguez, University of Colorado Boulder) — that move in this direction. As Krystal Smalls (University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne) reminded us, this work must be undertaken carefully, following the lead of communities, in order to avoid reproducing harm. We ourselves can model this approach for students, taking social justice pedagogies out of the classroom into other departmental and institutional spaces where we can work for change.

However, bringing our pedagogical practices and disciplinary insights out of the classrooms presents its own challenges. A number of panelists discussed the challenges of bridging academic discourses with broader audiences, work which often involves translating or transposing relevant contributions from linguistic anthropology. Practicing Speech Language Pathologist, Keziah Conrad (Northern Arizona University) highlighted the challenge of bringing linguistic anthropological critique into existing systems, asking us to examine the value of our insights if they remain siloed from practice. These comments challenged us to think much more carefully about the pedagogies we would need to productively engage with individuals involved in the practices our field so readily and loquaciously critiques.

Ongoing conversations about teaching and learning are vital to help our field deepen and strengthen our commitment to social justice pedagogies. We envision these dialogues as vital to the development of a truly anti-racist linguistic anthropology. While the attention to pedagogy at the 2022 SLA Conference is indeed heartening, we do not yet have a dedicated publication venue for field-specific scholarship on teaching and learning. We urge linguistic anthropology to follow the lead of our colleagues in linguistics and anthropology to consider where we might create space for ongoing dialogues about pedagogy that are more widely accessible than the narrow confines of an academic conference.

From JLA

The editor-in-chief (Das) of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology is delighted to feature three articles contributing to the study of pedagogy in cross-cultural perspective. Jaffe (1993) explores the contradiction between Western European models of minority language pedagogy emphasizing error, and those in Corsica; Nevins (2008) discusses conflicts between different pedagogical models of language maintenance in the White Mountain Apache speech community; and Lee (2022) accounts for how Manouche musicians unsettle the terms of their racialization by valorizing an aurally-centered pedagogy.

-Jaffe, Alexandra. 1993. “Obligation, Error, and Authenticity: Competing Culture Principles in the Teaching of Corsican.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 3(1): 99-114.

-Nevins, M. Eleanor. 2008. “Learning to Listen: Confronting Two Meanings of Language Loss in the Contemporary White Mountain Apache Speech Community.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 14(2): 269-288.

-Lee, Siv. 2022. “Feeling to Learn: Ideologies of Race, Aurality, and Manouche Music Pedagogy in France.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 32(1): 139-160.