Boise State’s Linguistics Lab is hosting a new virtual lecture series titled “Language, Race and Ethnicity Speaker Series.” There are four talks total, the first of which was on Feb. 3. The next upcoming talk will be on March 3, followed by events on March 31 and April 21 at 3 p.m.
Each of the speakers are sociolinguists, which is the scientific study of language, and they will cover a range of topics that focus on the inequities and discrimination which lie within the field of linguistics.
All of the talks are streamed live on YouTube, making them free and open to the general public, although registration will be required through the Linguistics Lab’s website in advance to receive a link to the event.
Chris VanderStouwe, a lecturer in the English Department, came up with the idea for the lecture series as a supplement for his Language, Race and Ethnicity class, which is a new special topics class he introduced to Boise State this semester.
“I was originally going to teach Language, Gender and Sexuality, which is a little closer to my personal research styles and things that I look at,” VanderStouwe said. “But, given all of the stuff that’s happened in the last year, this felt a little bit more timely and a little bit more important. So, we sort of switched topics and switched gears a little bit, and then added the speaker series to enhance that. Since I don’t feel like I can try to claim expertise on certain racial experiences, I wanted to bring in actual experts that have those experiences.”
According to VanderStouwe, one important distinction to this series is the fact that all four speakers are junior scholars in the field of linguistics. Rather than hosting senior faculty members who are on the precipice of retiring, VanderStouwe wanted to bring in young and excited scholars who are talking about issues that students care about and that are relevant to their everyday lives.
Vanderstouwe was also able to secure a $1,000 Opportunity Grant for this series from the Idaho Humanities Council in October 2020, as well as being sponsored by the Boise State English Department, the Mary Ellen Ryder Linguistics Lab and the Boise State Gender Studies Program.
“I wanted to make sure I [was] paying [the speakers] for their time, so I was able to get some funding so that we could bring them in, since I think it’s an important topic,” Vanderstouwe said. “It’s very timely and it’s something that’s in the collective consciousness right now.”
Michal Temkin Martinez, the director of the linguistics program, emphasized that it’s very prestigious to receive an Idaho Humanities Council grant, especially for the opportunity to have it support a speaker series that’s open to the public and geared towards students. She also believes that although each of these talks are focused within the field of linguistics, they will be very applicable and accessible to all areas of study, especially other social sciences.
“I know our students are activists, and our students are thinking about these issues,” Temkin Martinez said. “Our students are wanting to be involved in the evolution of their fields in this direction of inclusivity and of equity. So, these talks might be helpful in helping them conceptualize [and apply these issues to their own field].”
According to Temkin Martinez, the field of linguistics stems from very colonial, white-dominated ways of thinking and being, so one of the most cutting-edge contributions from the speaker series is showing students that these scholars, who are speakers of languages that have been historically marginalized and minoritized, are actually leading this change within the field of linguistics.
“They’re in our field and they’re saying, ‘this matters, we matter, our language matters,’” Temkin Martinez said.
Jessi Grieser, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, was the first speaker of this series and focused on gentrification and intersectionality. She reiterated the importance of these discussions by detailing a major incident that had just occurred at her university in early February 2021.
“It was a racial bias incident,” Grieser said. “The dean of our engineering school said, ‘I didn’t realize it was Black History Month this month. We should do some things about that and have some programming, or maybe we can have a heroes award or something.’”
While Grieser doesn’t think this person intentionally meant ill will, she believes that this person was one of many people trapped inside their own bubble, which can have harmful consequences in positions of power.
“We continue to need to grapple with the role of racial division in this country, and the role of the different kinds of spaces and identities that different people inhabit because of their racial identity — and also the fact that it is not monolithic,” Grieser said. “My experience as a multiracial woman adopted by white people in Ohio is really different than Kelly Wright, who’s coming at the end of March, who is a multiracial woman who was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee.”
According to Grieser, that’s the wonderful thing about this series — a number of people are going to come to Boise State to offer new perspectives, techniques and approaches.
“It’s complexity,” Grieser said. “People of any kind need to be exposed to things that aren’t the things that they are normally exposed to — that’s the whole point of college, and to help people have the toolkit to navigate these issues.”
On March 3, Adrienne Tsikewa, a citizen of the Zuni Pueblo Nation and scholar at UC Santa Barbara will speak about some of the gaps in racial equity that exists in language studies. Followed by Kelly Wright of the University of Michigan on March 31, who will discuss linguistic discrimination, focusing specifically on housing discrimination based on how one speaks. Kendra Calhoun of UC Santa Barbara, the final speaker, will wrap up the series on April 21, focusing on the inequities of the education system that tends to favor white middle class learning styles.