Monday, June 8, 2015

The Generative Blues

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.


  1. "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."

    Huh? I think I made a pretty specific point about one specific serious challenge — no sack cloth, no ashes, just a few claims and an argument — and ended on a point of slightly backhanded optimism, of all things. And to the extent that I was criticized here and there at the conference, it was for being too sanguine about the present state of affairs — I was thought to be on the pollyanaish Norbertian side of things, which I think I am.

    My 8-minute talk concerned the sort of challenge that I'd highlighted earlier at the 2013 LSA because that was what the organizers asked me to do — and because for all my positivity about the present, I think those challenges are genuine and serious, but principally external to linguistics (and not just generative linguistics, my main point). My statement can be read here and my slides are here. Comments and thoughts welcome.

    1. You are as optimistic as I am concerning the internal intellectual state of syntax. I have the impression that you are gloomier than I am (by quite a bit) concerning the politics (which is what the post was about) and what can be done to reverse the situation. If I was wrong about this and your disposition is not sunnier, well great. things can be done and we should do them. Let me point you to 8 above as a place to start.

    2. Quick comment on your morally laudable department-shaming campaign concerning financial support for the LSA outreach initiative. (I assume you meant "LSA", not "NSF" in your point 8.) My institution does not generally authorize departmental donations of this sort, except in special cases such as a natural disasters (e.g. Katrina), a level that our concerns do not rise to. I am guessing that this is true of at least some of the other "shirker" schools you mention as well, though it's great that your university has no such policy. Personal donations are another matter though. Thanks for the reminder.

    3. Thanks David. Fortunately, this is probably a solvable problem, since all universities are able to pay for things even if they're not able to donate for things.

      So, if anybody out there is nodding in agreement with David's post, and saying "That's right, we'd be right there, if only our institution would allow us to perform such acts of nobility in our self-interest", please drop me a line, and I'll be happy to coordinate with the LSA Secretariat to help you find an effective solution. The news stories initiative was discussed at the recent LSA EC meeting, and while there's broad moral support, it is hard to proceed unless there's more of the other kind of support. I'll look forward to hearing from lots of you.

    4. You mean, charge it to the xerox machine toner account? Hmm.

  2. I would also put GG courses in MOOC format in that list. That would be a great opportunity to introduce teh general public to GG.

  3. Both the example and most of the recommendations leave me wondering: Why "generative research" and not "linguistic research"? It wasn't generativists who first established that Modern Greek has 5 vowels, and it seems a safe bet that the ignorant kneejerk nationalists in question did not care in the slightest whether the authors were nativist or empiricist.

    1. The impression we got was that not all lingusits were tarred with the same brush. But I am just reporting, not evaluating.

  4. I'd like to take issue with Norbert's remark that our high school outreach activities have been of questionable value for the high schoolers. That would be inaccurate, and the schools wouldn't keep coming back if they didn't find it useful (with one school we're now entering Year 8). More schools have been getting involved. But just as we don't win our colleagues' hearts and minds in a day, nor do we transform the troubled hearts and distracted minds of 100 16-year olds in a couple of hours. For many in our HS audience, it's a big step for them to visit a real college campus, or to meet with real scientists (students who are not that much older than themselves ... and surprisingly normal). For more ambitious students at another school, we fuel an ongoing linguistics club. For others it leads to internships, and some of them then show up as majors in our programs. These are baby steps, but they open the door for more. And they create opportunities to have other discussions about linguistics with more influential folks.

    It's certainly also true that one of the pleasant surprises for us has been how much these activities have benefited the students and faculty who have participated. They're a good way to practice (in a low risk setting), and they are also a great way to get folks from different fields working together. This and more in a paper from last year by Jeff Lidz & Yakov Kronrod in Language & Linguistics Compass, which can be found from the resource site that we created joint with partners from OSU, U AZ, and UMass.

    Language Science for Everyone

  5. All of these strategies make sense to me, as strategies. I agree with Norbert that there was general agreement in Athens that we need to do more on this front, and there were many great suggestions and different target groups. Should we self-flagellate in addition about our failures so far? Couldn´t do any harm. But we should perhaps distinguish between outreach to the public, which one could argue should not be our job (although in practice it is because our discourse is rather opaque compared to the discourse of our detractors), and outreach to adjacent disciplines and our scientific colleagues in other field. This absolutely IS our business, and necessary to the health of our own more specific investigations, and we should self-flagellate away until we manage to do better. It is not a luxury. When we are better integrated with the sciences that abut our field, some of the more externalised outreach will become easier as well. I think Norbert voiced this view as well in Athens, or at least was in favour of prioritizing this aspect of the communication problem.
    Unfortunately, there is also a practical aspect and appeal to youth outreach programmes: it is sometimes hard to talk to older academics who have made up their minds, who consider their membership in a particular ´other´ tribe part of their identity, and younger people don´t seem to have this rigidity built in to them yet. The ugliest and most idiotic stuff in the media related to GG has come from tribalism and egocentricity. However, if I/we are going to criticise others for tribalism, we need to turn that criticism inwards on ourselves and strive to be less tribal in our turn.

  6. I wasn't in Athens but just wanted to agree whole-heartedly with Rose-Marie Dechaine's point. Linguistics in my institution had 2 people in it at the start, and 12 years later, we have 11 and have just hired 2 more. Why? Because we spent time not just being great at research, but by engaging with colleagues in other departments, with Deans and Vice Chancellors, by doing interdisciplinary work and being good citizens, (including me being Head of School) and more recently by showing our institution and the wider group of decision makers in the UK media and politics that our research was making a difference (Jenny Cheshires work on new morphosyntactic variants in Multicultural London English made it into school English curricula, Daniel Harbour's work on Kiowa helped create a systems of support for speakers of an endangered language, etc). All of that is why we're in good shape.

    From the outside, Athens did seem overly negative to me. I'm certainly not saying that all is hunky-dory, but it's not hard to collaborate, to write papers that are accessible to people in other disciplines, or articles and books for the general public. There's a huge amount of outreach already going on, but I get the feeling that many of the more senior figures in Athens weren't engaged in it, leading to the negativity. Rose-Marie suggested to me that the real correlation was between Grumpy/Happy and Engaged/Disengaged, and I think that's worth considering. Certainly, the experience I've had over the years working with sociolinguists, psychologists and others, as well as the reception my own more interdisciplinary and popular-focussed work has had, is a big reason why I fall into the Happy camp.

  7. Disagree. There are lots of disengaged Happys out there, and lots of engaged Grumpys (Thomas said he was a Grumpy). I think the real correlation for Grumpy/Happy is how the person operates internally to GG, not externally. Happy has good and strong network internal links; Grumpy does not. For whatever reason (personality included). On average. I´m sorry I brought it up since it probably doesn´t correlate with anything that really matters. I was just trying to describe a sociological phenomenon in a humorous way so as to get it out of the way. Certainly, it played into the scepticism surrounding the Athens thing, so it needed to be mentioned.

  8. I think MLGs are important for outreach to the public. We should be able to explain what the basic phenomena are that GG has discovered. If PBS can get the string theorists to do a NOVA series that explains their theories and explanations of the universe, we should be able to to the same.

    You'd want something a bit more specific than what Pinker did--focusing on specific language phenomena--such as structure dependent rules, verb movement, etc. I could imagine an episode where verb movement is presented--you could talk about V2, the differences between English and French, the change from OE to ME to PDE,, etc. Or a whole episode about island phenomena.

    It's important to show that (1) there are these really interesting properties of languages and (2) that these diverse properties can be unified as manifestations of a single property/rule.

    We wouldn't have to worry about whether the entire community of linguists agree, or even that all GGers agree with the approach to explain it. It's not as if string theory doesn't have problems, or that everyone is on board with the approach. But it gives the general public a taste of the kind of work GGers do, and the exciting part of discovery in linguistics. I think we may have lost sight of that.

  9. ok, Gillian, about grumpy/happy. But there seems to be a lot of negativity about lack of `outreach' (of both types) in what I've seen post-Athens. But I see lots of such work, and the solution to there not being enough of it, is to do it, not to self-flagellate. I don't think self-flagellation is very effective as a motivational technique, but overtly valuing such work probably is. Hence my previous post(s).

  10. Phoevos Panagiotidis sends me a note correcting something I said in the post. Here is his comment:

    "Ancient Greek did not have a seven-vowel system, it used seven letters (still in use today) to represent a vowel system with more members (estimate vary)."

    Once again I pay the price of coming into linguistics from philosophy and never having taken a phono course. So, thx for the correction.