January 26, 2005

A Series of Unfortunate Events

On Friday, I'm giving a talk at Stanford entitled "A series of unfortunate events: the past 150 years of linguistics".

Here's the abstract:

About ten years ago, a publisher's representative told me that introductory linguistics courses in the U.S. enroll 50,000 students per year, while introductory psychology courses enroll about 1,500,000, or 30 times more. The current number of Google hits for "linguistics department" is 60,900, while "psychology department" has 1,010,000, or 14 times more. The Linguistic Society of America has about 4,000 members, while the American Psychological Association has more than 150,000 members, or about 38 times more. Comparisons between linguistics and fields like history or chemistry give similar results.

It's easy to accept this state of affairs as natural, but in fact it's bizarre, both historically and logically. Furthermore, it's part of a larger and much more serious problem. Those who are resigned to the fate of our academic discipline should still be disturbed that contemporary intellectuals are taught almost no skills for analyzing the form and content of speech and text, or that reading instruction is so widely based on false or nonsensical ideas that a quarter of all students have difficulties serious enough to interfere with the rest of their education.

To break the grip of familiarity, it may help to view the past 150 years of intellectual history as a poker game. We began with a bigger stake than almost anyone else at the table, and have been dealt a series of very strong hands. However, our field is now a marginal player, in danger of being busted out of the game entirely.

In this talk, I'll review our unfortunate past, and discuss the prospects for a brighter future.

Glen Whitman may see this as further evidence of psychological rent-seeking:

I constantly encounter people who think their own career or field of study is the most important one in the world. Educators teach us that education is underappreciated and underfunded. Public health officials diagnose us with insufficient concern for health and inadequate policies to make us take it more seriously. People in the arts sing a tune about the vast significance of music, theater, painting, and sculpture for the human psyche. The linguists at Language Log wax eloquent about the need for more and better linguistic education.

Economists are not immune to the syndrome, but I think they are somewhat more resistant. Of course, economists regularly complain about people – especially journalists – who opine about economic issues with hardly a rudimentary understanding of the subject. (That, to be fair, is often the linguists’ complaint as well: that people who know almost nothing about linguistics so often fancy themselves experts on language.) Still, I rarely find economists talking about how everyone should be forced to obtain, and others be forced to fund, an education in economics. Why not?

Well, uh, could it be that it's because at most universities, in many disciplines, many "others are forced to obtain" (or at least very strongly urged or even constrained to obtain) an education in economics? For example, at my own institution, all 1,500 Wharton undergraduates are required to take the basic economics sequence from the econ department, and requirements in a half a dozen other majors are set up so as to encourage students to learn economics. That's all to the good, in my opinion -- but the result is that economists here are more likely to be worried about how to keep enrollments down to manageable levels, than to be talking about how to encourage more students to learn their discipline. This is not simply the results of intellectual "market forces" -- it happens because of formal structures of requirements and listed options, and also because of well-established informal patterns of advising.

You may be saying to yourself "duh, of course students in a business school need to learn economics; and how could you hope to understand political science or sociology or philosophy or anthropology without having the concepts and methods of economics in your intellectual toolkit?" And you'd be right. But as a point of comparison, let's consider the role of linguistics and language analysis in the discipline known as "English".

In the domain english.stanford.edu, Google finds seven instances of the word "linguistics" (I just checked because I wanted a bit of exemplification for my talk).

  • One is on the library resources page, and is part of the standard boilerplate description of the MLA bibliography: "Bibliography of articles on literature, language, linguistics, and folklore".
  • A second is in the PhD handbook, in the section on requirements for a PhD in English and Comparative Literature:

    2. A knowledge of the basic structure of the English language and of Chaucer. This
    requirement may be met by examination, or by taking 10 units of courses chosen
    from those offered in linguistics, English philology, and early and middle English
    literature including Chaucer. [10 units = two courses, I believe -- myl]

    That's the only mention in the English PhD handbook of anything related to linguistics or linguistic analysis. The program in "English and American Literature" doesn't use the word linguistics. Nor does this word occur in the discussion of requirements and electives for the undergraduate major or minor.

  • A third is in a paper title ("Perspectives on Whorffian [sic] Linguistics and Native American Metaphysics", cited on a faculty member's profile page.
  • Then there are four instances in the department's newsletters, all isolated and backgrounded. 2004 has a profile of Herbert Lindenberger says that "The Spitzer book ... [which Lindenberger co-edited] is "still the site where students encounter such seminal essays as 'Linguistics and Literary History'". 2003 describes the recruiting of Prof. Heath -- "Her move to English and Linguistics came in 1985, when forwardlooking leader Al Gelpi, recognizing the increasingly important role of language and culture to literature, recruited her". 2000-2001 indicates that the editorial collective for Mantis 3 included "Lev Blumenfeld (Linguistics)". 2000 includes an obituary for Nini Ramsey that mentions that her "daughter Monica [is] now the Chairperson of the Department of Linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison".

I'm less certain that the concept of linguistic analysis doesn't come up under some other name on the Stanford English department web site, but if it's there, it doesn't jump out at you. The page on the Stanford undergraduate English major cites four tracks: Literature, Creative Writing, Foreign Language, Interdisciplinary. None of these mention linguistics by name, nor could I find any mention of the analysis of language as a topic to be studied. The "Interdisciplinary" major requires

Four courses related to the area of inquiry from such disciplines as anthropology, the arts (including the practice of one of the arts), classics, comparative literature, European or other literature, feminist studies, history, modern thought and literature, political science, and African-American studies. These courses should form a coherent program; must be relevant to the focus of the courses chosen by the student to meet the requirement; and must be approved by the interdisciplinary program director. [emphasis added]

It seems that at Stanford -- and for that matter at Penn -- you can go through an entire undergraduate and graduate program in English without ever learning anything about the analysis of language. Think about it: you can get a doctorate in English without knowing how to analyze or even describe the structure of a sentence, the meaning of a word, the rhythm of a phrase, or the flow of a discourse. I think that this state of affairs is bizarre. If that be rent-seeking, make the most of it.


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 26, 2005 08:08 AM