On March 22, over a lunch of tacos and soda, two linguistics classes from two college campuses came together to try and understand “the everyday language of racism.” Assistant Professor Brook Danielle Lillehaugen’s 30-person Haverford College “Introduction to Linguistics” course and Assistant Professor Jamie Thomas’ nine-person Swarthmore College freshman seminar “Languages of Fear, Racism, and Zombies” were both scheduled to read chapters from Jane H. Hill’s book The Everyday Language of White Racism, so the professors decided to join forces and work out a time to hold a collaborative “open classroom” discussion.
The event, held on Haverford’s campus in Founders Common Room, leveraged the cross-campus power of the Linguistics Department, which, since 2012, has been the Tri-College Consortium’s only Tri-Co department. Lillehaugen (who holds appointments at all three schools as the only Tri-Co tenure-track faculty member) and Thomas aimed not just to bring together students from the different colleges, but also to foster multiplicity in their discussion of a challenging topic and to model how others could discuss racism within other disciplines and domains. As such, the meeting was open to staff, faculty, and other students in the Tri-Co community.
“There were several things I was hoping to try out through doing this,” said Lillehaugen. “First is: Is combining classes for a day possible? What does it involve? I think the answer here is clearly yes. It’s a bit tricky, but it’s worth it. Secondly, I am very interested in the idea of an open classroom, where I intentionally set one class session as open to the Tri-Co community. I think it’s good for my students to break the bubble of the class a bit and see that some of the issues we are thinking about are interesting and relevant outside of the class experience. … It has potential for being beneficial in so many ways, including in strengthening community among students, staff, and other faculty.”
Students in both classes were asked to prepare for the session by reading selections from Hill’s book, as well as watching at least one sketch from the Comedy Central show Key & Peele and listening to an episode of The Family Room podcast on Key & Peele that featured Thomas as a guest. Though the two classes have different overall agendas and are of markedly different size, the Swat students tried to diffuse themselves amongst tables of Fords, so as to spark discussions with new friends and to discover new collaborators. (Continued after the gallery.)
With just a few prompts from Lillehaugen and Thomas, based on quotes from Hill’s book and particular Key & Peele sketches, each table conducted their own mini-conferences, exploring how the structural system of racism can be evidenced through language choice and reinforced through language practice. Students talked about “code-switching” and how the ability to be fluent in multiple codes or languages isn’t always seen as a richness of knowledge, and how institutions, and even well-meaning friends, mispronouncing names can reinforce a white-supremacist agenda.
“This type of experience illustrates for me the benefit of intradepartmental collaboration in teaching, and the way I can work with others to create programming that critically stimulates a connection between theory and praxis for mutual benefit,” said Thomas. “I hope that our students gained a greater understanding of how theory-driven research on the social life of language empowers them to be able to dispel myths and disrupt colonial and white-supremacist teachings. I also hope our students will share their experience in this open class with others.”
“I hope the students in my ‘Intro’ class took advantage of the opportunity to talk about language and racism with people from outside of our course today,” said Lillehaugen, “and to listen to the different experiences and perspectives offered at their table. I hope they see what happened as an example of how academic work can be taken out of the traditional classroom. And I hope they have expectations that other parts of their academic life might be porous in the same way, and that they might be inspired to instigate those connections themselves if they are not currently offered.”
“I also hope,” added Thomas, “our students can see that being a linguist can also mean being an activist!”
Photos by Patrick Montero.