Sunday, January 11, 2009

Pleasant Surprise at LSA

Being a cynic by nature, I am typically underwhelmed by linguistics conferences (I suspect that I'd be equally underwhelmed by other academic conferences too, but I'm a linguist). The Linguistics Society of America's huge annual meeting was held in my backyard this last week in San Fransisco so I attended a few sessions. Unfortunately, I largely had the same experience I typically have: squirming in the audience while smart, accomplished professionals drone on about their topic of choice. The problem is the format: 20 minute presentations with 10 minutes for Q&A. That's a tough set to play. Only academics and professional comedians are ever asked to perform under those kinds of conditions, and professional comedians get hundreds if not thousands of times more experience before they get good at it. Professional academics get maybe one or two chances a year to perfect the art of presentation.

Nonetheless, occasionally there is a person who has a talent for presenting complex information in a helpful and productive way, and I was lucky enough to see one presentation at the LSA by just such a linguist: Chris Golston of CSU, Fresno. He and co-author Tomas Riad presented an OT account of metrical phenomenon. By all rights, I should have been half asleep. I am neither a phonologist nor an OT adherent. But Chris, who was the primary presenter, was engaging, funny, and damned good and getting me to understand what the issues were and what their solution was. He is a natural teacher. His students at Frenso probably have no clue how lucky they are to have such a good teacher.

Their Presentation: Chris Golston (California State University, Fresno), Tomas Riad (Stockholm University): A constraint-based view of English meter.


Bob Carpenter said...

One or two times a year to practice? When I was an academic, I was giving dozens of talks a year, ranging from in-house seminars to summer schools to conferences to invited talks. That and teaching two classes per semester. We made our students give more than two talks/year of this kind so they could practice.

Anecdote: At the 1994 WCCFL, I was droning on about my favorite topic (quantifier scope, at the time), when I saw Ivan Sag making the universal speed-up sign in the audience (a kind of spinning motion). I realized when my time was up a minute later that I'd misread my start time by 10 minutes. So much for the sequent calculus presentation. I wasn't exactly inexperienced then, either.

Chris said...

Bob, thanks for the comment. I must say, I'm surprised to hear you were giving that many talks. I suspect there is a big difference between academics at elite universities and everyone else on this.

I was a grad student for 12 years (sigh) at 3 different mediocre to modest universities (sigh) in 3 different disciplines (sigh) and I cannot think of a single professor I knew who was giving talks at the rate you mention (if we don't count teaching as a presentation). The most active academic I personally knew was maybe giving 5-7 a year. If we were to survey the presenters at the LSA and ask them how many presentations they give a year, I honestly believe the average would be around 2. We can't all be stars, haha.

And the comics still got us beat. A journeyman comic probably performs 200 nights a year. That would be a lot of PowerPoint slides.

Selena Dreamy said...

Being a cynic by nature, I am typically underwhelmed by linguistics...

Oh really, Miss Dreamy is more than anxious to help. Come and share some

Chris said...

Oh my, Selena, you saucy whench...I'm still dizzy from your crotch shot, of course, but you aroused my linguistic sensibilities when you wrote this:

"If the eminently sullen nature of my query produced a response which no consideration of literary irreverence could mitigate, the fifth chapter would definitely have put paid to any possibility of that."

The construction "have put paid to" is just too juicy to pass. The great-and-powerful Google claims that there are a mere 10,200 returns for "have put paid to." This is a modest number (to be polite). The Free Dictionary suggests this is a "Chiefly British" saying meaning "to finish off; put to rest."

I realize you Brits have a hard time letting go the baggage of the past, but dear Selena (for truly, regardless of your genital identity, you will forever and always be an awesome crotch shot to me) please give your non-UK audience just a bit of consideration and help us parse these witticisms.

Selena Dreamy said...

Point taken, Chris - and I'd love to go along with it, except of course, that - as I have found many times in my life - I am, semantically speaking, strategically misplaced. Indeed, as an American subject, I respectfully decline to become involved in any enquiry concerning Anglicisms by virtue of my constitutional privilege under the Fifth Amendment!

But regardless of issues relating to gender or linguistic identity, I have meanwhile, taken the liberty of adding yours to the list of my favourite blogs.

Dreamy (xxx)


See bottom line!

Lempika said...

Hi!!: I came across your blog just like that. It was a surprise!It´s really interesting!I´m doing a Master in English Linguistics at University. My name us Ɓgueda and I´m doing a research paper at University about the frequency in use between the preposition but when it has the meaning as except,which one it is more used? I have found out that you are a linguist. Maybe you could have some ideas. I´m a bit lost.I liked very much your research work about the preposition from.My e-mail Best regards and I hope I have not disturb you. I´m Spanish.

Chris said...

Lempika, thanks for the comment. This is an interesting challenge, to count the frequency of a semantic meaning that is manifested in constructions with multiple meanings. Let me think about this.

FYI, this kind of 'but' usage is called an "Exceptive Construction" and Kai Von Fintel1 wrote a nice article on them: Exceptive Constructions; 1993: Natural Language Semantics 1.2, 123-148.

I don't think he did any corpus asnalysis though. You can get his notes here:

Bob Carpenter said...

Most of our students at Carnegie Mellon gave more than two talks/year.

I don't think it matters so much where you're at, but you need a host institution that'll let you travel during the semester.

I think there were many factors on why I was so busy. I was lollygagging compared to folks like Alex Waibel or Ivan Sag.

1. I'd go anywhere and talk to anyone.

2. I'd volunteer to give talks (often the organizers are desperate to fill slots, especially if you can pay your own way).

3. I had lots of friends at places that had seminar series (going to a good grad school and making friends at conferences/workshops helps).

4. The communities I was a part of (HPSG, categorial grammar, comp/math ling) had lots of little workshops with low bars to entry.

5. I always went to the summer schools (LSA/ESSLLI), where there were many opportunities to give talks in workshops.

6. In comp ling, you can talk to folks in computer science and linguistics, so you get two chances per university.

7. Pitt and CMU had their faculty give talks all the time in various seminar series in linguistics and CS. Columbia and NYU are the same. I guess you need a critical mass for an audience. Ditto for when I worked at Bell Labs -- lots of talks by everyone.

Most of my (computational) linguistics conference submissions were rejected for not connecting enough to the American mainstream (they'd have comments like "too European" [that was actually an NSF proposal], or "no comparison to optimality theory" or "this comment section intentionally left blank", or "this isn't computational enough" often paired with "this is too computational").