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ASU graduate is a 'pop star' linguist

Graduating linguistics PhD student Ekkarat Ruanglertsilp stands against a blue background, smiling and holding a sign celebrating the date he defended his dissertation. / Photo by Demetria Baker

Ekkarat Ruanglertsilp — who used English song lyrics to improve his language skills while growing up in Thailand — defended his dissertation on April 7. Photo by Demetria Baker

April 27, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

What do Britney Spears and linguistics have in common?

The answer: Ekkarat Ruanglertsilp — who came to ASU in 2018 to earn his PhD in linguistics and applied linguistics.

Growing up in northern Thailand, Ruanglertsilp was fascinated by pop artists like Britney Spears, Hilary Duff, Gwen Stefani and Miley Cyrus. His close attention to song lyrics helped improve his language skills.

“I always did well in the English subjects at school,” Ruanglertsilp said, “thanks to the motivation and the English language skill sets that I acquired from listening to these female artists’ music.”

As a kid, Ruanglertsilp spent hours mimicking the American accent and poring over U.S. teenage celebrity gossip magazines — à la Tiger Beat – that were rooted in the English vernacular. He watched shows such as “Gossip Girl” and “90210.” His interests set him apart from other Thai kids who he said were mainly into Thai and Korean pop cultures.

Ruanglertsilp later earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Chiang Mai University, where he became fascinated by the layered meanings of human interactions. He completed his final project about gender representation in the TV show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and was awarded an exchange program scholarship funded by U.S. State Department and Fulbright Thailand in 2012 to study at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, where he also taught classes in English as a second language.

Ruanglertsilp translated his passion for American pop culture into his teaching. He introduced his ESL classes to short videos of Hollywood celebrity interviews, movies and country and pop songs. Teaching with media can get students motivated, according to Ruanglertsilp. He firmly believes that learning English without cultural wisdom deprives students of social and philosophical content.

Ruanglertsilp is graduating from ASU this spring and defended his dissertation, “Gay Male Subjectivity, Diva-Worshipping, and Post-feminism: A Critical Discourse Analysis of How Gay Men Talk About Female Pop Icons” on April 7. It is based on interviews with several gay American men who identify as fans or worshippers of female vocalists.

His study examined how these men interact both with the feminist ideologies of pop diva culture and the gay male stereotype of diva-worshipping. Using the academic framework of critical discourse historical approach and applying it to literature on gay male subjectivity and post-feminism, he argued that certain gay men use the discourse of diva-worshipping to move beyond simple fandom to engage in discussions of U.S. gender politics.

“I also found several ways of how these U.S. gay men came to their novel understandings of womanhood through the diva-worshipping practice while also seeking meaningful and self-empowering ways to identify with their divas and what they represent,” Ruanglertsilp said.

Ruanglertsilp has published an article about some of his findings, “Discourse of Self-Empowerment in Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’ Album Lyrics” in the Journal for Cultural Research.

We had a lively conversation with Ruanglertsilp about his interests, passions, graduate school journey and plans for the future.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? 

Answer: I’ve always been fascinated by U.S. pop culture and the English language that came with it. I chose to major in English and linguistics at a university in my hometown and discovered that one of the courses I took, “Discourse in Communication,” was very enjoyable and eye-opening. I learned that many kinds of media (magazine articles, TV shows, movies, etc.) were a big source of the course materials for me to analyze.

This experience in the course really helped strengthen my interest in the language used in mass media and how it may include certain implicit ideologies or power that can marginalize certain groups of individuals. This course provided me with several tools to expose these ideologies and to promote more equity and justice for society. Later, I realized that ASU has several faculty members who specialize in discourse analysis and offer many courses based on the subject. So, I decided to further my education here.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: As a PhD student, I would say that I have learned to become more familiar with the U.S. academic culture, especially when I would like to pursue a career in U.S. academia after graduation. I have learned so much regarding the types of activities that academics/scholars do. I appreciate the interdisciplinary courses from my linguistics and applied linguistics program that helped me prepare for networking at academic conferences and deepen my understanding of the article publishing/peer-reviewing culture within the U.S.

As a teaching assistant, I learned how to build inclusive and inviting classrooms for my students. I always try to incorporate the concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion within my course lessons. However, my pedagogical experiences and advice from the program director taught me that sometimes, resistance to these concepts is expected from students. I experienced the resistance firsthand, but I think I handled it well with the advice from my professors.

I also love the peers I’ve made while I am a student here. We have learned so much from each other — the difficulty and the joy we share as graduate students. I am confident that the friends I made here will be lifelong ones.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I chose ASU primarily because I wanted to work with discourse analysis specialists, (Professor) Karen Adams, and (Associate Professor) Matthew Prior. I expressed my interest in working with them through brief conversations when I was applying for the program, and they were very friendly, helpful and willing to work with me.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I would say, Matthew Prior and Karen Adams. Prior was very kind to me when I first entered the program. He was my mentor who provided me with basic information about ASU, how to survive being a PhD student, and how to keep a good balance of school and personal life/mental health. Adams also taught me many valuable lessons regarding my research and how to go about designing my dissertation methodology. She also provided insights and encouragement when I was feeling discouraged from publishing or job searching.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to students?

A: I would encourage students to take several courses outside of their department. I did this during my third and fourth years and I learned quite a lot, which was very helpful to my dissertation. For those who are interested in making their research interdisciplinary, I think taking relevant courses from other departments can be very eye-opening.

Q: What was your favorite spot for power studying?

A: I usually study in our department. You can usually find me in my TA office space, or in the common area on the third floor of Ross-Blakley Hall.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I hope to be able to teach linguistics and applied linguistics at a university in the U.S. The ASU linguistics and applied linguistics program, ASU Writing Programs and my professors have done a great job of inspiring me to stay within academia.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: As a scholar in language, gender and sexuality, I would use the money to tackle homophobia, transphobia, sexism and racism. I would also like to use the money to advocate for the rights of the LGBTQIA+ communities and women. I think this is a critical time to advocate for more gender equity when, for example, gay men who dress up as their favorite divas or drag queens could be criminalized in certain U.S. states.

Written by Sheila Luna

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