The following was sent out on the email list for the British Association for Applied Linguistics, 14 Jan 2021, written by Prof Adrian Blackledge (Stirling) and Director of the UCL Centre for Applied Linguistics, Prof Li Wei.
In memory of Jan Blommaert
Jan Blommaert, who has died age 59, influenced the field of sociolinguistics beyond measure, changing how we think about, and understand, language in social life.
He took his PhD at Ghent University in 1989, his dissertation a study of Swahili political discourse in Tanzania. From that moment he was indefatigable in pushing at the boundaries of the known. His research, teaching, and writing always challenged the status quo, while also acknowledging the lessons of history. For all that, it was discussion with colleagues and students that he claimed as his favourite activity. He asked some of the most intriguing, unexpected and thought-provoking questions, always in a supportive and motivating manner. An eternal, insatiable learner, he took pleasure in the generous exchange of ideas – what he called the ludic, fun, pleasure dimensions of academic life.
He spent a period as head of the Department of African Languages and Cultures at Ghent University; as Professor and Chair at the Institute of Education, University of London; and as Distinguished Professor at University of Jyväskylä. In 2007 he found a home as Professor of Language, Culture and Globalization, and Director of the Babylon Center for the Study of Superdiversity, at Tilburg University.
Throughout his career he held fast to core principles which guided his practice: to give, to educate, to inspire, and to be democratic. In his professional life he gave of himself beyond the reasonable. By his own nomination a knowledge activist, he made research and scholarship more than relevant, often going out to speak to non-academic audiences, including teachers, social workers, police, refugee support organizations, and many more.
He took his responsibility as an educator seriously. He expected the best of his students, believing that in aiming, as he said, an inch above their heads, they would respond by reaching for greater heights. He was rarely disappointed. As a researcher, a writer, and a teacher he opened up directions of thought, challenging existing formulations, always moving forward. Whether giving a keynote talk in a crowded conference hall, listening to a student in a tutorial in his office, or sitting in a research team meeting, he inspired with his energy, enthusiasm, and acuity. Indeed he took inspiration as a central instrument and goal of academic and intellectual practice. In his writing he led his readers to the limits of his own knowledge, gave us a glimpse of what lay beyond, and invited us to explore new intellectual domains.
A consistent theme throughout his scholarship was language and social justice. In his work, as well as in life, he was always ready to confront discrimination and inequality wherever he found them. He consistently worked with and for scholars and institutions in the Global South, building networks and partnerships, offering whatever support and assistance he could, and always learning. Academic partnership must be democratic at all times, never imposed ‘from above’. For him knowledge earned through collaboration was the key to winning the fight for equality.
He found himself increasingly at odds with the formal strictures of the academy. He resisted what he saw as a new culture in the university, which insisted on competition, while restricting dialogue, collaboration, slowness, and time to think. He fought against academic publishing, which, as he saw it, had become a form of terror for young scholars, rather than a force for creativity and liberation. His means of resistance was to make publication accessible to all. The Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies Babylon, which he founded and jointly edited, currently runs to 249 publications. In recent years, he spent considerable time and energy on Diggit, an online magazine providing an alternative platform for information exchange and debates on digital culture, globalization, and the arts.
To the end, his scholarship continued to provoke and inform, within and without the academy. In recent times he had taken forward the study of online-offline discourse in post-digital societies. Without question, his work will inspire and educate generations of students in the future. As a sociolinguist, applied linguist, ethnographer, and anthropologist, he was the leading scholar of his generation. We will miss him enormously.
He is survived by his wife Pika, and his sons Frederik and Alexander.
Adrian Blackledge, University of Stirling
Li Wei, UCL Institute of Education