Monica Heller’s Reflections upon Retirement

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How did you discover linguistic anthropology? Why did it attract you?

I kind of sidled into it. The initial interest came from growing up in Montréal in the 60s, when everything in everyday life was about language choice, as part of navigating struggles over social difference and social inequality. Somehow it seemed obvious that all this pain and anger and fear couldn’t actually be about language itself; also, I wanted to understand how it made sense to people to take the very different positions they took, without having to assume anyone was inherently evil or insane. I discovered there was a thing called linguistics because my father, who liked hanging around bookstores, came home one day with a magazine for me that featured a cover story about Chomsky. It took me a while to figure out that generative grammar was not going to give me the tools I needed, but it was really helpful to have to figure out why. By this time, I was in college, and saw that an anthropology professor had put a course on Sociolinguistics on the books.

Back in Montréal, “sociolinguistique” was becoming a thing: it was used by academic researchers to investigate the question of the variability of French (a highly charged question in the context of linguistic minority political mobilization) and government ones to develop and implement language policy as part of the construction of Québec as a francophone quasi- or proto-nation-state (as is common in Canada, the relationship between the two spaces of production of la sociolinguistique was close). Also, my mother had gone back to university to study sociology around then, and sent me off to meet two key people she had met there: Gillian Sankoff, at the Université de Montréal, and Pierre Laporte, at the Office de la langue française.

It wasn’t until I went to grad school that I learned there was a thing called linguistic anthropology; to this day, I’ll use whatever label works. I really only use linguistic anthropology for moving around the United States. But the main lesson I retained from all of this is that there often are tools in unexpected places for addressing questions that are bugging you, so it’s a good idea to keep your eyes open. Also, people are really helpful, so you shouldn’t be afraid to knock on someone’s door, even if you’re some 18 year old whose mother took a lecture course with this person ten years earlier.

Why did you decide to study in the United States? What was that like?

Ah, yes. So that wasn’t necessarily the plan. University was definitely the plan; we’re talking immigrant/refugee Jews, do I need to say more? The expectation was that I would follow the footsteps of my parents, aunts and uncles and go to McGill. Then my father found out someone was developing a sideline in advising high school students regarding U.S. schools; in Montréal, going to university in the US, France or England was definitely upward mobility (yes, the relics of colonialism). England required A-levels; France seemed way too unstructured. So – the US, especially its liberal arts programs: there was nothing like that in Canada. Long story short, although I think we all figured I wouldn’t get in and would end up at McGill anyway, I got into Swarthmore, attractive not only because of its liberal arts program and history as a coeducational institution, but also because of its Quaker and pacifist orientation.  I went, curious about this powerful country close by, familiar and yet… so strange.

Then, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. It was clear that the two places where I could actually study exactly what I wanted were Berkeley and Stanford. California felt even farther from any world I was familiar with, but I applied anyway; figuring,  again, I won’t get in, so I’ll also apply to work with Gillian Sankoff at the Université de Montréal, because she said that although she couldn’t train me in the ethnographic methods I wanted to use, she would let me do what I wanted. I got into Berkeley, as it happens, though during my frequent and lengthy research stays in Montréal I was fortunate to be welcomed both in Sankoff’s seminars and in Pierre Laporte’s Service de recherche sociolinguistique at the OLF, profiting hugely from their intellectual and human generosity. So, the best of both worlds.

Although perhaps not a perfect fit in either (but not quite fitting available categories is the story of my life, and I have learned to make good use of it). In Québec, I had these odd, if interesting, ideas about ethnography and the politics of everyday life, quite different from the approaches dominant in Québec at the time: the social psychology of language, technical-yet-engaged language policy, quantitative census-based measures of ethnolinguistic inequality (“démolinguistique”), variationist and lexicographic studies of French.

At Berkeley, strictly speaking, I was an international student; as such, I was expected to eventually go home in order to use the knowledge I acquired in the US to participate in my country’s development. My work in Québec made total sense in that frame (to my fellow students and to my teachers). But at the same time, I was white and my English was way too good; its occasional oddities (oh come on, say “about” for us again) tended to take people aback. No one ever explained the US to me; I was expected to know it. Which in fact sometimes I did (years of watching WCTV Plattsburgh New York helped), until, oops, I didn’t. I was also expected to naturally desire to stay and be American – it would be so easy for me. And I might have, except I didn’t actually want to.

How did you end up an academic in Canada? Was that a career plan you had?

Again, no, not really, I certainly had no particular fixation on being an academic. I thought about writing the exam for the diplomatic corps (both Québec and Canada), or the civil service. I figured I’d end up in language policy somehow; there were lots of models (Pierre Laporte was one of them). But the machine of US grad schools includes applying for university jobs, so I did. I was offered one at LSU in Baton Rouge; I turned it down, partly because opportunities for my partner (an American archaeologist) were limited, but really, I think, because I didn’t want to be there, despite the real interest working in Louisiana presented. The Canadian partner of a grad school buddy of my partner gave me his old copies of a publication which included job ads for academics; there was an out-of-date ad for a post doc in Toronto which offered the possibility of working in the Franco-Ontarian community. The deadline was long past, but I called. They hadn’t been able to fill the position, bizarrely. Anyway, the post-doc turned into a research position, which turned into directing a research centre, which turned into a tenure rack job. Toronto was also outside the known universe, and still is for many Québécois – while I had lived in England, France, the former Yugoslavia and the US, it was only when I got to Toronto that that my family asked whether it is possible to eat okay in this new place. Which, when you think about it, made it a perfect fit for me.

How have you navigated anglophone and francophone worlds?

 I love being able to not be stuck in one linguistic market, and to be forced to think about the same thing differently, or about different things altogether (I am not being all Whorfian here, it’s not the languages, it’s the discursive spaces). I am privileged, obviously, to be even able to participate in two such powerful ones. And even so, it gets complicated. For one thing, there’s the eternal problem of the fact that it is the English-language journals that count more (not to mention that it is the ones based in the US or the UK, not Canada). So I have done some strategizing around which language to publish in, for which audiences. Obviously, its easier to make these choices once you have tenure. But yes, it has been really important to me to develop spaces of knowledge production that are not only in English and not only in the big centres. The centre-periphery thing remains an issue; if you write about the US or France you can be seen as doing theory, or broad issues of general interest. If you write about Canada, you’re writing about Canada. And then there is the language issue. First, you have to turn in a monolingual performance; none of this mixing languages stuff. You can write about it, just don’t actually do it. I do sometimes get some comments on my English, but I was trained in the US, and Canada is understood as having some kind of good neutral English, so that part is easy. I did have to be taught to do academic writing in French; I have Denise Daoust at the OLF who helped me write my first grant application in 1978, and my colleagues in Toronto in the 1980s with whom we did text-exchanges, to thank for that. But the conditions of the market are different; there is more attention to “la qualité de la langue” more policing of language in general. The hierarchy, as it affects me, is France-Québec-rest of Canada. No one believes there are francophones in Toronto; I really believe that when both Québécois and French see my affiliation, they think “oh oh, her French is going to be awful” (plus my name – what is that anyway? Maybe her married name?). Anyway, I am especially proud of having made an editor of the French journal Langage et Société back down, decades ago; I felt they were being all judge-y about la qualité de ma langue. For a sociolinguistics journal, I argued, it seemed odd to not be able to handle discursive variability. They had to agree I had a point. But again – write about it, just don’t do it.

How have you handled being a woman in academia?

 I’m tempted to say “poorly”, which is to say that I could have struggled more loudly. The upside has been being non-threatening, until, well, I got too much power. I have the usual stories to tell about family not taking me seriously, and then doing their best to sabotage me when I didn’t make the right sacrifices; the awful stress of trying to get a job and tenure while having kids and raising them – I’d say I lost my first marriage largely over those issues, even though we really really tried in many ways to make it all work. And of course I beat myself up all the time over whether I did right by my kids. At work, I had one horrible experience of screaming sexism (symbolic violence, rest assured, not physical). And a bunch of everyday ones, the ones I suppose would now be called microaggressions. One huge advantage of having been trained as an interactionist is that I have the tools to unpack the sequences and use the rules to my advantage. The one I like the most is how I responded to being overlooked in favour of a male panellist on a TV show; I noticed he moved into the conversational space a microsecond before the animateur finished his turn. So I worked on beating him to it, and it worked! It’s been difficult to know where to draw the line in mentoring; I don’t really want to be everyone’s mother (I have two kids of my own, I always say), but at the same time I know how important it is to not pretend we are pure disembodied intellects. So maybe the right answer to the question is “it’s been a struggle, but welcome to the universe; I have done my best to struggle well”.

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