Tsikewa (2021) - Reimagining the current praxis of field linguistics training: Decolonial considerations

On @szarota’s pondering:

I am wondering if field-oriented linguistics degree shouldn’t have more training in anthropology, ethnography etc. as core subjects, and encourage students to take seminars on the political/social/economic situation of the regions where they plan to undertake fieldwork.

Is this tantamount to saying that only those trained in linguistic anthropology should be fieldworkers? I’m not sure anyone doing comparative, formal or computational linguistics MA could also be expected to complete graduate training in anthropology – although for a PhD program, see what Anne Charity Hudley said on Twitter yesterday:

@Andrew_Harvey also referred to students who want to do linguistics but not fieldwork still benefiting from learning about some of the ways linguistic data is recorded:

How do we make field methods (a course which I believe all linguistics students should take, no matter what subdiscipline they eventually settle into) as easy as possible for students to take, to enjoy, and, ultimately, to want to learn more about?

A middle ground here may be including ethical/contextualization content to field methods course not just as a lecture or reading, but as part of the assessment. As a student I know it was easiest just to focus on the material I was actually being graded on. Perhaps a reflection writing assignment as part of the grade would be a really useful way to signal that there are a lot of issues around linguistic fieldwork that a course focused primarily on data analysis cannot cover but that students should be aware of if they ever intend to go out into the real world with these skills.

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Thinking about what @joeylovestrand wrote:

Is this tantamount to saying that only those trained in linguistic anthropology should be fieldworkers? I’m not sure anyone doing comparative, formal or computational linguistics MA could also be expected to complete graduate training in anthropology

I’m not sure where the difference lies between ‘trained in’ and ‘aware of issues in’. I don’t think it’s realistic to ask all fieldworkers to get training on anything that can ever come up in a fieldwork situation, because fieldwork can get very complex. What I’ve been trying to say is that training should equip prospective fieldworkers with skills for working with people from a culture different from their own, and make them aware that they cannot just ‘gather linguistic data’ without becoming involved in their host community in a number of ways which might not be straightforward to interpret or understand.

To make sense of this in the field, it helps to know a thing or two about research methods and issues beyond ‘core’ linguistic training focused on data collection. If you are in a research team whose members have complementary skills and varying fieldwork experience this might be less of an issue, but in first-time solo fieldwork I think it’s really important to have tools to understand the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in.

In sum: I’s hesitate to put things in absolute terms such as ‘only such and such should be fieldworkers’. At the same time, I think people trained to understand not just the language, but also the social structure around them definitely can make better (and happier) fieldworkers.

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Thanks to everyone who made the effort to contribute to this discussion despite this being a busy time for many of you – and glad to see many more coming to at least see what is being discussed. Of course, feel free to keep discussing, and if anyone has an idea of another paper worth discussing perhaps we can try this again! :smiley:

As a personal takeaway from the paper/discussion, a few things would minimally want to apply to teaching field methods if I do the course again would be:

  1. Update the course description so that it includes the ethical/relational aspects of the course.
  2. Implement a class exercise (e.g. role play) where students have to think through aspects of establishing an ethical relationship with community members before studying the grammar of their language(s).
  3. Consider including a graded assignment that gives students an opportunity to reflect on relational and ethics aspects of the work done in class.
  4. When searching for a language for students to study in class, consider how students will also be able to connect to the larger community that uses that language.
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