#MeToo Comes to Educational Linguistics

Recently, at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a note was posted next to a picture of Dell Hymes, a former dean at the school and the founder of the Educational Linguistics Division where I currently work. It stated the following:

Dell Hymes took advantage of female students, groped women, and used his power to discriminate against female scholars. Penn covered for him then. GSE honors him now. Why?

A recent Daily Pennsylvanian article documents some of the archival work that Penn GSE graduate students have undertaken to corroborate these claims. Somehow this documentation had been erased from the official narrative that has been associated with Dell Hymes and replaced by rumors that are whispered through the hallways or over drinks but never publicly stated. This is no longer possible with Penn GSE graduate students loudly declaring “Me too” as an indictment of the entire field of educational linguistics.

As a Penn GSE faculty member who in some ways has inherited the legacy of Dell Hymes by working in the program he founded, I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on both what confronting this history means for my work as a scholar as well as what it means for the field of educational linguistics. How do I come to terms with the fact that somebody who is considered to be one of the founders of my academic discipline has been accused of not only sexually harassing women but also actively working to sabotage their careers? What does it mean for educational linguistics, a field that has prided itself on bringing attention to and combatting social inequalities, to come to terms with this history? And how do we move forward in ways that make amends for this past while working to ensure more gender equity in the future?

The most obvious first step in promoting gender equity both within educational linguistics and throughout academia is to work toward combatting sexual harassment in the ways that the #MeToo movement has challenged us to do. In order to do this, we must ensure that the voices of those who are the most marginalized in academia, typically students, are front and center in any conversation about how to improve policies that seek to combat sexual harassment. To this effect, I feel compelled to amplify their voices on this important issue. Here is a link to the recommendations that the students are proposing to improve sexual harassment policies to prevent what Dell Hymes got away with from happening again in the future: https://docs.google.com/…/1g9Gb46-pYiKpGZAi-TJBKybAr91…/edit

Yet, stronger sexual harassment policies must be understood as not an end in and of themselves but rather a means to a larger end of gender equity throughout academia. In the case of educational linguistics, we have to reflect on the history of our field and why it is that white men such as Dell Hymes have been crowned as its founders. No doubt this was because they were brilliant scholars. Yet, might it also have been that some of them, like Hymes, actively worked to exclude women from the conversation? How many women scholars’ voices has our field lost over the years because of this institutional sexism? After all, for every documented case of sexism and sexual harassment in the field of educational linguistics there are no doubt countless more that got lost to history. For every woman who was able to overcome Hymes’ attacks and still thrive professionally, there are probably countless others who were not as lucky, whose careers were destroyed and whose perspectives and insights we have lost as a field.

It is this systematic erasure of the voices of women that our field must come to terms with. While we can’t change the past, we can be reflective in the present and in the future on how we ensure gender equity. One way of doing this, which is especially important for male scholars to keep in mind, is to recognize our ethical responsibility to ensure that every academic initiative we participate in is gender inclusive. For example, when putting conference symposia together it should be non-negotiable that at least half of the panelists be women. There are many brilliant women scholars doing amazing work in educational linguistics and I have never had any trouble meeting this non-negotiable. Anybody who suggests otherwise is just making excuses.

A second way of promoting gender equity is through being more mindful about who we are citing in our work. To continue to unproblematically cite Dell Hymes as a founder of the field may erase the sexism that allowed him to reach this status and, in this way, continue to silence the women who he victimized. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that people should stop citing him. That is a personal decision that each of us will have to make on our own. What I am suggesting is that we all continuously reflect on who we are citing, how we are citing them, why we are citing them and to what effect. If our citation list is mostly men, we may want to reflect on why that is and how we can remedy it. Men are not doing better work than women. We typically get more attention for it than women do as a continuation of the institutional sexism that has historically and continues to plague our field.

Educational linguistics as a field has prided itself on promoting social change in the world. It is time for us to turn the lens inward and promote change within our own discipline. One way of doing this is by confronting the institutional sexism that shaped the founding of our field and that continues to inform many of the dynamics that continue to permeate our field today. Importantly, we must be intersectional when we engage in this work. Women of color have historically and continue to experience the same sexism that white women experience while also having to confront the institutional racism of academic institutions. This is why it is important to especially include the work of women of color in our academic projects and through our citation practices. Only by amplifying the voices of the most marginalized within our community can we truly begin the work of dismantling the power structures that have shaped our discipline.


2 thoughts on “#MeToo Comes to Educational Linguistics

  1. Thanks so much for this post! I’m still grappling with how I want to deal with citing or not (or some third choice?) Hymes in my upcoming dissertation proposal (which will involve a lot of work with interactional norms), so it was helpful to read this and try to think through my decision.


    1. This is a conversation many of us are having. I don’t think there is a right answer. As I alluded to in my post my answer has been to be reflective about who I am citing and to ensure that I am citing women and/or people of color in addition to any white men I may cite. In my opinion, a good way to counteract exclusions from the past is to ensure that we don’t continue to perpetuate them today and in the future.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s