“Your life is defined by language. Your identity is defined by language,” says Arriaga, who joined Clark in the fall. “When people embrace the study of language, they open avenues to expand their minds.”
This concept is central to the National Imagination course Arriaga is co-teaching this semester. Arriaga and professors Alice Valentine and Beth Gale lead students in a study of language as an element through which nations are created.
“Language is not only a tool of communication,” he says. “It’s also a process to create and disseminate knowledge. We use language to learn mathematics and other subjects. Language is everywhere.”
Students are urged to question how language forms national identities and how cultural production — such as film, digital products, and literature — represents and, at times, questions national identity.
Too often, Arriaga says, the study of language is met with the question, “What kind of job can that get me?” He tells skeptical parents and students that this generation of undergraduates is training for jobs that may not yet exist.
“What you plan for your future is not necessarily what’s going to happen,” he says. “You need to be prepared. You need to be flexible. What we teach here in Languages, Literature and Culture is resiliency.
“The very idea of learning a language requires different skills such as memorization, communication, and the flexibility to go out of your comfort zone. Those are skills valued by employers around the world.”
Arriaga’s goal is to engage other Clark disciplines in the study of language and culture. He notes, for instance, that coding and developing video games, as the students in Clark’s Becker School of Design & Technology do each day, is the equivalent of learning a new language.
Arriaga came to Clark after serving as a professor and chair of the Department of Global Languages and Cross-Cultural Studies at the University of Indianapolis. He has a master’s in Hispanic American Literature from the Caro y Cuervo Institute in Colombia and a doctorate in Hispanic studies and migration studies from the University of Western Ontario.
Arriaga has succeeded Valentine as chair of Language, Literature and Culture. He is steering the department through a difficult time as staff, faculty, and students continue to grieve the death last August of Professor Robert Deam Tobin, the Henry J Leir Chair in Language, Literature, and Culture.
His research intersects in the fields of critical race studies, Afro-Latinx and Afro-Latin American studies, digital studies, and digital humanities.
Arriaga is currently working on a book project that investigates data colonialism and its effects on Afro-Brazilian communities. He is examining a network of groups that is challenging the way governments and companies manage data to misrepresent historically marginalized people. The network is learning to interpret, analyze, and visualize data to give a voice back to these underrepresented groups.
“The studied groups would like to use that power to give a message to the world,” Arriaga says. “They exist. They are human beings. They are important.”