Barbara Johnstone earned her Master of Arts ('77) in Linguistics and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), as well as her doctorate ('81), from U-M. Her PhD dissertation was entitled, “Repetition in Discourse: Cohesion and Persuasion in Arabic Argumentative Prose.”

Johnstone is currently a professor of rhetoric and linguistics in the English Department at Carnegie Mellon University and is an important figure in sociolinguistics and discourse analysis. U-M Linguistics Department Chair Robin Queen interviewed her for the Journal of English Linguistics.

Below you will find the beginning of the interview followed by a link to the full text.


Robin Queen (RQ): The first question I have is about all the interrelated topics that you’ve worked on over the course of your career. I’m curious what your favorite projects have been.

Barbara Johnstone (BJ): I’ve always been interested in the individual and in place—and, of course, in language. That’s why I’m a linguist. I think those three interests are woven into pretty much all of my work except for my dissertation work, which was more in the language and culture mode (Johnstone 1991). I think my three favorite projects as whole projects, not just as writing projects but as research projects, have been the three that have come out of the three places I’ve lived, the Fort Wayne one (Johnstone 1990), the Texas one (Johnstone 1999), and the Pittsburgh one (Johnstone 2013), because in each case, the project emerged out of trying to make sense out of where I was living. They were all in a way for me placemaking projects.


RQ: Did you see them as ethnographic projects?

BJ: Yes, they’re ethnographic in different ways. I’d say they get more ethnographic as they go along, partly because I’ve just spent longer and longer each time and been more self-conscious about the ethnographic aspects of them. It’s loose ethnography. It’s not the kind of ethnography that an anthropologist would consider full-fledged, but I think there’s more of that as I go along. There’s more of that kind of thing in the Pittsburgh project where you actually go out and ask people in a systematic set of questions or you try to make a certain kind of situation happen so you can observe it. I wasn’t doing that so much in the previous two projects.


RQ: What would you want people to take theoretically from those three projects?

BJ: Well, one thing is about place as a social and linguistic construct. Of course my interest in it is mostly in place as a discursive construct. People make places in talk, and that’s one of the really important things they do in talk. It’s a kind of identity work that is as important as any other in many contexts.
Although that was already the focus in Fort Wayne, I’ve become more and more sociolinguistic, in the sense of being more and more interested in variation and the details of variation. I didn’t think of myself as a sociolinguist at all when I started out. I was a discourse analyst. I never took a course in sociolinguistics. Penny Eckert arrived at the University of Michigan after I’d already finished coursework and she wasn’t in the same department anyway, so I just remember seeing her a few times. And Pete Becker didn’t think of himself as a sociolinguist. There really wasn’t anyone who did, so I had no claim to that designation at all until I moved to Texas A&M and I met Guy Bailey there. He turned me on to how cool it was to think about regional variation and social variation.
Bailey had worked on the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (Pederson 1988) when he was in graduate school and he was studying Texas speech and doing the project with Trish Cukor-Avila in what they call Springville (Cukor-Avila & Bailey 1996). I just got more and more interested in drilling down to those sorts of details and seeing how you could use discourse analysis to enrich your explanations of the kinds of patterns you were finding. I actually remember going to my very first sociolinguistics conference in 1990, a Methods in Dialectology conference in British Columbia, and feeling like I was a person from Mars.


RQ: Do you think that’s what got you interested in methods more broadly?

BJ: I don’t know. I think I was always interested in methods. I think maybe I started to think of myself as being interested in methods when I was asked to write a book about methods, qualitative methods (Johnstone 2000b). Then when I came to Carnegie Mellon, I was very explicitly asked to teach about methods. The discourse analysis course that I have been teaching here is really discourse analysis as a method for rhetorical inquiry. That’s why these students need it and that’s what they use it for. I can’t present it as a subfield of linguistics. If I did it wouldn’t work very well. Students would think it was irrelevant.


RQ: Do you also teach sociolinguistics as linguistics at CMU?

BJ: Sometimes, but more to undergraduates because we have a linguistics major and a minor. So, I’ve been able to work sociolinguistics in. For a while I taught an actual course called Introduction to Sociolinguistics but then I realized that was ridiculous. It was way too broad and way too superficial. Maybe if you were in a linguistics department you would need a course like that, but my students didn’t need to show they’d had an introduction to sociolinguistics, and nothing could have a prerequisite anyway. So then I started teaching more targeted courses that could introduce big chunks of sociolinguistics but where I didn’t feel responsible to cover that whole field. I developed a course called Discourse and Identity and a course called American English, which was mostly about variation, and a course on the rhetoric of place where I can talk a lot about language. That’s the way I’ve brought in sociolinguistics.