IWL SHINES on Kiesha Martin’s Research on Linguistic Identity and How to Change DEI Initiatives in Higher Education

This Q&A is part of a series called “IWL SHINES” — an inclusive research series highlighting research conducted by faculty, grad students, and staff at Marquette. IWL stands for the Institute for Women’s Leadership at Marquette. IWL is a network whose mission is to advance women’s leadership locally and globally through pioneering research, innovative programming and collaborative engagement. Read more IWL SHINES Q&As here.

Image of Kiesha Martin smiling.

Kiesha Martin is a doctoral student studying philosophy in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. Here in a Q&A, Martin explains her research interests, academic motivations, and hopes for the future.

What is your research about?

My research focuses on diverse representation in historically demographically homogenous spaces. I focus on identity formation, or the construction of the “self” in relation to what is deemed “other,” particularly as this happens through language in social spheres. This research is both theoretical and practical, with implications for diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in higher education.

My current research develops and defends a concept of linguistic identity, which builds on Gloria Anzaldúa’s ideas about language and identity. In “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” Anzaldúa writes, “if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity. I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.”

My research explores Anzaldúa’s ideas about the deeply intwined relationship between language (and other forms of communication) and identity, or conceptions of the self.

The languages we speak relate to our identities in nontrivial ways. Indeed, language shapes central parts of our identity by enjoining us in linguistic communities that inform both our social and our personal identities.

Image of Reggae Falls in Jamaica, a source inspiration, near Martin’s house.

I grew up in Jamaica, where linguistic practices are dynamic, not static. My philosophical training and personal experience lead me to conclude that any pernicious linguistic policy or practice that “forces” one to speak a nonnative language necessarily, from my point of view, has an adverse effect on a person’s identity and sense of self.

Image of the Blue Mountains behind Martin’s house in Jamaica.

How did you decide to focus on this research interest?

My research is an extended answer to the question, “how do you show up in philosophy?” On my first day of a Philosophy of Liberation seminar at Marquette, the instructor, Professor Grant Silva, asked “How does your social identity show up in philosophy?” This was the first time I confronted the question of the relationship between my identity and philosophy directly. There are several related assumptions that I inferred from Silva’s question. First, it implied that we (human persons) can show up in philosophy; secondly, and perhaps more importantly that we should show up; and lastly that if we show up, we must be present, not as minds grappling with abstract concepts but as embodied selves that physically and intellectually disrupts the space and the discourse.

To this end, I descriptively define the relationship between language and identity by advancing and defending a definition of linguistic identity grounded in Caribbean Philosophy and the ontology of the marginalized other. By “Caribbean Philosophy,” I mean that body of philosophical knowledge that recognizes the nuances of the Caribbean’s situation as a geographical place, a historically situated position, and a conceptual space. In focusing on the marginalized other, I am interested particularly in that branch of social ontology that deals with the socio-relational constructions of race and gender. I show up as my specific embodiment, including a language, a race, an ethnicity, and a gender.

What have you learned about yourself and/or your field through the course of your research? What do you hope is the value of your research beyond academic scholarship?

Through my research and a series of career discernment exercises over the past two years, I made a discovery about myself: I learned that I am interested in careers centered in diversity, equity and inclusion, which is an off shoot of my investigation of philosophy through my social identity. To this end, I developed an interest in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts in higher education. My research has led me to question the ways in which these efforts are conceived in higher education. Diversity ought to mean more than making space for different embodiments. It must include making conceptual space for the narrative identities of these diverse embodiments.

Image of Kiesha Martin.

Many of the DEI initiatives in higher education are reactive in their origin, however, which is what I want to help change. That is, many initiatives only come into being after some catastrophic event violates a social identity. As a result, DEI programs focus on de facto inclusion, leaving limited resources for true equity and authentic diversity. Thus, over the past two years, I have been working on articulating and answering the following question: “How would focusing on proactive diversity plans that begin with a celebration of difference rather than focusing on reactive diversity plans improve the diversity metrics?”

How do you see your research connecting to other bodies of scholarship and/or other academic fields?

Although my work is in philosophy, the subject of linguistic identity is cross-disciplinary in scope. Indeed, I am actively connecting with scholars working on linguistic identity in different fields. The disciplines of linguistics, Caribbean theory, and literature shape my thinking.

Image of the cover of Caliban’s Reason, a foundational Afro-Caribbean book.

For example, my definition of linguistic identity comes out of an exegesis I perform on a passage from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” To develop a definition of linguistic identity, I offer an unorthodox analysis the text by reimagining both Caliban and Miranda’s roles and the significance of language in the colonial encounter. I use their exchange to clarify the constitutive elements of linguistic identity the Idiolect, the dialect, and linguistic agency.

What do you want to focus on next, and why?

My theoretical work in philosophy on linguistic identity lays the foundation for how I aim to apply that work to help change the landscape and culture of higher education. I aim to contribute to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts by examining language practices and policies used in higher education that may seem benign on one hand but that may be discriminatory in their application, given the links between language and the self.

What do you hope is the value for your research beyond academic scholarship?

My research has already proven to have instrumental value outside of academic scholarship it was extremely helpful in my role as the Humanities Diversity Fellow in the Office of Institutional Diversity in 2020–21. In fact, I can see that my research may be more valuable outside of academic scholarship as we all begin to take seriously the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, where “diversity” means the celebration of differences, as opposed to trying to locate ourselves in others; “equity” aims to unearth biases; and “inclusion” means accommodating the widest range of human abilities and identities.

Psst! Know someone doing great things? Maybe it’s you!

To recommend yourself or someone you know to be profiled in this series, please send an email with the person’s/people’s name to IWL SHINES at iwlshines@marquette.edu. Please provide a very brief description about the research involved or why you think it should be highlighted. After consideration, IWL will contact you/your nominee to start the interview process, which will entail the person/team responding in writing briefly to different interview questions from a menu of choices.