Guest Blog: In memory of Jack Bilmes

All of us at ROLSI were sorry to hear of the death, in May of this year, of Jack Bilmes, one of ethnomethodology’s most original and independent voices, and a warm, generous and caring man. I’m very grateful to Professor Gabi Kasper, an old friend and teaching colleague of Jack’s, for allowing us to reproduce here the obituary that was read out at this year’s IPrA conference. The paper that Jack was to have presented a paper there will, happily, be published in Discourse Studies (1).

Jack Bilmes came to the Department of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa as a Visiting Acting Assistant Professor in 1973. The Anth. Department at UH remained his institutional home base throughout his academic career. He also served on the graduate faculty of Linguistics and, from 1989 until his retirement in 2011, he was on the faculty of the PhD program in Second Language Studies. He served on many dissertation committees in these programs as well as in Japanese Linguistics.

Jack liked teaching, and he was a tremendous teacher. He introduced generations of PhD students to ethnomethodology and CA, regardless of the students’ disciplinary affiliation. His graduate course on Discursive Practices and his graduate seminars were a must to take for PhD students specializing in CA, and he generously welcomed colleagues from other departments and visitors to UH to sit in. I wish I had taken him up on the open invitation more often.

Discursive Practices partially overlapped with sociolinguistics and discourse analysis courses as they are typically taught in linguistics and applied linguistics, but Jack’s course took a more expansive view and a more targeted focus. For the many students from outside of anthropology and sociology in particular, his own article On The Believability Of Northern Thai Spirit Mediums (1995) and Howard Becker’s classic Becoming A Marijuana User (1953) may have been eye-catching for their exotic appeal at first, but under Bilmes’ guided reading of the texts in class their radical epistemology became more apparent for us and helped us see their implications for studying learning and development, both key topics in applied linguistics and second language studies.

Had it not been for Jack Bilmes’ courses, I suspect that discursive psychology would have remained under the radar of applied linguistic students and faculty at UH. I remember vividly walking back from Jack’s seminar with then PhD student Rue Burch and discussing how entrenched sociopsychological concepts like attitudes and motivation could be respecified from a DP perspective, which is exactly what Rue ended up doing in his dissertation. Matt Prior’s now longstanding research program on emotion in multilingual interaction was originally inspired by reading Edwards and Potter in Jack’s seminar.

Of course Jack’s classes also introduced us to his own research. One of his most important pedagogical achievements, to my mind, was to give students specimen or cases that instructed us how to critically read the CA literature itself, identify problems, and try our hand at solutions, as he did, for instance, in his work on preference. And then, showing us how to develop an original, innovative research approach one step at a time, through patient, serious, sustained, focused engagement with the analytical problems, always grounded in meticulously documented empirical evidence. Students in Discursive Practices and Jack’s seminars have been incredible fortunate to be participant-observers in the development of Occasioned Semantics. Much of what we have learned from Jack’s teaching, writing and mentoring on the topic has made an appearance in dissertations and publications. There is more to come.

When I was on sabbatical in Fall 2019, the entire cohort of my current PhD students took Jack Bilmes’ seminar on Category and Formulation, and he generously took over as their mentor. Little did he or they know that the seminar was going to be his last. During the pandemic he continued to participate in our online data sessions. In September 2020, he gave us a talk on a section of his forthcoming paper Delineating Categories in Verbal Interaction, the article on which his talk for today was going to be based. It was a privilege for his students and colleagues to discuss our teacher’s final paper with him.

(1) Bilmes, J. (in press). Delineating categories in verbal interaction. Discourse Studies.