June 25, 2007

Let's hear it for praise

We all like to get a bit of praise once in a while. Here at Language Log Plaza we get our share of pats on the back -- along with offers of helpful criticism, or course. The other day I received what I consider to be exactly the kind of encouragement I love to hear. A highly respected, young scholar told me that something I posted had encouraged him  to take his research into an area of language that he had never thought about before. Hey folks, it doesn't get much better than this. Back in the days when I was  still teaching I thought that's what teaching was all about, but now that I'm no longer in the classroom, I really hadn't expected to hear it any more.

This speech event got me thinking about the value of praise. Telling people how you appreciate them is relatively easy to do, but it isn't exactly a common, everyday event. Why? Maybe because we don't think about doing it that much. We're naturally self-absorbed and too often so engrossed in the competitive stance, trying to show the world that we are doing good work that is even better than that of our colleagues, that we forget how much of our good ideas and attitudes are derived  from those who came before us. We're taught to be independent scholars, a  good thing in itself, but the degree to which we are ever really independent can be pretty questionable.

For the past decade or so, ever since I retired from the classroom, I've thought a lot about the people that I need to tell how much I've learned from them, especially those who are now in the twilight of their lives. Not just my own professors, but also those whose books I've studied, whose lectures I've heard, whose behavior I've watched, whose styles I admire, and whose attidutes have impressed me. Not just people in my own field either.

So I've been writing letters to them, telling them just how much they've meant to me as I've stumbled through my own academic career and personal life. Doing this feels good and it feels even better when they write back and tell me what it means to be remembered in this simple way.  Growing old and retiring from everyday contact with your field can be very frightening to the ego. Our elders are far too easy to ignore so, as an elder myself,  I encourage you to take pen in hand and write letters (not emails) to those who helped mold your life, whether they did this knowingly or not (but especially when not, because then it's an even a more wonderful surprise), telling them how much you personally appreciate their contribution.

Posted by Roger Shuy at June 25, 2007 11:40 AM