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Exposition of a key concept

Exposition of a key concept

Default due date: Apr 13, 2024 at 11:59 p.m.

Word count: 1000

So far in this class we have encountered a number of abstract ideas that anthropologists of communication use to capture and analyze the social life of language, or the social and material dimensions of communication as a practice and as an event.

Linguistic anthropology, like semiotics, can be faulted for being an example of the kind of sociolinguistic variation it often describes. You have be in with the in-crowd, and to get in, you need to learn the secret passwords.1) When scholars use specialized jargon, they might intend to be precise, but their discourse often ends up indexing—oops!—a position of social privilege (and arguably some people are positioning themselves as a privileged type of person—an expert, a sage, a guru—when they choose a prestigious register).2).

Abstraction isn’t bad, and having handy words to refer to abstract concepts isn’t necessarily obfuscatory. It can be, though. The purpose of higher learning is to see the world more clearly, to dispel murk and fog and find deeper truths. To do so, we must always be asking ourselves how we define our terms. To use a big word for an abstract idea, you have to be able to ELI5: to explain it like you’re talking to a five-year-old. This is not just an intellectual virtue, it’s a matter of justice. Talking in specialized jargon is by definition inaccesible to everyone else, but everyone benefits from critical awareness of their social reality.

The assignment: Choose an abstract idea and ELI16

For this paper, make one of the concepts we have encountered in class readings more accessible to an educated, interested, lay reader. Imagine that you are writing for a 16-year-old high school student. (So it’s ELI16. Let’s not go crazy.) To do that, you’d need to speak in words they understand, specifically the register they learn to use when they read their high school textbooks.

  • You would need to give a definition of the idea in simple terms.
  • You would also have to illustrate the idea by describing something specific and concrete.
  • Finally you will have to explain why an idea is important, relevant, or useful to understanding how people communicate. Imagine that your 16-year-old is interested and curious but also really wants to know why they should care about it. They want to ask “So what?”

Above all, you would have to use your own words to communicate what an idea means. You would not be able to quote from another source. Using a source in quotation would just fall back on the specialized terminology you’re trying to move beyond, and appealing to another person’s words as a source of knowledge just reinforces the hierarchy of guru and disciple. You want to explain something clearly and make it feel like anyone can learn this new idea with a little guidance and reflection.

You are already preparing for this task in your other work for class, the weekly journal and your contributions to a knowledge base for the class. In fact, I want you to build on what you are writing for your journal and for the class wiki. Use these as sources. Cite them!

In this essay, however, you will be using your own original words to express other people’s ideas. I want you to impose rules on yourself to develop a specific skill.

  • Do not search online for a definition or encyclopedia article for your chosen topic.3)
  • Do not quote any sources.
  • Do not paraphrase or summarize the sources you read.

Cite your sources for ideas, examples, and information but describe and explain what you think is important about them in your own words, as part of your message to your imagined 16-year-old audience.

What counts as a good topic?

For your essay, choose one key concept from the class readings we have discussed. Some possible topics are:

  • one of the elements of the Piercean trichotomy: icon, index, and symbol
  • one of Jakobson’s functions of language
  • shifters or deixis
  • language ideology or metapragmatics

There are many other possibilities. Ask Ryan for more guidance. You should select an abstract concept rather than a descriptive term for a specific, concrete example or situation. For instance, Hill’s (1998) term for parodic quotation of Spanish by English speakers, “Mock Spanish,” is her coinage, but it’s a name for something concrete. She uses a theory of the social effects of language to explain why Mock Spanish is important, and the terms she uses from this theory are appropriate for this assignment.

Formatting and use of generative AI

My only expectation is that you submit a well-written and neatly formatted document that cites your sources of information and lists all of the references that you cite.

I don’t have specific requirements for a format or style of references, but you can tell if you have done a good job. When you are done with your final version, imagine that you printed it out and accidentally left it somewhere.4) If someone picked up your paper, would they be able to send it to me, and would I be able to read it and give you a grade for the assignment?

  • Does it have your name student ID number on it?
  • Does it say what it is, an essay for our class?
  • Does it tell someone what class it is for, and who teaches it?
  • Does it say when you wrote it, that is, does it have a date on it?

A good guide can be found here: https://anthro.rschram.org/the_quest/documents_with_style.

If you use ChatGPT or another large language model in your writing process, you are required to document your prompts, the text that was generated, a description of how you have incorporated this into your final draft, and to attach all of this documentation as an appendix to your paper. (Also, like the other assignment, I just asked Bard “what is indexicality” and the answer was thorough but arguably could be much simpler and more accessible, and I don’t think it really grasps the depth of this idea, or why it is useful for analysis. And asking it to explain it as you might to a 16-year old was… cringey.)

Citing sources

For this and all of your written work, you should cite a source for every fact and every idea that you learn from someone else. I also strongly suggest that students learn how to use a bibliography manager and make it a daily habit to track what you’ve read with it. For more advice on citing sources, see this page—https://anthro.rschram.org/the_quest/citing_sources—or ask me.

What if there is no such thing as “your own words”? Isn’t the whole idea for this assignment premised on a very culturally specific language ideology?

Fine, if you want, you can also just write a paper arguing for this point. (Please talk to me about this option.)


Hill, Jane H. 1998. “Language, Race, and White Public Space.” American Anthropologist 100 (3): 680–89. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1998.100.3.680.

Romaine, Suzanne. (1988) 2017. Pidgin and Creole Languages. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315504971.

Social studies of communication are not more guilty of this than other scientific fields, but it is especially notable in the case of sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology given their subject matter and the idea of ethnography as a bottom-up way of knowing.
Indeed, in sociolinguistics, a jargon is a subset of a language known to a narrow group who are involved in a specialized activity. Many pidgin languages begin as trade jargons, that is jargons spoken by traders of different linguistic communities. See Romaine ([1988] 2017, 117).
I am assuming this is everyone’s first instinct, since I often catch myself doing it too. In this exercise assume that (1) whatever you find on the first page of Google results is wrong, and (2) you already have a valuable sense of how to explain your topic because of your class journal, your contributions to the class wiki, and our discussions in class. Instead of searching online, sit back, reflect on your familiarity with your topic, formulate questions, make notes, and then consult sources from class. If and when you do search online for information, you will be better able to be skeptical about what you read. Remember—90% of the internet is garbage; always ask, “How do I know this is true?”
Yes, portions of these instructions were written in the early 00s.
3621/2024/exposition_of_a_key_concept.txt · Last modified: 2024/01/15 23:40 by Ryan Schram (admin)