eVox Volume 4, Issue 1

A Special Issue in Honor of Ron Scollon


Dear Ron: Conversations with a Scholar, Teacher, Mentor and Friend

At Professor Ron Scollon’s retirement party in 2005, we learned that his tenure in the Department of Linguistics at Georgetown University was the longest academic position (1998-2005) he had held in his somewhat nomadic career. Thus, when Ron passed away on January 1, 2009, at the same time as we were deeply saddened, we felt a responsibility to keep his legacy alive at Georgetown and to pass on his intellect, his wisdom and his unique approach to language and discourse to newer students who did not have the chance to take a class with Ron and who might be interested in exploring his work. We first thought of an annotated bibliography. Then, a few cups of tea later, a modest proposal morphed into a more ambitious project of dedicating a special eVox issue to Ron, with a collection of personal essays written by his former students at Georgetown (and beyond), reflecting on the influences of his scholarly work (often with his wife Suzie) and of him as a person.

 eVox is a particularly suitable forum for such a project because when we started the journal a few years back, Ron was one of our biggest supporters. We shared our project idea with Ron’s former students and the responses were overwhelmingly warm and supportive. Soon we confirmed 15 contributions from Georgetown alumni, who are now spread all over the world, and an invaluable addition by Guy Shroyer, a political scientist who has also found inspiration in his conversations and friendship with Ron and Suzie, and a commentary by Rodney Jones, Ron’s friend and colleague at City University of Hong Kong, who is also a friend to many of Ron’s students at Georgetown.
Adding to this amazing ensemble of voices is Ron’s own. After learning about this project, Suzie generously offered to let us include the last lecture that Ron prepared for a conference in Aalborg University in Denmark. In this lecture, Ron returned to his earlier interest in the ethnopoetics of Athabaskan narratives and incorporated it into a comparative approach which changes the Aristotelian lens of narrative social analysis by considering four types of non-Aristotelian narratives (Athabaskan, Chinese, Javanese and Arabic). We intentionally kept everything as was in the original manuscript so that the reader can “hear” Ron speak as he would in person. We are deeply grateful to all of our contributors and to Suzie for making this project possible.

In Mediated Discourse Analysis (MDA), one of Ron’s later frameworks, the potential meaning of discourse is activated through action, that is, when it is used. We intend this issue of eVox to be useful as well. Therefore, to make it easier for the readers to pick out conceptual tools for their own research, we will outline in this introduction a few common themes weaving through the collection and provide indexes to individual essays related to specific topics whenever possible.

Following Ron’s lecture on narrative social analysis, individual essays are organized in a roughly chronological order, from Lyn Fogle’s discussion (aptly titled “To Start from the Beginning”) of Ron’s contribution to the interactional approach to child language acquisition (Scollon 1976, 1979), to Alexandra Johnston’s introduction of his most recent work in public policy analysis (Scollon 2008) and Andy Jocun’s reflection on Ron’s Aalborg lecture (inter alia). During these thirty some years, Ron’s work and his collaboration with Suzie have contributed to (and in some cases, created) a wide range of fields, including language acquisition (essay by Lyn Fogle), New Literacy Studies (Virginia Zavala; Peter Vail), interactional sociolinguistics (Peter Vail; Margaret Toye); media discourse (Margaret Toye), multimodal discourse analysis (Sigrid Norris), mediated discourse analysis (Tom Randolph, eVox. February 2010. Vol. 4. Washington, DC: Georgetown 4 University. Margaret Toye, Sigrid Norris, Najma Al Zidjaly), discourse in place or geosemiotics (Aida Premilovac), constructive epistemology (Barbara Soukup), computer-mediated communication (Najma Al Zidjaly; Jackie Lou), intercultural communication (Anna Marie Trester; Cecilia Castillo-Ayometzi; Yuling Pan), public policy analysis (Alexandra Johnston; Jackie Lou), narrative social analysis (Andy Jocuns), responsive communication (Ingrid de Saint-Georges), political science (Guy Shroyer), and reoccurring in many of these essays, the issue of power and justice in society.
Ron’s own interdisciplinary work was fueled by his active reading in and engagement with diverse fields, from philosophy (e.g. Bhaksar) to psychology (e.g. Vygotzky), from literary theory (e.g. Burke) to sociology (e.g. Latour), from semiotics (e.g. Peirce) to geography (e.g. Tuan). More importantly, he shared his broad learning with his students without reservation, explained dense concepts in an accessible manner, and encouraged them to traverse disciplinary boundaries.

His eclectic intellectual tastes have also brought up the question about his academic identity, which is directly addressed by a number of contributors to this issue. For Peter Vail, “Ron Scollon was as much an anthropologist as he was a linguist. Especially clear in his Athabaskan research, his work represents a singularly American anthropological tradition in what is perhaps its most thought-provoking branch, Boasian linguistic anthropology.” For Sigrid Norris, “Ron was always – and really always had been – foremost interested in language just like all the other professors there (Georgetown Linguistics).” But as Sigrid further points out, “He firmly believed that language was a part of a whole and that the whole needed to be investigated in order be able to investigate and understand the language used in interaction.” We can in fact trace this perspective all the way back to his earlier work in child language acquisition, in which he concluded “understanding one aspect of language development involved understanding every other aspect of language and development” (Lyn Fogle). To this discussion, Suzie adds: “When I met Ron he was avowedly nonliterate. We did not subscribe to a newspaper for at least 7 years. We sent away all our books. From the time Ron was at Yongsan in 1958 he became concerned with action, reading Nishida and Zen. Being a good student, he learned what his linguistics professors taught him, but from the beginning, as the student says, he was concerned with what Brenda was doing with her ‘words’. When I met Ron he was a musician, and his interest in rhythm was always primary” (email communication).

No matter which disciplinary label we assign him, all of the essays in this issue reflect Ron as a scholar who spent his career and life engaged with social issues in the real world and, by his very own example, made us feel hopeful that research on language and discourse can indeed contribute to positive social change. This is clearly seen in Alexandra Johnstone’s introduction of his 2008 book Analyzing Public Discourse, Guy Shroyer’s reflection from the perspective of a political scientist, and Jackie Lou’s summary of his and Suzie’s 2004 book Nexus Analysis: Discourse and the Emerging Internet. Moreover, Ron’s belief that discourse analysis can and should be socially relevant is testified by Anna Marie Trester’s projects in intercultural communication training, Cecilia Castillo-Ayometzi’s work with ethnic minorities in a city government and Yuling Pan’s role as a sociolinguist the U.S. Census Bureau.

Each essay in this issue is a window into Ron’s massive intellectual mind and, taken collectively, they paint a vivid portrait of him as a teacher, mentor and a friend. Many of our contributors remarked in their essays that Ron had changed their perspectives on the world by challenging us to question what have been taken for granted, for example, the notion of “culture” (Cecilia Castillo-Ayometzi; Yuling Pan), “context” (Guy Shroyer), and “narrative” (Andy Jocuns). He deconstructed these concepts so thoroughly that, as Barbara Soukup put it, Ron not only helped us “think outside the box,” but showed us “how to take the box apart, consider its shape and content, and then ask who put the box there in the first place and why.” What made Ron a “master advisor” (Andy Jocuns) was that he encouraged his students to challenge his own ideas (Tom Randolph), welcomed dialogue and gave “his students a voice that made us feel as if we were on par with him” (Andy Jocuns).

As a teacher, however, Ron did not tell us how to put the deconstructed pieces together. Instead, he sent his students on a journey of discovery. This journey was often “unsettling” (Barbara Soukup) and seemed like a “wild goose chase” (Andy Jocuns). But by the end, when we found the goose, we realized that Ron had helped us become more independent researchers.

We were never left alone on this journey though. Ron was always there, listening and relating to us with a sense of openness and gentle humor (Najma Al Zidjaly; Anna Marie Trester; Ingrid de Saint-Georges). When we went to him (in person or via email) with questions, puzzlement, or frustration, he often told us stories, stories that showed us that he had been there as well, stories that showed us an alternate perspective to view the problem, stories that are remembered and will be retold for generations of students and scholars to come.

As much as a collection of retrospective reflections on Ron’s work and life, this special issue is also intended to be anticipatory. As both Tom Randolph and Alexandra Johnston remarked, the singular question that Ron has always been concerned with is “Is this useful?” We hope this special issue will serve as a reference point to those readers who are interested in bringing about positive social change through discourse analysis by making accessible the vast and diverse body of Ron’s lifetime’s work. We hope readers will find in this issue ideas for their own research as our contributors did while working, talking and hiking with Ron. We hope this is a conversation that will be continued.

Jackie Jia Lou & Inge Stockburger
City University of Hong Kong & Georgetown University October 26, 2009