Emory Report
August 24, 2009
Volume 62, Number 1


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August 24, 2009
On heartfelt commitments and gifts

Debra Spitulnik is associate professor, Department of Anthropology

At the start of a new semester, I wish to share a personal letter that I wrote last May to the students in my Spring 2009 “Language and Culture” class. Letters from professors to students, if they are written at all, are usually business-like and private. Most are about course logistics and course performance. Most are short and dry. Perhaps there is something to be said about reviving the art of letter writing within the academic community, as part of the life of the mind, as part of learning, as part of connecting to each other.

Perhaps there is also something to be said about slowing down our pace of communications, all too frenzied by an endless stream of e-mails, Twitters, Facebook updates, and breaking news. In my mind, it’s not about pulling the plug on technology, but about developing a more conscious relationship to language and communication.

I share my letter here with a community of peers in the hopes that we will continue to seek out and value greater expression about our lives and roles as teachers. I hope that we share these expressions with our students, and that we create more spaces where expressing both a scientific and a heartfelt commitment to our chosen subfield matters and makes a difference. Students need to see our vision statements not only on the front page of the course syllabus or in official university documents, but also in unexpected places like a personal letter.

I used the letter writing process to think about what I wanted for my students. Beyond a theoretical introduction to a major subfield of anthropology, beyond a toolkit for investigating the centrality of language in human experience, beyond a whirlwind tour of communication styles and communication habits around the globe — what else did I wish to give them?

We had read about Western Apache people’s use of silence and place names; the unique jargon of U.S. defense intellectuals; the difficulty in counting “Eskimo words for snow”; my work on recycled media phrases and linguistic dynamism in Africa; and applied research on Spanish-English codeswitching in U.S. classrooms, among other things. Students learned that there is no such thing as a “pure” language and that the English word “chipmunk” probably comes from Ojibwa “atchitamon.” We had delved into the intertextual resonances of MLK and Obama speeches.

The evening before the last day of classes, I posted the letter on our LearnLink conference. The next morning, I projected it and read it out loud. It was a powerful moment.

On the cusp of handing out the take-home final, the letter also provided a mini-review. Its tone was not overtly academic, however. Instead, it was lyrical, didactic, moralizing and sappy all at once. Portions of the letter structure and a handful of formulations mirrored some of the cultural traditions that we had studied in class. And the exposition modeled in part a major course theme: the power of words to create worlds and communities.

An Excerpt: My Wishes for You Language and Culture Spring 2009

It happened at long list of terms defining new reality at place of large rose and white marble stones reaching up to the sky. . . . . intertextuality, linguaculture, linguistic determinism, incommensurability, intended meaning, communicative competence, lexical elaboration, ethnography of communication, social circulation of discourse, heteroglossia, linguistic variety, sociolect, codeswitching, intrasentential, diglossia . . . Perhaps a new class language that could become communal property. . . .

It began with “the fierce urgency of now” streaming from 1963 all the way up to 2009.

A series of wishes for the students of Language and Culture: I wish for you to see the norms and expectations of your own linguaculture . . . I wish for you to see this as foundational for who you are, but also as something deeply contingent. I wish for you to be able to shift your frame of reference, to break your habitual grooves of speaking and thinking – Be the Goy in the Jewish Ghetto, Be the Pacifist/Feminist among U.S. Defense Specialists, Be the Visitor to the Arizona Reservation, Be the Urban African for whom Linguistic Hybridity is a Way of Life, Be the Person Who Tries to Balance Interdependency with Individualism.

I wish for you to appreciate other ways of being and communicating and to bring some of this back into your lives, into your friendships, into your workplaces.

I wish for you to imagine — and perhaps even practice — a linguaculture of accommodation. I wish for you to resist the forces that say that all languages are not created equal.

I wish for you to feel the power of silence.

I wish for you to feel the strength of stories.

I wish for you to be agents in human language’s complex oscillation between centripetal and centrifugal forces. You can work to support those centers of language standardization and stabilization that serve just causes. And you can work to play with and promote all the marvelous variety and open-endedness that is human language.

Don’t let your relation to language and languages ever become flattened or routine. Experiment with slowing down time, with sitting and writing, with reviving genres that seem to be slipping away.

Know that the principle of linguistic relativity rings true every day, and should continue to. Know that strict scientific standards of causality do not always apply when it comes to the relation between language and culture. Know that we can be rigorous in our inquiries nonetheless.

Know that there is no anthropology without linguistics — and no linguistics without anthropology.

It happened at long tables pushed up against the walls, stumbling over backpacks to write with dried out markers. I wish for you all to leave this space this semester, with echoes of our new communal property resonating and bearing fruit in other areas of your life . . . no matter where you go or who you become . . .

I wish you all the very best!