ASU graduate is a 'pop star' linguist

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? 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 Download Full Image

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

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English


ASU graduate finds passion in sociocultural anthropology

April 27, 2023

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

Jason Bautista Pejay, a Flinn Scholar and student at Barrett, The Honors College, is graduating this spring with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change Jason Bautista Pejay Jason Bautista Pejay is graduating this spring with a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Download Full Image

Bautista Pejay said it took him time to find his true passion in college. 

“It would take years of growth through exploration in the different fields of anthropology and unlearning the internalized racism that made me avoid academic spaces for so long, but eventually I found my place as a globetrotting, tarot-reading, Indigenous Mexican writer in the sociocultural branch of anthropology,” Bautista Pejay said. “Today, I am on my first ever personal project, an autoethnography, with my honors thesis director. Anthropology will always be my first love, and I only look forward to where it will take me post-undergrad.”

Bautista Pejay is also a member of CKI International and Solis Diaboli (Classics Club). He talked with ASU News about his experience as a first-generation Indigenous Mexican student. 

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the fields you majored in?

Answer: I spent my first two years of college hopping from major to major, still convinced I was all about making money and starting a business like my Mexican parents always encouraged. I think I changed majors a total of six times.

Around that time, I felt a craving for the stereotypical college humanities experience that I felt I was missing out on, so I got to digging. I needed to catch up on honors credit, so Barrett’s summer course catalog was the first place I checked. I found a class titled “Fairies, Demons and Monsters Imagining the Wild.” This type of stuff always interested me, but I could never find a place to really engage with it at home; plus I would usually write it off as “white people stuff.” 

I was immediately hooked. The readings brought me such childlike joy and curiosity that I had never experienced up to that point in college. I had undiagnosed ADHD at the time, so engaging with material that I enjoyed for its own sake was a needed reprieve after two years of stuffing myself in boxes that weren’t for me. 

Seminar discussion on American values in "Where the Wild Things Are," problematic depictions in (Dungeons and Dragons) "Monster Manuals," critical analysis of colonial allegories in horror movies like "Ravenous" — I ate it all up. I was riding a rejuvenating high that summer. I began to feel that there was a point to college. That summer was when I finally began to feel like myself again.

I started to wonder where I would go after this. I wanted more but I didn’t really see a major that would let me keep studying this. I also knew I wanted to add a cultural element to it, since culture was my bread and butter, even in the majors that didn’t work out.

A young man looks out over a Costa Rica lake from a viewing platform

Jason Bautista Pejay looks out over Lake Arenal in Costa Rica.

One day, during one of our Zoom classes, I overheard a classmate say something that caught my attention. We were talking about some random subject while discussing a story called “The King of The Elves,” and a classmate said, “Oh, we used to talk about this all the time in my anthropology class.”

I thought to myself, “Anthropology — what does that mean?” I had heard the word before, but I never looked into it. I went to Google and looked up a definition. 

I also asked the friend, who I had spent the summer texting back and forth about my class and other nerdy things. “Hey, should I change my major to anthropology?” “Yes, absolutely you should.”

Since that day, I’ve never looked back.

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

A: The most important time is now. What we do now creates who we will become. Whether you desire change from who you were in the past, or who you want to become in the future, you must do it here in the moment.

It’s not instantaneous or linear. It’s more like a rehearsal. You definitely get tired of it at times, but if you stay consistent, over time it begins to feel more natural until suddenly, you’re not trying anymore, it’s just who you are now. Cycles aren’t broken; they’re interrupted and redirected. And don’t do it alone. I am because we are. No one has ever truly done it all alone.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: The Labriola National American Indian Data Center has become a home away from home. It’s where I rediscovered my Indigenous roots and became part of a community that helped lift me out of a very dark time in my life and reconnect with myself. Doing my part and giving back to the center in my own way has only helped ground me more.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’m applying to programs like the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, to go and be a farmhand across the country and around the world to learn more about sustainable living, write freelance, study the tarot and connect with more people. After all is said and done, I’ll use the knowledge I’ve gained to ask new questions and apply to an interdisciplinary humanities graduate program.

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

A: The money would go toward ethical sustainable living education and implementation that promotes Indigenous knowledge of the land to help people live off and take care of each other and the environment in more proactive ways.

Nicole Pomerantz

Communications specialist, School of Human Evolution and Social Change