Speaker series

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a couple of special events.

The first was the annual Brown lecture that AERA puts on to commemorate the anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Ed decision. The speaker was Gloria Ladson-Billings, a specialist in critical race theory and culturally responsive pedagogy. Her talk focused on the idea that, despite our best intentions, a lot of educational research draws from seminal research that was done by scholars who were deeply racist, and the field still has a lot of un-learning to do. Even today, most discussion of African-American students in K-12 education is deficiency-based, talking about overcoming an “achievement gap” rather than beginning with what minority students can do well.

The second event was the all-star plenary at NWAV. (Sadly, this was the only NWAV session I could attend, since I was going out of town for the weekend.) There was so much in this panel — not only are they all luminaries, but they’re also dynamic speakers. (I’ve said it before: I would go to a conference session to hear Dennis Preston and Walt Wolfram read the phone book.)

Thinking about the plenary, and about the Brown lecture, I can’t help feeling that it all comes back to Professional Vision. As a linguist and an education researcher, I’m trained to look at the world in certain ways, and once you’re indoctrinated it requires a paradigm shift to make you see another way. It doesn’t have to be as serious as the history of racism that Gloria Ladson-Billings dealt with; Dennis Preston talked about how the field of language variation was initially a “production-prejudiced science,” and how it’s taken a significant effort to get perceptual dialectology on people’s radar. If you think of language variety mainly as “a way of talking,” it takes a huge shift to reimagine it as “a way of sounding.” And as a researcher, it’s easy to point out social pressures like professional vision in the people I’m studying, but difficult to remember that I might be subject to them as well.

The relationship between different flavors of professional vision, a topic that I’ve thought about before, also came up. Penelope Eckert talked about a continuum of perspectives on meaning, from sociolinguistics to semantics to cognitive linguistics. That is, you can think of meaning as something that resides in social interaction, in language forms, or in individuals’ thought processes. They’re all legitimate ways of understanding the issue, and they can all provide different insights. The key connection to variation here is that when two people say the same thing in different ways, or the same person says the same thing in different ways on different occasions, there’s a reason for that; it’s not just “free variation.” And it connects to other research paradigms as well; significantly (in my case), both Sacks and Halliday think of language production as a sequence of discrete choices, highlighting the importance of the choice itself at each moment.

And then there was Walt Wolfram, forcing us to ask the question, “So what? What good does it do anyone?” He’s referring primarily to the role of variation studies in social and educational issues, and the importance of making your work relevant to the general public — his famous principle of linguistic gratuity. The same principle applies to people doing cross-disciplinary discourse analysis. If I’m working in an educational setting, it’s not enough to describe what I see; I have to communicate it to practitioners and other members of the community in such a way that it will help to make education better.

Serious topics aside, the all-star plenary was also an occasion for everyone to tell their favorite Bill Labov story, and I really appreciated Wolfram’s:

Labov: Walt! How do you say B–A–G? Walt! How do you say A–S–S?
Wolfram: Bill! Don’t be an [eəs]!

As a heritage speaker of Philadelphia English, I loved it.

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