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Working toward an anti-racist and inclusive language science community

This statement was sent to language science community members in October 2020, based on discussions among members of the LSC Executive Committee. Although it was prompted by the anti-Black violence and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, it focuses on diversity and inclusion issues affecting the language science community at UMD.

- Members of the LSC Executive Committee: Colin Phillips, Caitlin Eaves, Shevaun Lewis, Tess Wood, Jordan Boyd-Graber, Jan Edwards, Jeff Lidz, Rochelle Newman, Maria Polinsky


Over the last few months we’ve all witnessed horrifying acts of violence against Black people, and the national conversations around racism have led us to reflect on our own community. We think it’s important to address how we participate in perpetuating racism, and how we can become anti-racist allies in our academic community and in society more broadly. 

It’s important to note that we are focused on impacts, not intentions. We don’t believe that members of our community have discriminatory intentions. But our decisions and actions over the long term can cumulatively lead to discriminatory impacts, even if these are unintended. Our goal is to identify realistic, long term changes that will lead to better outcomes: more diversity within our community and better experiences for students and faculty who face systemic racial oppression. The steps we take to address racism would also help people who are disadvantaged because of their gender, disability, or nationality.

We don’t all agree on the best approach. We don’t expect that you will agree with everything here, either. But we want to communicate some conclusions we have reached so far and invite your input. In this letter we lay out the ideas we have for creating an anti-racist and inclusive culture, recruiting a more diverse student body, and applying our scholarship to address inequity. We can’t make the needed changes unilaterally. The changes that community members want are the changes that stand a chance of happening. Our goal is to create the support to help people to do this. If you make it to the end of this letter and identify things that you feel strongly about, we’d love to talk with you about how to implement the ideas. We will also be building structures and processes to pursue our goals over the long term. 

Establishing an anti-racist and inclusive culture within our academic community

We have been thinking about how to ensure that language science activities are welcoming and supportive for everyone. We recognize that communicating and collaborating across disciplines is more difficult for BIPOCs: their contributions are often unrecognized or undervalued, and they are less likely to get the benefit of the doubt in miscommunications or misunderstandings. 

Analyzing language and interaction is at the heart of what we do as language scientists. So we can apply those skills to looking at how we operate as an interdisciplinary community. To that end, LSC and a number of co-sponsoring departments and groups are planning two anti-bias workshops led by Dr Suzanne Wertheim. Although Dr Wertheim often leads workshops for large organizations and companies, she is a language scientist herself and a former UMD researcher. She is uniquely prepared to help us to turn our language science skills towards strengthening our community. We are also planning two workshops led by UMD’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, on Anti-racism in the classroom and Rupture and repair: what to do when you mess up. We know that some members of the community might feel jaded about the prospect of “just another training,” and we understand that reaction. We think these are important to establish a baseline of trust and safety for having difficult conversations in our community. They lay the groundwork for the difficult, long-term work we need to do. 

We have also been thinking about the role of the weekly Language Science Lunch Talk (LSLT) in our community. LSLT was designed as a venue to learn about the breadth of research at UMD, with graduate students taking center stage. But as the largest weekly event, it inadvertently has become the main way that many view intellectual exchange across the language science community. It is critical to ensure that LSLT reflects our values, rather than fostering division and marginalization.

Although most students and faculty value LSLT as a venue for interdisciplinary communication, many are also dissatisfied with it. The dissatisfactions are of different types, and some of them conflict. But they amount to whether the forum meets the goal of increasing understanding across fields, and whether it is a beneficial experience for the student presenter. These are complex issues, but they overlap with broader concerns about discrimination in academia. 

A number of speakers and observers have felt that LSLT discussions are often aggressive. We all value rigorous scientific discourse and clear, constructive feedback. However, we can also acknowledge that traditional academic culture tends to reward an assertive communication style that society actively discourages in people from marginalized groups. It requires mutual trust to communicate across disciplines. We need to put as much work into establishing that trust as we do formulating critiques. 

Over the last few months we have become persuaded that we need to do more than tinker with the format of LSLT, and should step back and rebuild the Thursday meetings from scratch, incorporating input from the community. On September 3 we held a discussion with students to start this process. We plan to use the fall to try out different formats for bringing people together to discuss research and learn from each other. Our goal is to create a model environment that reflects what we value: scientific rigor, teaching and learning, mutual respect, and support for everyone in our community.

Increasing diversity in language science

Language Science at UMD is not as diverse as it should be, and BIPOCs are particularly underrepresented. The demographics of participating fields differ, but we don’t hear anyone saying, “my field is just as diverse as I’d like it to be.” There are evidence-based best practices for broadening participation in STEM (and in e.g. linguistics, computer science, neuroscience); we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Our challenge is to work together to build those practices into our normal operations, evaluate their effectiveness, and adjust as needed over the long term. 

UMD has a diverse undergraduate student body, but language science majors do not currently reflect that diversity. We should highlight the ways that Black and Indigenous students can uniquely contribute to the field and use training in language science to make a difference in the world. We also need to create robust support systems for undergraduates from different backgrounds. LSC’s PULSAR program is quite effective at supporting students by providing a more intimate community, and has attracted diverse groups of students over the past few years. There are various ways we could apply that success to impact a larger number of students.

Our region also has a diverse and talented high school population. Our K-12 outreach activities are valuable, but deeper engagement is needed to create new language scientists. We are exploring the possibility of offering a month-long summer course for talented high schoolers as part of the Terp Young Scholars program. Participation in efforts like the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (LSC sponsors a local site) and the AP Linguistics Initiative helps, as does sponsoring research experiences for local high school students.

At the graduate level, our programs will appeal to more students if they offer a less risky future. In recent years LSC has taken more seriously how we prepare students for diverse career pathways, and how we value different professional goals. This shift has been contentious: community members have differing views on the range of career pathways that we should prepare students for. We need to have open conversations about the relation between the attractiveness of our programs and the risks that they expect students to take, or the safety net that they require students to have.

Addressing societal inequities with our scholarship

Our research and teaching are directly relevant to the many ways that language contributes to bringing people together and tearing them apart. In order for our expertise to make a difference, we need to identify and understand the ways in which language contributes to racism and discrimination. We need to find solutions to those effects. And we need to teach the discoveries and solutions as broadly as possible. 

A number of UMD language scientists have been involved in research and teaching on questions that directly relate to race and inclusion, such as dialect- and voice-based discrimination, impacts of non-mainstream dialect on literacy, effects of SES on language development, support for multilingual and minority language communities, and bias in technology. We can expand and amplify our scholarship on socially critical issues by developing interdisciplinary grant proposals and teaching cross-cutting seminars and workshops. 

LSC is equipped to support both strategies. For example, in 2018 LSC put together a team that developed a preliminary plan for a major NSF funding competition, with a focus on language and social justice. In Summer 2020 LSC supported a faculty team working on developing shared teaching resources for introductory courses across UMD, including modules related to race and discrimination.

A team of language science students has already developed plans for training on linguistic discrimination that could be used in campus training efforts. LSC is currently working to include some of these plans in the new university wide TerrapinSTRONG onboarding programming that President Pines is leading.

Long-term commitment

There is no quick fix, and building healthy and productive racially diverse and multicultural academic communities is difficult. We want to integrate these goals into how we operate as a community. So, rather than forming a temporary task force, a goal of LSC's upcoming review process will be to create ways to set annual goals, monitor progress, and hold ourselves accountable. The review, and LSC's future more generally, are the focus of our third email, coming soon. But we need your help to shape this part of the review. Please email shevaun@umd.edu if you can be a part of these preparations.