Why an Anthropologist Chose RHB
Why is there a linguistic anthropologist at RHB?
Now that I have just about reached my one-year workaversary at RHB, I guess I have enough perspective on why I am here to answer that question from my position as said anthropologist.
I have pursued a variety of professions that allowed me to learn about others’ experiences in one way or another—journalist, anthropology and linguistics professor and now writer and researcher for a higher ed marketing consultancy. As an anthropologist and linguist, I am trained to do both highly specific and detailed analyses of language patterns and cultural behaviors among individuals and groups, and to make more macro-level comparisons. The closest thing I have to a party trick is that I can write a dictionary, grammatical sketch and text collection of a language I’ve never learned before in the period of a few months (I am trained so that if called upon I can help create language preservation and teaching materials, ASAP if necessary). Beyond being a cool thing I can do, I was trained to believe I have an ethical responsibility to use my skills to redress inequities.
My dissertation work focused on a genre of women’s songs called kaya basa ‘sad songs’ produced by the Kotiria, an indigenous group living in the upper Northwest Amazon of Brazil. Part of my research also included helping transcribe Kotiria-language narratives into Brazilian Portuguese and English for use in pedagogical materials. I am interested in multi-lingualism generally, and also have done research on Spanish-English bilingual education in the United States. And, finally, having been raised in Appalachia, I am deeply interested in how different Englishes become associated with certain identities and hierarchies of social prestige, and the material impacts those dynamics have.
What joins together all these research interests is my passion for uncovering how language and culture influence each other, and how individuals use the linguistic and cultural resources available to them in order to make sense of themselves and their lives. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we are at a moment where linguistic clarification of our cultural values is essential. Often there is a reluctance to pin down what we mean when we say things, or we use words acknowledging that other people may take away slightly different connotations, but we go along more or less assuming we all mean about the same thing and we don’t need to do much work to be understood. It turns out, though, that we rely on our cultural backgrounds to help us interpret semantic meaning. Think about synonyms. A basic example is the distinction between words like “pretty,” “beautiful,” and “lovely.” They all refer to something aesthetically pleasing, but they apply in different situations. Everything pretty is not necessarily beautiful nor lovely. I will come back to the issue of semantics later.
So while shifting to a marketing consultancy might seem like a real change, it makes a lot of sense. The most important lesson I learned in my graduate training was that I should be useful in ways that are asked of me, not the ways I assert should be most useful from an outsider’s perspective. In my academic career, that meant working on projects that helped communities in ways they determined to be the best fit. Essentially, I was a consultant offering a certain expertise and ability to make recommendations, but I was not the boss. Learning to take this perspective has of course been a most-valuable preparation for coming over to RHB.
When I saw an ad asking for applications from someone who could do ethnographic research and who had preferably some background in higher ed, marketing, etc., I actually got a little tingle in my tummy. I had research, writing and editing experience for sure, and I had some development experience with a university Foundation as a student tele-fundraiser. One of the great lessons I learned from talking to alumni in that job was that we don’t necessarily understand our journeys while they are in progress, but when we can look back, we can weave a narrative fabric that pulls together colors and textures that seemed like they should clash but are actually compositionally necessary.
Of course, we have to recognize that taking this job would likely mean I would never hold a full-time, tenure-track faculty position. That’s not just a change in job title or job function. That’s a change in my self-identification, changing the techniques, colors and styles of my internal narrative. And, yet, I was sure it was time. Here’s a secret: I passed on applying for a dream-adjacent tenure-track job while we were negotiating my full-time employment contract.
My readiness to move out of academia was only one part of the equation. One thing I find perpetually interesting about risk is that the more you know about how to do something, the better you are at understanding risk—and the more cautious some of your choices might seem. Now, I have used the word “reckless” to describe my own tendencies to try things, so I guess that’s why I find that so interesting. But here’s the truth: I weighed things out, and it turned out this wasn’t really a risk for me.
My calculations were based on some highly important input: the empathetic spirit and extensive expertise in qualitative methods in which RHB excels. Let’s talk about a specific example: RHB’s proprietary research method called Circles of Influence.
Briefly, Circles are an inversion of the usual focus group, designed to elicit current students’ narratives of their experiences with minimal mediation from us. Circles allow us to excavate deep truths and discover where there are opportunities to bring those experiences and marketing materials, for instance, into alignment. I was engaged by RHB to help facilitate Circles before I came on full time, and it was such a valuable experience because I got to see two critical qualities that inflect each other in action: trust and empathy.
People trained in social science methods know the import of trust between researchers and research participants. At RHB, we do research with participants, not research on subjects. That is a difference that means the world, because it requires clarity about why the research is happening, for what goals and for which audiences. Clarity is one aspect of the trust that develops over the course of the Circles, where students can disclose both the best and the less-best of their experiences.
The other element is empathy. I got to see how my now-colleagues expressed their care, concern and well wishes for others, and how their empathy was received and responded to. Without trust that audiences will respond with empathy and care, telling one’s story becomes more difficult and even dangerous. Participants give us visibility into their tender hearts and their amazing brains, and we treat that as that as a precious gift we continually must earn.
There’s a third element here that appeals to my anthropologist side, which has been trained to expect to develop long-term relations with research participants that go beyond extraction of “data.” I got to see how folks at RHB create long-term, close relations with clients which allow a level of intimacy and truth-telling (and truth-receiving) that is required for us to consult properly.
You might wonder whether I can still say this was not a risky move for me, given The 2020 Experience. I’ve never questioned my choice. I knew it was right from the moment I got the job offer, to the last time I walked out of a classroom as faculty, and all the way through this pandemic. I can be the kind of linguistic anthropologist I want to be here, and I can continually push myself to try new things. I get to do really detailed work I love, while also thinking broadly about what it means to help higher ed succeed on individual campuses and across the entire category.
Moreover, a year in, I barely know what’s going on sometimes and it feels really good!
While this has nominally been a story about myself, in the way of many story-telling traditions around the world the moral lives below the surface. I’ve really told a story about RHB’s dedication to our clients and mission: to help great causes succeed. In other words, we strive to be useful, trust-worthy and empathetic as we work together to dig out and classify your challenges and opportunities and craft solutions. I am so glad I get to help write that story anew every day.
So, I thought the essay would end there when I was working on it around New Year’s Day. But then January 6 happened, and I need to make something clear. We have to clarify the semantics we rely on in higher ed, especially around the way we talk about “inclusion,” “equity, “education” and “social justice.” Not a day goes by I don’t see these words on one of y’all’s websites or in your social media. The culture of your campus is both a refraction and a generator of all aspects of our larger culture. Please figure out what you mean by those words, precede them with some active verbs, and give me some sentences detailing your plans of action. We are all talking about these things and they are not landing the way we need them to. I am also going to ask you to think about how you use the words “we” and “us”—who’s in and who’s out, and where words like “compassion,” “empathy,” “ethics,” and “love” appear in relation to those pronouns. Draw a bigger circle, put us in it, and wrap us up in the actions you will take today to preserve and defend our most important resource, which is each other.