November 21, 2007

What old linguists do after they retire

The energetic staff here at Language Log Plaza tries to deal with all aspects of language life, including geezerdom. For some unknown reason, I was assigned to the Geriatric Desk and I've posted about how geezerdom feels in the past. At this holiday season, it might be appropriate to point out what us old guys are thankful for, along with some advice to those approaching that stage of life.

Most of us work hard, earn a living, reach 65 or so, then retire. I know. I did this twelve years ago. But I had the mistaken notion that when I retired, I'd move to a comfortable setting, take up oil painting, enjoy Montana's beautiful scenery, do a little fishing, take lots of trips, and lounge around in my easy chair. I deserved it, didn't I? But it didn't take long for me to realize that I sadly missed my former work life, or at least parts of it.

One of the things I found that I missed most was that I no longer got to help grad students with their linguistic research papers and dissertations. That was real fun. The classroom was okay too, but I really liked individual planning and teaching the most. Other things, like serving serving on promotion and tenure committees, taking my turn as department chair, and the seemingly endless bickering about smallish things in departmental politics, were a lot easier to give up. It may surprise some to learn that there is often relatively little sense of collegiality among faculty members working in the same department, so even my best efforts to discover or develop something like teamwork and closeness showed me how hard it was to find pleasure there. In a few cases, yes. In most cases, no.I found that my fellow faculty members were often lost in their own work and too busy competing with each other. And, if you're trying to find a reasonable fun context, the university administration is usually not a great place to look. For me it was the individual grad students who energized me most. And now I don't have them anymore (note: my dialect permits me to use the positive "anymore" and I'm even permitted to prepose it, but I defer to those who find this construction odd -- so anymore I try not to use it).

But wait. When I retired from the classroom twelve years ago, electronic communication existed but it hadn't yet developed into the way we know it today. Things have changed. Today my classroom is the Mac in my home office, where I spend hours each day communicating with grad students from various parts of the world. Currently I'm helping an Iranian student with her Master's thesis and a Malaysian student with her dissertation proposal. And there are others as well. The most frequent messages I get are from students who have recently discovered linguistics and want some help about how to go about studying it in grad school. They see my website, contact me, and I eagerly rise to the bait. In short, I haven't lost my opportunity to work with individual grad students at all, thanks to email.

I also continue teaching outside of the classroom by writing books, largely directed to students, about my area of linguistics. These also generate correspondence, questions, and problems to solve. Meanwhile, I still do some consulting with lawyers on civil and criminal law cases, but not as much as I used to. And, of course, there is Language Log, where I find lots of individual colleagues and great readers. So even in retirement, my work day is as full as I want it to be.

So although I'm a happy retiree, "retirement" is an odd way to describe how I spend my current days. In fact, it's probably a very wrong word for it. Most people don't give much thought to what they'll do after they retire -- or, like me, they have some pipe dreams about it. Going on cruises, taking up oil painting, golfing, or playing shuffleboard in Florida hold no interest for me. Before I retired I had some pretty false notions about what my retirement from teaching would be like and so I encourage people to think about this realistically long before they take that step. I'm thankful to be able to continue doing some meaningful work. Personally, I want to contine to flunk the course in Retirement 101 (as conventionally defined). So far I'm grateful that I've done pretty well at it.

For me that's something to be grateful for this Thanksgiving.

Posted by Roger Shuy at November 21, 2007 11:13 AM