2024 – Spring

A Non-linguist’s Interest in Sociolinguistics, Sexuality and Synths: Interviewing Elvis Coimbra Gomes

Authors: Andreia Abreu Remigio & Alicia Saner

Andreia: Hello Elvis!


AAR: Thank you so much for meeting with us today and accepting to share a little bit about yourself with our readers! It’s an honor to interview a staff member who was in our shoes some years ago. Your area of interest seems to encompass many topics, from language to mental health and sexuality. I’m sure people will enjoy learning more about your research. How are you doing today? Only a couple days before Spring break! (The interview was conducted on March 25).

Thank you for the invitation. It’s really a pleasure to have students interview someone who is not really a permanent staff member [laughs]. But yeah, I’m doing fine; a little tired though. I’m looking forward to a little break.

Alicia: You’re brand new to the Department but first-years all know you from IELL. Could you tell us more about yourself? Who are you? Where are you from? Where have you studied and worked?

I was born in 1990 and raised in Gstaad in the Canton of Bern to Portuguese parents. I did all my mandatory schooling in Gstaad, but then after 9th grade I didn’t have good enough grades to continue my studies. My parents would say “if you don’t study, then we’ll send you back to Portugal,” which I’ve always found very ironic, because I’ve never lived in Portugal. So, I did a raccordement in Château d’Œx and then I was able to do my gymnase in Burier. I ended up at UNIL where I studied English and Film. I also spent a year at the University of Montana in the US during my BA, which was literally the best year of my life! It was really fun and that’s when I saw the usefulness of what I was studying.

Before then I didn’t really know why I was at university and why I was studying literature and film. One of the reasons I wanted to be here was because I wanted to be a movie director. But I quickly realized that the Department of Film History and Aesthetics here wasn’t going to teach me the required skills to become a movie director. And I decided to study English because I wanted to write better songs in English. Those were really the naive reasons of a young adult who didn’t know what to do with his life! And then in the US, I took a class on literary criticism where we learned about Marxism, feminism, queer theory, etc. And that’s when I realized that the things that I was learning were useful. So I shifted to linguistics during my Master’s, because I got a bit sick of literature. I just didn’t see the point of doing literature, whereas linguistics has that practical aspect that I really liked. By learning how language works in society, I could also make sense of how I was using language in my daily interactions and how people were using language with me. I actually took one of the first classes Anita taught at UNIL, on language and gender, and I wrote a paper about OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) for it. Then I wrote my Master’s thesis on OCD with Anita. Since there were only a handful of linguistics studies on OCD at the time, it gave me the idea of doing a PhD about that topic.

So, I got a funding opportunity in London in 2017, and I defended my thesis in 2021 while I was in quarantine because of COVID [laughs]. Anyway, Queen Mary University of London was very chaotic. It was not well organized, compared to Lausanne. But I was really lucky, because I did my PhD with 24 other PhD students. We had a big office that we shared and there was a really nice communal family atmosphere. My supervisor had 4 other PhD students who were all studying language, sexuality, and gender. We had discussions about the theories we were reading, the data that we were analyzing, and it was just an overall very stimulating environment. And on top of that, I was lucky because my funding was coordinated between King’s College and Queen Mary. At King’s College I had my co-supervisor, Olivia Knapton, who was the only linguist working on OCD at that time. And at Queen Mary I had my supervisor, Erez Levon, who is a big specialist in language, gender and sexuality. Being in London at that time was really the perfect moment for my PhD.

And then I came back to Switzerland! Since I didn’t have a job, I signed up for the HEP (Haute École Pédagogique). While I was studying there, I was also chargé de cours here in the English Department where I helped out our linguistics team with IELL and also taught a seminar on discourse analysis. I kind of stuck around and now I am replacing Jennifer Thorburn who is on sabbatical leave. But my contract is ending at the end of July and then… I don’t know what will happen to me! [laughs]

AS: So you’ve experienced the Department from both sides! How different did the Department feel when you were a student? Did you have a feeling one day you’d be back?

Definitely not! [laughs] When I was doing my Bachelor’s degree, I didn’t even know what a PhD was. But to answer your question, I’ve always preferred the English Department compared to the Film Department. The English Department welcomed our own interventions. It was never like “I’m the teacher and I’m giving you the knowledge and you sit there quietly, and you just absorb what I’m telling you.” The English Department, at least that was my experience, encouraged the sharing of impressions, and ideas. And that was, I think, one of the best ways to explore the different theories and the different books. That’s also something that I try to do in my own teaching. Now that I am part of the teaching team, my opinion hasn’t changed much of the Department.

AS: We were quite impressed to see that you’ve participated in Switzerland’s Got Talent while you were still an MA student! What was more stressful, performing on national television or defending your mémoire?

That’s a good question! [laughs] In terms of emotions, I think it’s very similar, in the sense that you experience anxiety and the fear of failure. But on television, I think the stakes are a bit higher, because you can face social repercussions, right? If you fail on national television, people might recognize you on the street and laugh at you. Whereas for the mémoire, my family was present, and I was in a safe space. In terms of the stress levels, I think it was the same. Although with Switzerland’s Got Talent, one of the things that people don’t realize when they watch the clip is that I arrived at 12:00 PM and I had to wait until 8:00 PM before entering the stage. I remember waiting for 8 hours while reading Derrida for the Critical Approaches assignment! I have that memory of being stressed, trying to focus and relax with Derrida [laughs].

AS: So that would be your advice against stress, reading Derrida?

No, no, no. [laughs] Do something to distract yourself. I like to watch horror movies when I’m very anxious because it levels out my anxiety. But that’s just me, other people do yoga and meditation, play video games, or something else.

Elvis on stage at Switzerland’s Got Talent

AS: Do you still write songs and play the guitar nowadays?

Unfortunately not, because my priorities have changed. Back in the day, I wanted to be a rock star. And now my priorities are basically my job, so I don’t really have time to write songs, although I have about five different songs that I’ve started writing. But I just never got the energy to sit down and finish those songs. I think I also don’t have the motivation for it. I’m not going to gain any money from it. Why invest much energy in that when reading about linguistics is as interesting as writing songs?

AAR: So you used to write songs and you used to write poetry. Your poems can still be found on MUSE’s website…

Oh God. [laughs]

AAR: Do you remember them, and do you still write creatively?

I don’t write creatively anymore, no. I journal whenever I feel down or anxious. Writing is always useful to have an objective perspective on your problem, because if you don’t write it, the problem stays in your head. Writing really allows you to shift your perspective and to tackle the whole thing in more objective terms. It’s nice to know that my poems are still on the website! [laughs] I think one of the poems was about my guitar…

AAR: There was one about Derrida!

There was one about Derrida, yes! I experimented with the notion of understanding and not understanding. Derrida is one of the intellectual figures that I really like, as well as Foucault. I have all his books on my bookshelf [points to office bookshelves]. I refer to them as “Tonton Jackie” and “Tonton Michel,” just to remove them from their pedestal and remember they’re just human beings. Coming back to my poems, I think there was one about my guitar and another one where I tried to embed three poems in one. When reading the even lines and then the odd lines and then the whole poem, it creates three different poems. Those poems were written when I was taking a class on creative writing in the US, because I thought it would be really useful for my songwriting. But I haven’t written any poems since then. Life happens, priorities changed.

AAR: Now you devote your time to linguistics! You once told me that you consider yourself more of a social scientist than a linguist. Can you tell us more about that?

My relationship to linguistics is very complicated. I started off as a literature student, and at the beginning I thought linguistics was difficult to understand. Though I never failed linguistics, unlike medieval that I failed twice [chuckles]. I also associated linguistics with those structuralist schools of thought like Chomsky, or syntax trees, all these technical things that don’t fascinate me. Even when I started doing sociolinguistics, and discourse analysis, I always struggled to identify as a linguist. When I was writing my MA thesis and my PhD thesis, I would have lengthy discussions with my supervisors about “am I doing linguistics? Is discourse analysis linguistics?” My supervisors always told me, “if you don’t trust yourself, at least trust us because what you’re doing is linguistics.” So that’s why I’m not a linguist, I don’t walk around with all the theoretical linguistic knowledge. I know where to find the information in my notes or in the slides that I created. But it’s not the kind of thing that I keep in my mind all the time. So I prefer to refer to myself as a social scientist, who uses linguistic and sociolinguistic theories to better understand social and psychological phenomena. I’m not interested in linguistic theory per se. I don’t care about comparing grammatical structures of different languages. I’m interested in how people make sense of their lives, how people make sense of the different social, social and sexual norms that they have to navigate in their daily lives, how people describe their symptoms when they are ill, what kind of ideologies they draw on when they construct their identities. These are things that we do all the time. Having a theory that allows me to explain those different processes has turned me into a more empathetic person towards other people, but also towards myself. I understand the world differently. And this is something that literature didn’t give me in the past. I was reading Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, John Donne, Baldwin, all those different authors. But it wasn’t enough for me. It was fun to interpret those books but… how can I be sure that my analysis is sound enough? There was something lacking, and that’s what linguistics gave me: a practical kind of knowledge that is based on empirical observation. And then, of course, with linguistics, it’s not just about language structure, but also sociology, psychology, etc. It’s highly interdisciplinary and that’s what I like about what I’m doing. I’m an interdisciplinary scholar. I’m not an expert in linguistics, I’m not an expert in sociology, I’m not an expert in psychology. I’m somewhere in between, and I’m trying to understand how the different theories work together. That’s why I have a hard time identifying myself as a linguist.

AS: Your work on OCD has also led you to organize a conference, which is a very interdisciplinary and tangible project! Students taking “The Language of OCD” can validate their credits by presenting a poster at the “OCD in Society” conference. Can you tell us what “OCD in Society” is and how it came about?

I organized that conference for the very first time in 2019 when I was in London doing my PhD. And the idea came out of the observation that most studies on OCD were done in psychology and used statistical tools. At the time there were very few qualitative studies on OCD that explored how people with OCD made sense of their illness, how they struggled to find therapy. All these meaningful practices were not really explored. So I thought, why not organize a conference where the goal is simply to bring together different scholars from different disciplines who have an interest in studying OCD from a non-quantitative perspective? The 1st edition welcomed linguists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, literary scholars, and even artists. That was very important to me because in London there is this community of OCD sufferers who are artists and whose artwork I wanted to showcase. Now I’m organizing the 4th edition of the conference and unfortunately, I cannot invite artists, because we don’t have enough funding. But the topic of the conference is connected to that seminar that I’m teaching, so I just thought it would be nice if students could actually contribute to the knowledge of OCD from a qualitative perspective. Instead of writing the typical essay or doing the typical oral presentation, they can create a poster that summarizes the research project that they will do during the semester. I’m sure that whatever they will do will be new and groundbreaking, because up until today, there are only 12 or 13 linguistic studies on OCD!

AAR: Are you working on any research or is that on the back burner for now?

Unfortunately, I’m not paid to do research [sighs]. I have a couple of articles in mind that I would like to publish. One of them is part of my PhD thesis that looks at how people who identify as LGBT+ talk about their obsessive fears of not being LGBT+ and how that is connected to heteronormativity. The other paper questions how normativity is researched in queer linguistics. Basically, we often refer to normativity as a spectrum ranging from what is normative to non-normative. However, that doesn’t capture expressions that denote quantification and signal a non-normative status like “this penis is too short”, “these breasts are too huge”, “he is not trans or straight enough”. These examples seem to imply that these extremes are not normative. What is normative is somewhere in the middle. So instead of seeing normativity as a straight spectrum, I also see it as a U-shaped spectrum. I think that they are two sides of the same coin. I’m really interested in theorizing how language is used to express such normative stances. How people negotiate the extremes to decide what is normative. I would love to write an article about that.

AS: In a nutshell, you’re busy with school! Subbing for Jenn, teaching at the language center… Can you tell us about the other classes that you’re teaching and that you’ve taught? Do you have a dream class that you would like to teach someday?

I’ve already taught my dream classes! [chuckles] At UNIL I’ve taught IELL, both the lecture and the tutorials. I’ve taught “Introduction to Discourse Analysis” several times. I taught a Master seminar, “Language and Sexuality” last year, “The Language of OCD” this year, and “Language and Health” last semester. When I was doing my PhD thesis or even being a student here at UNIL, I would have never thought that I would teach a class on OCD since that’s not what linguists usually teach. But here I am.

AS: How would you describe your teaching style?

I’m always thinking about how I can teach my students specific things in the most efficient way. At the end of their degree, humanities students are very often not aware of the skills that they learned for their future jobs. I try to make students conscious of the acquired skills. Last semester, some of my students had to do an oral presentation, so I showed them what good oral presentations are and then I gave them an assessment grid where different skills were evaluated, not only the content of their presentation, but also their body language, and paralinguistic features. I think those are just important skills that students need to be conscious of when applying for a future job.

AAR: So you’d say that the HEP was influential in the way you teach now?

Oh yes, definitely. The HEP does have its issues [laughs], but there are some classes, especially one about assessment strategies, that completely revolutionized my way of thinking about assessment. Some people are against assessment grids for various reasons. But I have seen how valuable it is to explicitly state what students will be assessed on and to use that grid to give targeted feedback. I also witnessed the efficiency of learning by teaching. So that’s something that I try to use as much as possible in my seminars. I ask students to explain to each other what they understood from the reading. They then share their impressions, and I’m always there to guide the interpretation, based on my own knowledge and previous experience.

AAR: One of the reasons we wanted to interview you is precisely because you’re a temporary member of staff and are leaving in August. What do you have planned for the future?

[Laughs] I sent my CV to the HEP. I had job interviews. I’m still waiting for a response. I also sent my CV to two different gymnases. I’m hoping that the English Department will still need me, so that I can extend my contract, but up until now nothing is settled. In August I’ll only have 20% at the language center and I have to fill the rest with something else!

AAR: Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: lightning round! Favorite color?

I hate those kind questions! [laughs] I’m just going to say blue without knowing if that’s my favorite color. I like it because I think that’s the color that I often wear, but I don’t think consciously that’s my favorite color.

AS: What’s the last book that you’ve read?

The last nonfiction book I’ve read is called The Identity Trap by Yascha Mounk. The whole book criticizes left-wing politics for their extreme take on tribal identity politics by arguing that this furthers the rise of far-right ideologies, and suggests a way of finding a common ground between different social groups by endorsing universalist values.

And the last fictional book I’ve read was a graphic novel called In, by Will McPhail, which is a very beautiful, very simple graphic novel about meaningful relationships and how important it is to have banal social interactions and not being afraid of sharing something personally with each other.

AAR: The last TV show you watched?

Yesterday, I finished the 4th season of You.

AS: Cats or dogs?

Oh God. [laughs] I didn’t grow up with animals. But I now own 2 little cats because of my girlfriend: Balou and D’Artagnan, and they’re very cute. So I’ll say that I’m a cat person in becoming. [laughs]

Balou & D’Artagnan

AAR: Controversial opinion?

Yeah… The song “Wonderwall” by Oasis is overrated.

AAR: Favorite album of all time?

Oh no! I like so many things that it’s impossible to put one at the top.

AAR: Recent album that you liked, then?

One that I listen to very often on repeat now is Blink 182’s One More Time that they recently released. But it’s not my favorite. I will recommend a music genre, instead. I’m really into synthwave, it’s a genre that uses music styles from the 80s, with contemporary themes. I love groups like The Midnight, Ollie Wride, FM-84, At 1980, Max Cruise, The Strike. The Weeknd also has some synth wavy songs. The 1975 sometimes go into that mood. Any synthwave that uses saxophone is a treat for me.

AS: Favorite place to vacation?

[Laughs] It’s really difficult. Again, I don’t think in terms of favorites because it excludes the rest of things that I like. It’s a very post-structuralist way of thinking, because if you have a favorite then you also have a non-favorite!

AAR: You’re thinking too much! [laughs]

I know, I know, but that’s my intellectual journey! I’ve read all these different theories and I’ve tried to incorporate them into my life. But if I had to recommend a place: a road trip through Portugal, not just going to the touristy places like Lisbon, Porto or Algarve. Go through the whole country, because the landscape is constantly changing and that’s really beautiful. I would also recommend a road trip across the West Coast of the US, through Montana, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, and Washington state. That’s really a lovely road trip.

AS: Tell us one thing your students would never guess about you.

I bungee jumped two years ago. [laughs] And then, I suffered from a kidney stone and the doctors thought it was because of the bungee jumping… like I’d dislocated the kidney stone!

Elvis mid-jump!

AS: Favorite place in Anthropole?

[pauses then laughs] I don’t like the Anthropole as a building, so I don’t think that I have a favorite… No, yes, I do have a favorite place in the Anthropole, it’s the cafeteria. I like talking to our mamas downstairs, and it’s nice because they talk to me in Portuguese and they always call me like então menino, “what’s up little boy”, and that’s so endearing. It gives me those really familiar “mama” vibes that I got from my mom! [laughs]

AS: If you had to compose a theme song for the English Department, what would you name it?

Hmm, that’s a very good question. [pause] “Talk, Talk, Talk!” Because we always want students to participate in our lessons, and when I was a student that’s the thing that I liked most about the English seminars. So yeah, it’s also a wink to Rihanna’s “Work, work, work.”

AS: To the same beat?

[singing] Students gotta talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, we just want them to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk…

AS: Thank you so much for sitting with us! It was a real pleasure to get to know you better. Is there anything else you’d like to share with MUSE?

Yeah! So, keep doing the work that you’ve been doing for all these years, right, one generation after the other. I think it’s really important. And, a message to all students: just be mindful of the skills that you acquire, because even if you’ve spent hours analyzing language or literature, those analytical skills are important. You stand out from students of the other faculties who don’t have those linguistic analytical skills. If you can somehow highlight them in your CV, I think that would be really great!

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