Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pandering and Bigotry

Now that I've got your attention, read this article. It's not long; I'll wait until you're done.

Now there are a lot of questions that remained unanswered. Why did the professor leave a tenured position at Houston? What exactly was the understanding between him and the administration concerning his "one-year probationary period"? And so on. But the heart of the story is troubling. He was denied tenure after complaints from students that the courses he taught were "too rigorous" and that "he did not know how to teach because he was blind". I don't know which I find more offensive: the overt bigotry or the pandering to underachievers.

When I was an undergraduate, I took several linguistics courses because I thought I would like the subject, and I was right. I went through the usual core courses: Phonology, Morphology, Syntax (did a couple of those), and so on. But I didn't really get fired up about the subject until I took Phonological Theory from S,[1] a graduate assistant who was finishing her Ph.D. It was technically not her course; it was a graduate course (but open to advanced undergrads), so on the books it had to be taught by a regular faculty member. But no one on the faculty at the time was able to teach the subject, so S taught it. It was an eye-opening experience. Linguistic theory is rather esoteric at the best of times, and phonology is no exception. My brain got wrinkled almost daily. I had never worked so hard in a linguistics course before, and I loved it. It was challenging, rigorous (there's that word again), and S clearly knew her stuff and what she was doing.

She also happened to be blind.

I am forever grateful to S for not pulling her punches in presenting course material, or in her evaluation of our performance on homework, exams and our final paper. That course decided my professional trajectory; it is because of it--and her--that I am a phonologist today. (I later got a job reading for her--dozens of articles from linguistics journals. That by itself was an education.)

So for all of you UVU whiners who got this guy fired: You should be ashamed of yourselves. Sack up and get to work. We are in the middle of one of the worst economic crap storms that has ever hit our country. We desparately need people who know their stuff and who aren't afraid of a challenge. If you're not up to it, don't blame the blind guy who's making you work hard in class. Get out of the way and make room for those who can handle it.

And for the UVU administration (at least the bean-counters who denied tenure) and the lawyers in the Attorney General's office: Just because it's legal doesn't mean it's right. Your legal asses may be covered, but you have done your students a disservice. You may think that your students are your customers, but you're wrong. The future employers of your students are your customers. If you deliver an inferior product, you'll soon be irrelevant, and employers will look to other schools for new hires. You're a young school; don't start off this way.

[1] I'll use just an initial to protect her privacy; all of this praise would probably embarrass her.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The things you see when you haven't got your camera.

I went to the campus library today to get a couple of things. On my way to the section of the library where the linguistics shelves are (that's where the good stuff is), I saw this sign on a library cart:

Almost everything a cart should be.

It made me wonder who Jon Smith was, and why he was accorded this "honor." And what are the memorializers trying to say about Jon Smith?

"Jon Smith is almost everything a person should be."
"Jon Smith is almost a worthwhile person."
"Jon Smith almost gets his work done."

Of course, it most likely was just a joke at his expense.

The other sign I saw was on one of those tall desks you stand at, which are commonly used to hold computers. Taped to the surface of the desk was a piece of paper with the word "REMOVE" written on it. This invites a question. Should I remove the paper? Or is it the whole desk that has to go? I can do the former; the latter will require at least one other person. They really need to be more specific about things like that. (If it's still there the next time I'm around, I'll take the paper and see what happens. Maybe confetti will fall out of the ceiling, and I'll get a gift certificate for Red Lobster. Probably not, but I won't know until I try.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ute fieldwork.

Tomorrow morning I head south to White Mesa, Utah (about 13 miles south of Blanding), to meet members of the White Mesa Ute community. The plan is to begin field work to document the Ute language as spoken in White Mesa. This also means that my active field work on Goshute/Shoshoni will come to an end. For the past 20 years, I've thought of myself as a linguist who works on Shoshoni. If this trip works out, that won't be true anymore: I'll be a linguist who works on Ute.

I don't know how I feel about that.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Some books I've been reading.

I think this is probably a cliché for a beginning blogger, but here's a list of books I've been reading or have recently finished.

Linguistic Fieldwork: A Practical Guide. Claire Bowern.
The author is a respected field worker whose field research centers on languages of Northern Australia. In this book she provides a beginning linguistic field worker with helpful advice, not only on how to get data from language consultants, but also how to get along as a stranger in a foreign place. I've assigned it to the students in my Field Methods course this fall, so I thought I probably ought to read it first. 

Consider Phlebas. Iain M. Banks.
Banks is highly regarded as an author of science fiction, and I read his Player of Games many years ago. I remember enjoying it. I wish I could say the same for this book, though. It's all plot: just one d*** thing after another, and the characters are completely devoid of interest. However, I am quite taken by the backdrop of the Culture. The Culture is a human-machine symbiotic society whose main guiding principle seems to be the lack of any guiding principles other than to let its citizens do as they please. It is an Anti-Culture which devours neighboring societies and leaves nothing distinctive behind; it is cultural relativity run out to its logical extreme. There is a quote I remember hearing from the music theorist and composer Fred Lerdahl that runs something like: "When everything is allowed, everything is arbitrary."[1] That is the Culture. I think that there are important things that the Culture has to say about contemporary Western culture, if Banks will stop to let his characters think about things and talk to each other. I hope that happens in his later novels (I've got two more of them).

Foundling, Lamplighter, Factotum. D. M. Cornish.
This is a fantasy trilogy that chronicles the coming of age of Rossamünd, an orphan who is apprenticed to the Lamplighters. He (yes, he) deals with bullies and monsters, and has help from kind (and not so kind) adults. The depth of the world building in this series is astonishing (there are maps and appendices a-plenty), but what appeals to me most is that the story is really about Rossamünd coming to grips with who he is and what his place in the world is to be--not about defeating the evil Dark Lord of the Universe and establishing a New Golden Age. When the story finished, the world still carries on as before, but Rossamünd is a different person. This is a different sort of fantasy, and I am looking forward to more by this author.

The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers. Jeremy Grimshaw.
This is a beautiful little book. The author is a musicologist at Brigham Young University. This book tells of his encounter with Balinese music and society and recounts his efforts to establish a gamelan ensemble at BYU (the Gamelan Bintang Wahyu). He has some remarkably wise things to say about the nature of worship and community. Even if you know nothing about Bali or gamelan music, this is worth reading.

I have a whole pile of books that I've picked up at used book stores and thrift shops, so I'll probably do another of these blog posts before too long.

[1] If you happen to know the correct quote and its source, drop me a line; I'd like to know.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Okay, so I'm a decade late with this whole blogging thing.

Here I am, starting a blog. I'm not exactly sure why, except that several people have assured me that they would read my blog if I ever got around to writing one. I hope you're not disappointed. (If you are, just keep it to yourself.)