The second major theme of the Athens’ conference was really a lament: “Wo is me; Generative research is widely misunderstood by the lay public, the scientific public, university administrators, my parents, my kids and even the occasional stray dog or cat. What to do, what to do.” In Athens, this cri de coeur was almost as universal as Principle C, cutting across most countries and departments (though as you will see below, there were a few outliers). The problem seems most serious in Europe, but it also extends to the US and Canada, and a good deal of time at the conference was spent in decrying this state of affairs and discussing what if anything could be done about this. Indeed, the last session of the get-together was dedicated to this topic. David Pesetsky captured the gloomy tone in a reprise of his LSA speech from a couple of years ago still redolent with the smell of sack cloth and ashes.
I really shouldn’t treat this lightly, especially what’s happening in Europe. Our Greek colleagues told us a story that sounded right out of Monty Python. It appears that several years ago some enterprising GGers wrote a textbook which came to be used by Greek high school students. The book noted that (Modern) Greek had a five vowel system. This apparently differed from Ancient Greek, which had a seven vowel system. Well, one day these GGers woke up to find themselves accused of having stolen two vowels from the Greek language and that this showed that they were either ignorant buffoons who were inexpert in linguistics or, even worse, traitors trying to demean the Greek language, the Greek state, and the Greek people. These stolen vowels (much like some stolen marbles), it was said, threatened the very foundations Greek civilization. Now, if this sounds too funny for words, I was assured that it was not a joke. In fact, we foreigners closely watched our Greek hosts and colleagues to assure ourselves that this was not an elaborate hoax (recall, the Greeks were the ones to “discover” the Trojan horse). In fact, what actually happened was even worse. The attacks, it seems, threatened to become violent. Nonetheless, the Greek linguists came to the support of their fellows and the government did not give in to this idiocy. Nonetheless, damage was done. The events were appalling in every way, even if barely believable.
So, there is no question that things are bad for GGers in some places, and so it is reasonable that the issue of what can be done was a topic many wanted addressed. Interestingly, much of the discussion started with self-criticism. Many agreed that GGers have done a bad job explaining themselves to both the general public and our scientific colleagues. We accused ourselves of some insularity and criticized the theory for being too opaque. We also pointed to profound public ignorance and wondered out loud about how to put the grammar back into grammar school and how to get more Pinkers and Jackendoffs and Bakers and Yangs onto the NYT best sellers lists.
It was all very bracing in a self-flagellating sort of way, but I am skeptical that much can be done on the very large national stage (be it high schools or the NYT), at least in the short to medium run. Nor do I believe that it would do much good. I have expressed this skepticism before here, so what follows is partly reprise.
High school physics and biology courses have not prevented widespread climate science denial and anti-evolution sentiments. Everyone knows that smoking kills and sickens but this has not prevented intelligent people from smoking (especially in Europe). The fact that being overweight is debilitating has not caused even the scientifically inclined to stay on the slimmer side. So knowing the truth is only so effective and, to add some anecdotal evidence, UMD has been running outreach programs with a local high school and I have been told that the benefit of this for the high schoolers was a lot less clear than the benefit the outreach had for the grad students recruited to implement the effort (more on this below).
Before I am accused of being overly negative here, let me switch directions and suggest some practical things that I believe we can do that can have a more immediate positive impact. I suggest that the target of any effort should be university administrators, our academic colleagues and the academics in disciplines closest to our own. Here are some concrete suggestions:
1. Regularly eat lunch with colleagues in other departments. Lunch is where academics discuss what they do. This will give you an opportunity to educate your colleagues about what GG does and why it is interesting. I should add, that it is important to be interested (or at least apparently sincere fake interest) in what these colleagues do for the discussion will go nowhere if it intended to just be a snow job.
2. Another excellent place to meet colleagues and impress them is on university committees. Everyone hates these. I know that I did and do. However, these are venues for impressing colleagues and that can have an immediate impact on how they perceive you, your work and your department. Not surprisingly, if someone thinks you are reasonable and bright then they will tend to think that the work you do is less likely to be BS and that the work you don’t approve of more likely to be. University committees are where colleagues size one another up and serving on them well can further the fortunes of a linguistics department very quickly. Oh yes, the people you meet in this way can also serve as lunch partners (see 1).
3. Go to colloquia in other departments that are related to what you as linguists do. This means colloquia in psychology, cog sci, CS, hearing and speech science, second language departments, typology talks etc. etc. etc. I personally think that the first four are especially important for these are often important departments at the university. Going there and defending GG when attacked or when misinformation is presented is very effective. People will believe that what they hear is likely correct unless someone contradicts it. You need to be there to do so. Of course you should be polite and reasonable etc. But above all be clear that if someone says something that is patently false or very misleading make sure that it becomes clear that you think that it is patently false or very misleading. Moreover, going to such talks is important for making university contacts. Though not that common, it is even possible to influence what your colleagues think about GG if you talk to them (again, see 1 and 2 above). However, at the very least, it is critical that misinformation be identified and your dissent registered.
4. Senior syntacticians have, IMO, done a poor job teaching our grad students how to speak about what they do to non-professionals, or even to other linguists not in their immediate research areas. This, however, is very important. This means learning how to tell a story and how to relate technical results to larger themes. Grad students should be constantly encouraged and challenged to explain their ideas to others that are not similarly engaged in the same domain of research. They too should be encouraged to have lunch with grad students in other departments. They should be encouraged to explain what they do to parents, friends, non-linguistic lovers, waiters they run into, bartenders and bus drivers. Being able to tell a story to intelligent lay people will have benefits beyond advancing the politics of the field (though it does this too). Explaining what you do so that a non-expert can understand it sharpens your own understanding of what you are doing. I would go further. If someone cannot explain what they are doing to a non-expert, their work is either not grounded in a real idea, they don’t understand what they are up to scientifically, or it is mere technology (and I do mean “mere”). Thus, developing and exercising your story telling skills should be part and parcel of every grad student’s educational experience. As in all things, some will be better than others, but every smart grad student (and really, nowadays, are there that many other kinds?) can get good at this if s/he practices, and the only useful practice involves doing it again and again.
5. Faculty must model these skills for students. So they/we too need to visibly engage in this process of explaining what we do to non-experts and elaborating the big general issues that animate inquiry in GG. Develop a 2 minute, 5 minute, 30 minute, 60 minute spiel. Figure out how to relate what you do to big issues. I have always found GG’s links to cognition to be a sure winner, but I am sure that there are many good stories to tell. An added benefit, if faculty does this regularly, they will be better placed to help students acquire this skill as well.
6. Think if inviting university big shots to the department to find out about what it does. Showcase grad students. In our experience at UMD, the higher ups love this. Note, it is also nice for grad students and it will give then a further incentive to sharpen their story telling skills (see 5).
7. When others come to give talks in your department colloquium, try asking at least one fairly general question (here’s an example: “Why is what you told us interesting?”). It will soon become widely known that invited speakers will be asked to explain themselves at least once in simple terms. This will be very valuable pedagogically, both for the field’s leading lights and for the students (i.e. the upcoming leaders) that rub shoulders with them. There is no doubt that for specialist talks within linguistics departments, god is in the details. I am not asking that such talks be dumbed down and avoid technical issues. However, if we want students to take seriously that they be able to isolate what is generally interesting in their own work, then we need to show that we think that this is a general virtue, one that we even hold esteemed colleagues to.
8. We should encourage all departments to financially support the
NSF LSA initiative to
get linguistic stuff into the science press (see here
for details). I know for a fact that many large departments are NOT doing this.
I believe that failing to join this initiative should disqualify free riders
from every bitching in public about the terrible state of GG. C’mon people.
Especially big department people (like MIT,
Harvard, UCLA, Berkeley, U Wash, U Chicago, U Conn, U Del, Cornell, NYU to name
a few conspicuous shirkers).
Not everyone can do everything on this list. Nor should they for doing any of it can be time consuming. It might mean giving up some research time. However, if you really think that the survival of GG is at stake (and I sometimes wonder whether the complaining is just a form of social bonding) then we can all do something. Moreover, I can testify from our experience at UMD that the things I’ve listed above can work. Truth be told, we at UMD are doing pretty well. Rose Marie Dechaine told me that the same was true at UBC and Jonathan Bobaljik said the same for U Conn. So, schmoozing and lunching and story telling and committee-serving helps, and can help fast. That said, none of this will be effective unless there is carry through. As Rose Marie said at then end of the session dedicated to these concerns, the real advice is pick something (be judicious for you can’t do everything) and DO IT. Most of these things are not that unpleasant (though some are, university committees UGH!). But the trick is to do something regularly. And if we do this, it can have a big effect pretty quickly. Not next week quickly, but in 5 years quickly, and that, I think, is the very best we can hope for.