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WMU faculty rally on September 5, 2014. (Photos by Larry J. Simon.)
Cross-posted from alevei.

On occasion on these pages, I have written about higher education and about labor rights, mostly in the context of the abysmal state of affairs when it comes to the political climate here in Michigan. I write from the perspective of university professor, president of our faculty union, and engaged citizen. And usually I write about things that happen to other people. But today, I have a story to tell about something that happened at my university, something that helped to clarify some things for me in a new way, about cultural problems on my campus and in our society more widely.

This story is about how the administration of my university called the campus police on a bunch of professors as if they believed we might riot and how the campus police behaved when they responded to that call.  

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Cross-posted from Alevei.

We are incredibly fortunate here in Kalamazoo to have an enviably deep bench when it comes to smart, committed people who are willing to step up to serve in leadership positions. I can’t think of a better example of that than the roster of challengers in the Democratic primary for state representative in the 60th district. Last fall, it was looking like choosing among the three worthy candidates was going to be a very difficult decision. But since then, at least for me, one candidate has emerged as the clear choice and the best fit for the 60th district, and that is Jon Hoadley.

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Cross-posted from Alevei.

Those of us who live in the United States are fortunate to live in a country in which we are all free to speak our minds, including with respect to the political candidates and causes we choose to support. This is America, and that is how it is supposed to work. (Theoretically, at least. Some citizens are certainly freer to be heard than others.)

However, for each of us, there is a difference between supporting and endorsing political causes and candidates as a private citizen and doing so as a representative of an institution. This difference is especially critical if the institution is publicly funded or financed with student tuition dollars or with the support of alumni or other donors or any or all of the above.

For example, if you are, say, the president of a college or university, and you are thinking of exercising your rights as a citizen to participate in a public way in the political process, you should probably keep in mind that you answer, as they used to say in the old Hebrew National hotdog commercials, to a higher authority, namely your students, alumni, faculty, and staff.

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Sun Oct 20, 2013 at 02:47 PM PDT

The Vernacular of Privilege

by alevei

Cross posted from Alevei and FunctionalShift.

This post is adapted from a presentation I gave recently as part of the Race Matters Lyceum Lecture Series at the Lee Honors College, Western Michigan University. The presentation was titled Language Variation and Language Attitudes: Race, Class, and Standard-Language Ideology.

Rachel Jeantel testifies in the trial of George Zimmerman, July 2013.

Let’s start off with some basics. First, language is by its nature variable and in a constant state of flux. That means the normal states of affairs for language is variation and change. That's because human beings do things to language when we use it. Some of the things we do to it go unnoticed and unremarked upon. Other things attract our attention: She says pop; he says soda. You say to-may-to; I say to-mah-to. (I don't, really, but you know.) He says the car needs washed; she says it needs to be washed.

Language variation is an interesting phenomenon to study because language has a way of tricking us into thinking that it has an existence that is independent of its users. It doesn’t. You can theorize about language – a lot of scholars of linguistics do – but if you are interested in analyzing actual language, you are going to need speakers. Speakers bring language into being. All speakers of all languages have this power. This means that every speaker has a strong claim to ownership rights when it comes to the language (or languages) they speak.

But it is the nature of certain ideological orientations to assert claims of ownership that exclude certain people, certain groups. My position is that these claims are illegitimate.

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In the process of working on a book about manly men, language consciousness, and American English in early America, I often have occasion to indulge, if that is the right word for it, in dialect-literature reading binges, mostly in the area of American frontier literature of the "Old Southwestern” variety. At the outset of this project a couple of summers ago, I ended up getting sucked into and spending more time than I intended on one such volume: The Narrative of the Life of David Crockett, of the State of Tennessee, Written by Himself (1834). Although I am linking to it, I do not want it to be interpreted that I necessarily recommend this book. As its title announces, it was (ostensibly) authored by the celebrated frontiersman-turned-congressman David “Davy” Crockett (1786-1836) but in actuality it was probably written by Thomas Chilton, Crockett’s friend, roommate, and fellow member of Congress. Artistically, it doesn’t have much to recommend it, although if you enjoy tall tales with frontier settings, and you don’t mind some politics mixed up with your entertainment, you might like it.
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Scarlett chills with one of her many frisbees.
In my previous diary, I wrote about research (pdf alert) in which dogs have demonstrated remarkable levels of lexical comprehension, which raises interesting questions about the extent to which language-acquisition abilities long considered uniquely human (or at least uniquely primate) may not actually be exclusive to humans or even to primates after all. Pilley and Reid (2011) report that in a series of experiments, a border collie named Chaser consistently demonstrated her understanding of the connection between words and their referents and even interpreted human grammatical structures to make meaning.

Most intriguing (to me, anyway) is what Chaser’s achievements add to existing knowledge about canine understanding of categories. Earlier research suggests that dogs have this ability, but Chaser is the first to offer evidence that a dog can use human words to categorize things (as opposed to visual or non-linguistic auditory stimuli). As I wrote in my previous diary, Chaser understands the word toy to mean any one of the 1,022 things she is allowed to play with (and has individual names for) and recognizes the words ball and frisbee as names for mutually exclusive subcategories to each of which some of the toys belong (by virtue of their being spherical and bouncy for the former or having “disk-like qualities” for the latter), each with its own individual and distinct name.

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Border collies like Scarlett are known for cognitive skills and extreme cuteness.
In my previous diary, I wrote about a few of the many delights associated with the process of introducing undergraduate students to the discipline of linguistics. I observed that despite their overall tendency to acquire general linguistic terminology and the concepts they denote with admirable ease and considerable aplomb, a lot students find one key linguistic concept to be a particular source of torment, and that is The Phoneme. [1]

As I noted in that previous diary, the definition and functions of The Phoneme tend to be difficult for students to get a handle on, and it takes considerable persistence over the course of an entire semester for everyone to get to where they feel some level of acceptance. As I also noted, this difficulty is completely understandable, given that the idea of the phoneme was initially conceptualized by structural linguists and the definition is thus fluid, relational, and complicated. [2]

On what is going to seem like but really isn't a completely unrelated note, you've probably heard about this really smart dog from South Carolina, a border collie named Chaser, who in three years of training not only learned to understand over 1,000 English words but is also reported to be capable of referential understanding of the words. That means she actually demonstrates understanding of the connection between words and their real-life referents (i.e. she can connect a word with the thing it stands for), rather than merely processing the human articulation of a noun such as frisbee as a command to go get the object so named.

Now, understanding each one of 1,022 words as a distinct command to go get a specific object that is not any of another possible 1,021 objects would be pretty impressive in its own right, and it certainly demonstrates yet another way dogs are awesome. But for Chaser's study (Pilley and Reid 2011) and similar experiments with other dogs, the researchers indicate that their primary interest is in what word-learning by dogs might help us to understand about processes of language evolution and of language acquisition in young children and about similarities and differences in human and animal communication. (I should note that I am far from convinced by the body of research on this topic that I have consulted so far that the real motivation isn't just fascination with and love of dogs on the parts of the researchers, which motivation I completely understand and am very much in favor.)

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Edward “Sound Patterns” Sapir (1884-1939), left, and
Leonard “The Phoneme” Bloomfield (1887-1949)
A fun part of my job is to introduce beginning students to the joyous and inspiring world of linguistics. The courses I teach most frequently are Language Variation in American English and a course in the history of the English language. There are no prerequisites for these courses, which is an issue but not one I am going to get into now, except to say that it means most of the students have not taken any linguistics courses before, which further means that we have to spend the first few weeks of the semester on a general introduction to the discipline before we can get into anything really juicy.

The general intro involves, among other things, helping students learn how to talk about language. Like everything else, linguistics has a language of its own. Happily, the students usually have little difficulty in understanding the basic terminology, which most of them pick up quickly and can use comfortably to discuss fairly sophisticated topics in a matter of weeks.

But there is one concept that really messes with their heads, and that is The Phoneme. [1]
And rightly so. [2] Unlike a lot of general linguistic terminology, the idea of the phoneme does not necessarily make sense right away. For some linguists, it does not make sense at all. [3] But even for those who find it a useful concept (which I do, and I will countenance no disrespect of my main men Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield), it takes time to understand The Phoneme in all its mystery. [4]

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Darwin's "I think" tree (1837)
In my previous post, I wrote about coming to terms with the metaphorical nature of Proto-Indo-European (PIE), which may or may not ever have existed as an actual language spoken by actual people at an actual moment in time but that is posited to be the common ancestor of most of the languages of Europe and many in western and central Asia.

To recap, the gist of that post is that the Indo-European hypothesis is large and contains multitudes and that the options seem to be to accept the astonishing inexactness of the metaphors or submit to the paralyzing mind-blowingness of what we use them to try to explain. I suggested that the latter option could be inconvenient if you're trying to discuss historical linguistics and language relatedness in a class that meets for an hour and fifty minutes twice a week for 15 weeks.

Anyway, continuing on the topic of the metaphors that we use to try to create some kind of manageable order out of the chaos that is the story of human language and how it got this way, we turn now to a fellow name of August Schleicher (1821-1868), a German linguist by training and profession who specialized in classical and Slavic languages. Schleicher, who may have had some of the same concerns that I have about how we can possibly even try to conceptualize an unattested 5,000 to 7,000-year-old super-ancestor Ur-language that might not even have actually existed, decided that it was time someone got around to the task of trying to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European.

That meant recreating (creating?) more or less an entire language -- vocabulary, phonology, grammar -- by working backwards from existing linguistic data found in the oldest surviving texts in languages believed to be descended from PIE.

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(See also: Let Them Eat Metaphors, Part 2: Darwin and Schleicher Sitting in a Tree)

Over the past nine years of regularly teaching a course in the history of the English language, I have become increasingly interested in the nature of the metaphors we use to talk about language, especially (although not exclusively) in the context of historical linguistic development and language relatedness.

An English guy named William Jones (1746-1794) usually gets the credit for suggesting that similarities among languages in Europe and in western and central Asia (Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and Latin were Jones’s particular interests) could be explained by a common linguistic ancestor. As the story generally goes, Jones, who spent much of his professional life in India as a supreme court justice, presented the common-ancestor hypothesis at a 1786 meeting of the Asiatic Society, a scholarly society that he founded in 1784. The theory has since become known as the Indo-European (IE) hypothesis and the posited common-ancestor language as Proto-Indo-European (abbreviated delightfully as PIE), although Jones’s role in the development of the Indo-European hypothesis is not universally accepted and has been disputed by some scholars.

by; after William Evans; Arthur William Devis,print,published 1804
Sir William Jones
Researchers find evidence for the relatedness of the various Proto-Indo-European descendant languages by exploring words common among them and by comparing other structural features, namely phonology (pronunciation) and grammar (how it all fits together to make meaning and sense). They do this by working backwards from existing linguistic data in the form of surviving texts in PIE descendant languages. Some of these texts are quite old but none date anywhere near as far back as PIE, which according to various theories, would have been spoken from around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.
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Cross-posted from Functional Shift.

As I wrote a while back on my linguistics blog, I am working on a research project that explores vernacular speech in American literature and considers how it functions in relation to the development of language attitudes in American culture. For a relatively young country, we’ve got some pretty deeply entrenched language ideologies, and the literary arts seem to have both informed and been informed by the development of a specifically American language consciousness.

One question I think about a lot is how “vernacular” or “dialectal” varieties of language acquire that status, which I guess is really to say how “standards” (i.e., the preferred varieties of language), get their status. In some ways, the answer to this question is fairly obvious, as I will discuss below. But for the larger project, I am interested in specific things that got said and written and done in the early days of the republic and into the 19th century, overtly as well as subtextually, to establish the relative and differential statuses of language varieties, and that’s where the analysis of literary dialect and other writing, especially about language, comes in.

For right now, though, for this post, I am thinking about the big picture, the wider cultural contexts surrounding the establishment, institutionalization, and ongoing preservation of a preferred standard for American English.

Much more below the fold.

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Thu Apr 11, 2013 at 04:42 PM PDT

The Quasi-Sentient Professor

by alevei

Cross-posted from Alevei.

A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague who works in a creative discipline at the very fine but underfunded non-flagship state university where I work as a professor of linguistics told me about a recent conversation she'd had with a senior administrator at our institution, in which he had explained to her with apparent enthusiasm that the university will have computers that will be able to do her job in 10 to 15 years.

A day or two later, another friend who is also an academic, although unlike me she is at a small, decently funded private liberal-arts college, posted a status on Facebook expressing her frustration over a lengthy outage of her college's online Learning Management System, or LMS (a phrase that I use here with all due mockery). The outage interfered with the ability of her students to submit their assignments on time as well as with her ability to access their work, respond to it, and provide grades and feedback according to the schedule she had set out.

And then last Thursday, this article showed up in the New York Times, unironically titled "Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break." It caught my eye initially because of the unintentionally if grimly hilarious headline. I thought the idea of a potentially permanent "break" for professors from doing our, you know, jobs had to be a joke, with a punchline that probably involved the unemployment line.

As I read about this magical software, especially in the context of those two exchanges with my colleagues and some other recent developments in educational technology, it got me thinking once again about the future of higher education in this country, a topic I take up every so often in this space, only this time the result is what I hope turns out to be nothing more than a particularly vivid paranoid fantasy on my part.

(Note: In my defense, there have been times when things have in fact come to pass that I also thought -- hoped -- were merely paranoid fantasies.)

Anyway, lots more below the fold.

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