Linguistic anthropologist and ethnomusicologist Aimee Hosemann joins Colorado College faculty as a Visiting Professor in Anthropology. Having taught at University of Southern Illinois Carbondale, University of Texas at Austin, and Texas State University, Hosemann is in the midst of her second of three blocks at CC: Introduction to Linguistics, Topics in Anthropology: Expressive Culture and Language in Everyday Life, and Language and Culture. Hosemann’s research concentrates in northwest Brazil and an upcoming project in the southern Appalachian region of Kentucky on Bluegrass and Appalachian-Latino identity. A new member of CC, she provides a unique understanding of language and human behavior to our community and classrooms.
The Catalyst: Now teaching your second block of linguistics at Colorado College, what are the most prominent and, if any, potentially unique cultural or linguistic features of this campus?
Aimee Hosemann: So one of the things that is super interesting to me is that, in comparison to other college campuses that I’ve been on, I don’t hear languages other than English very often. That is fascinating to me; even though it looks like there are pockets of diversity among the student population, overt expression of linguistic identity doesn’t seem to be happening as much. Culturally, it’s fascinating as well, because CC is so much its own thing, and people are aware of something about CC that is really unique in terms of its special context, in terms of the composition of the campus, and it’s like more so than any campus I’ve been on. People have a way of talking about themselves as belonging to this specific community in ways that other people don’t, which I find super interesting.
TC: What do you see as the biggest problem in higher education today?
AH: People not appreciating it. And this works out in different ways, one of which is in terms of funding for higher education, funding for people who need access to higher education, especially in underrepresented populations: people who come from working class backgrounds, people who are never going to get jobs in factories. I mean, there are parts of the American economy that are never going to go back to the way they were. I also think that people don’t recognize the benefits of the higher education experience in the lives of students, in terms of allowing them time to ask big questions about themselves, to think about who they are as human beings. And I think that—and I gotta say, just to get really overtly political right now—the fact that people aren’t taking Title IX seriously really annoys me. Campuses need to be safe environments, and we need to take it very seriously if students are feeling victimized on campus, if they don’t feel taken care of, I mean. I think that, just in general, we’re at a moment where college life and what happens on college campuses is not seen as particularly important unless it is in pursuit of a specific vocational perspective. And I think that needs to change.
TC: Much of your research, papers, and content of your classes focus on the relationship between food and culture. Can you explain what drew you to studying this topic, and why food is so crucial to understanding our current society?
AH: So I started getting really drawn into all of these stories about people who started practicing whole-foods plant-based diets and then started doing these really incredible athletic feats, and I was like “that’s so interesting,” and they were offering this really happy, capable vision of life. And I noticed I was reading more biographies and more blogs, and as an anthropologist, I went, “wait, why is this so attractive? Why am I getting so sucked into this? What is so attractive to me?” So one of the things that I noticed as I started looking at commonalities, was thinking about how these sound like conversion narratives. These people are telling these really exciting stories about almost drinking or drugging themselves to death and then somehow turning vegan and then look at all the things they can do! And I was like, “Wow, that’s really interesting. I want some of that.” And then the inner-skeptic turns on and well, what’s happening? Because the fact that these things are being propagated suggests that there’s something really interesting happening. I read more and more stuff about why people are doing this, and it looks like there’s a lot happening in terms of how your diet can give you, as an individual, power over yourself in terms of your own health, in terms of being able to be a productive employee,[and in terms of being] a good parent.
And there’s also a lot of talk about how that interlocks with other kinds of social problems, like the obesity epidemic, or in terms of a workforce that’s too ill to really function. And then there’s also these elements of it too that are about, well, what does this have to say about our food production systems and the fact that there are too much of certain things, not enough of other things? There are certain populations of people who do not have access to food on a daily basis. Is it possible that one individual’s dietary choices can address some of these larger social issues? And so as you follow some of these people who get into these whole-foods plant-based diets for sort of health-related reasons, they also have sort of an awakening about larger social problems and the way that the orientation of our diet does not produce health for the large number of the population. So, it ends up being the case that unless people have secure access to healthy, nutritious food, then it becomes really difficult for them to live healthy and productive lives. And so I was interested in how people talk about all of those kinds of things.
TC: Over your lifetime, what’s the biggest shift you’ve noticed in the way Americans talk about food?
AH: Definitely when I was growing up younger people didn’t talk too much about how, say, factory farming is not just unhealthy for animals but unhealthy for people. It was about, “how do we increase the production of food to feed the most number of people?” So it was the idea that if you could mass-produce certain crops and certain animal products, you could get food to people. Over time, especially with the decrease in the number of family farms, it’s become a question of… it doesn’t look like food is trickling down to where it needs to get to. So there are still people who live in food deserts, for instance, and over-production of food has only benefitted a certain number of people. You also see this eruption of urban homesteading where people are trying to talk about what you can do help as an individual, so that has been a major shift.
TC: When you were 10, what did you want to be when you grew up?
AH: I think I wanted to be a linguist. I remember when I was in around 4th grade telling my parents “I want to be a linguist when I grow up.” And ever since I was a little kid I’ve been aware of how different languages seem to give access to different experiences in the world, and I really wanted a part of that.
TC: What’s your favorite word in the English language? Is there any word in English, specifically, that doesn’t get enough credit?
AH: A word that I like, in English… oh, man, I love so many of them. Right now I like the word ‘virtuoso’ because we’ve been using it so much in one of my classes, and it just sort of sounds like what it is: you know, the experience of being really proficient at something. A word that doesn’t get enough credit… kindness? People just don’t use it enough, and they don’t use it in conversation enough, and they don’t use it in their daily lives enough.
TC: What are you reading right now?
AH: I found a great book at Tutt Library about the cultivation of taste from early-modern Europe. It’s about how taste becomes not just in the physical sense, but also a signifier of class and nationality.
TC: Which came first, the thought or the language?
AH: I am tempted to say thought because it doesn’t always have to be linguistic. On the other hand, language gives us certain tools to think with. You know, one of those things I’m not sure about is if they actually exist separate from each other as two separate domains. So, some readings in thinking about how language impacts perception and worldview [are] predicated on these separate notions of thought and language, and I’m not sure we have empirical proof that it really exists that way. And not every society necessarily would look at them as separable, in that sense. So the vocabulary that we have for even thinking about this problem comes out of a very particular view of what they are. We don’t necessarily have the right vocabulary for thinking about that question.
TC: Do you feel as though we live in a culture accepting of linguistic diversity? Do you find there are certain dialects that are considered superior to others?
AH: There are pockets of favorability to linguistic diversity. I mean, college campuses like to paint themselves that way. And they are, in some ways. You have access to taking other languages as coursework and immersing yourselves in them, but sometimes a lot of places do not. Generally speaking, the American public schooling system is not favorable to linguistic diversity. There is absolutely a hierarchy of ways of speaking where there’s this imagined standard that is the preferable way of speaking and every other way is ugly or ungrammatical or unintellectual. And so, unfortunately, for a lot of people the reality is that most of the discourse around them is mostly unfavorable to linguistic diversity.
There’s definitely this idea of an imagined standard, which is what you get in sort of your prescriptive English classes, and we’re taught that this is the ideal way to speak. There’s also ideas about how figures in the media should use language, you know, a relatively unaccented or accent from nowhere English in broadcast. Think about using the [AP] stylebook. There are ways we are supposed to recognize these as the legitimate forms of usage in newspapers or in media in general. That is largely correlated with being white and middle or upper class. And then other ways of speaking—like Appalachian English, Chicano English, African-American English—a lot of those ways are seen as ungrammatical or, you know, something about the pronunciation or accent indicates that the person is not assimilable or smart. I was talking in my class today about stereotypes of Southern English where it’s considered too haught to speak quickly, so there’s this very slow cadence, which then correlates with a slow Southern intellect.
TC: How does being an anthropologist affect your personal life? Do you find your heightened cultural and linguistic awareness to permeate your world outside of academia, or are there ways you code-switch in and out of your tendency to observe?
AH: That’s such a great question because the anthropological perspective is so inculcated in me that it’s very difficult, sometimes, to turn it off. Even if I am watching TV a lot of times, I’m thinking about, “what are the messages that are going along with the program I am watching? How are the characters being developed? What sorts of message does a particular characterization show?” But then, I really do think it’s important to code-switch, especially in my family relationships. I don’t think it’s necessarily productive to be thinking like an anthropologist all the time. You can’t just be critical all the time. There are times when you just want to be involved in loving your family relationships or just experiencing something as an aesthetic experience without having to analyze it all the time. And so sometimes, yeah, I do just have to consciously turn it off because I do just want to enjoy the moment that I’m in.
I’ve gotten used to it. I remember being an undergrad taking anthropology and there’s a moment I and my cohort had where we’re sort of turned on to thinking anthropologically, and everything just kind of comes at you and you’re in a constant state of analysis. And that’s really exciting, but also really exhausting. Just as humans, we have ways of filtering out what is most important at the moment in order to just exist because we’re getting hit with so much input all the time. At this point, yeah, I’ve gotten good at just being able to sort of relax and just be for a little bit.