Professor Deborah Keller-Cohen has been a member of the Linguistics Department at University of Michigan since 1974 when she started out as an assistant professor. In 1980, she became the first woman to hold a tenured position in the Department of Linguistics. She is now Professor of Linguistics, Women Studies and Education and is the Associate Director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender. Her academic interests cover literacy, psycholinguistics, and discourse analysis with a focus on gender-related differences. We talked about how she became interested in this range of topics, her recent work on the relationship between language and aging, and what she hopes to work on in the near future.
She always has been interested in the way that studying discourse will help us understand the human condition. Initially she worked on first and second language acquisition in children but during her first sabbatical, she became interested in functional literacy, the uses of reading and writing to accomplish every day tasks such as banking and intertactions with government institutions. During that year she did an ethnographic study of literate practices in a credit union. She observed interactions between people who worked in the credit union and people who were signing up to become members. She was interested in what they actually knew about banking information. During that time, she started wondering about how we ever got into a situation where we have what she calls public communication that nobody could fully understand. Then she took herself to think about literacy historically.
Her work on aging developed when she watched her father decline after he had a stroke. She observed that the different places where he lived during the period of change in his health status had limited conceptions of the communicative abilities of older adults. So she began to think about the way that social context that old citizens live in might play a role in the maintenance of their language skills. Instead of looking at the loss in their language, she examined the way social relations affect the maintenance of their language –viewing the cup as half full, rather than half empty, as she puts it.
Her interest in Women’s Studies started about 15 years ago when she attended events that IRGW and the Department of Women’s Studies were hosting. The activist mission of Women’s Studies along with its strong theoretical background appealed to her interests. So she became more involved in the department and eventually shifted a part of her appointment. Her connection with the School of Education originated from her interest in literacy, which she hopes to return to soon. She is currently writing up the last experimental work she did on aging, and she is also hoping to start working on another project that is more concerned with how we talk about aging; the discourses of aging.