Encouraging broad discussions

Semiotics Workshop – the best event on campus

By Sarah Fister Gale

If you’ve never been to (or presented at) The Semiotics Workshop: Culture in Context, you are missing out. This annual series, which meets on alternating Thursdays from 4:30-6:00pm in Haskell 101, was launched more than a decade ago and remains one of the most popular workshops on campus. “Compared to other workshops I’ve experienced, this one has a very large and steady group of participants who come back again and again,” says Professor Susan Gal, the Mae & Sidney G. Metzl Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Social Sciences at UChicago, and a faculty co-organizer of the events. “We are never at a loss for audience or people to coordinate it.”

The workshop is a draw for a number of reasons including its interactive format, student-led discussions, and excellent food and drinks. “People take it very seriously,” Gal says.

How it works

The Semiotics Workshop offers a unique forum where students and experts are invited to present works in progress, get feedback from peers, and respond to questions about their work that they may not have considered.

The overarching goal is to advance research based on a semiotic framework with presentations from academics from linguistics, psychology, sociology, political science, literary theory, and anthropology, says Michael Silverstein, the Charles F. Grey Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, Linguistics, and Psychology at UChicago, and faculty co-organizer. “Our aim is to do an ethnographic study of language and culture through conversations with people from across the anthropological world and beyond.”

By not limiting the speakers to a specific discipline or topic, the workshop encourages broad discussions around the relationship between varying linguistic codes and the entailments of these relations in subsequent uptake in social life. This causes participants to find new links between the object of analysis and the broader anthropological context, which creates an environment for rich dialogue, he says.

The line up

Each year two graduate student coordinators choose a broad theme in the area of anthropology (with “gentle guidance” from Gal and Silverstein), then invite presenters to submit abstracts of a work in progress for consideration. Each quarter usually features five-to-six workshops (15-18 per year), and they prioritize UChicago students who want to present a paper, thesis chapter, or article in progress. “Our goal is to choose a theme that is broad enough to attract lots of different types of work,” says Rachel Howard, a doctoral student in the department of anthropology and current co-coordinator.

For example, last year’s theme was “Modality and Value,” and included presentations from PhD students Chris Bloechl, speaking on “Authoritative ‘Mixed’ Maya At a Presbyterian Church in Yucatán, and Erik Skjon speaking on “An Ecology of Value.”  The coordinators also invited Lily Chumley, an assistant professor in media, culture, and communication at New York University, and former UChicago PhD student to speak on the “Fertile Virtue Wealth: Gendered Agencies and the Linguistic Administration of Market Socialism.” Chumley’s presentation led to a discussion about the roles economic value plays in the family structure in China, which Chumley used to design a new course at NYU, Silverstein reports. “The discussion opened a whole new way of looking at this phenomenon.”

This year theme is “Semiotics of Sociocultural Categorization,” and the coordinators already have several students and faculty speakers confirmed. “Presenters are easy to find,” says Hannah McElgunn, co-coordinator for the 2014-2016 workshops, and a 2018 presenter. “We’ve even added additional events to accommodate extra submissions.”

Think and drink

Prior to each workshop, every participant is expected to read the speaker’s pre-circulated draft manuscript and have questions and comments ready to share. “The faculty make a point of staying on the sidelines and try never to ask the first question,” Gal says. This encourages students to take the lead and shape the conversation. “This approach helps them develop the skills they will need in future meetings and symposiums.”

Despite clear academic goals, the environment is relaxed and engaging. Organizers always provide drinks and snacks, and participants often take speakers to dinner after the presentation to continue the conversation. This is especially valuable when guest speakers come from other universities or forums, Silverstein notes. “The students interact with them in a relaxed setting,” he says. “It’s a way for them to expand their networks with people whom they have met in an intellectual context over drinks.”

The combination of rich discussions on a broad range of semiotic topics in a comfortable environment has proven to be an ideal workshop formula that is widely popular with students and faculty alike. The program has been going on for more than 12 years, and it’s likely to continue for years to come. “This workshop has given me an opportunity to see how good a discussion can be when everyone participates,” says Howard. “It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve been a part of at the university.”