A visit from Noam Chomsky

On Friday January 27th, I went to hear Noam Chomsky give a talk to the Linguistics department at the University of Maryland. Chomsky gave three public talks during his visit to UMD; a multidisciplinary dean’s lecture on Thursday afternoon, the linguistics department talk on Friday morning, and a talk at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Friday afternoon. I thought it would be especially cool to hear him talk about Linguistics, now that I’ve had some exposure to it beyond my undergraduate Cognitive Science classes.

I was, of course, supremely ignorant about Chomsky’s role in Linguistics. I had read Chafe’s criticism of Chomsky’s movement. Chafe’s criticism was introduced in part as a reaction to research such as the fMRI research that I’ve actually taken part in. But I believe that the fMRI program is a solid, albeit overused, field of study (I recently attended a conference of survey researchers where one researcher was in the process of proposing an fMRI program to analyze the survey response process), and I believe that Chafe made some solid and excellent contributions to Linguistics. I had also heard something about a split between Generative Linguistics and Functional Linguistics from my friend Holly, who appears to have studied Linguistics on a planet apart from the one I’m studying on (Two separate planets? Most likely I’m the one on the separate planet…).

Chomsky began the talk very close to my programmer’s heart. He essentially spoke of reframing the complex world of apparently complex data by its more simply structured source. As a programmer, I often see people agonizing over apparently complex patterns in data that was produced by a single programming error. As a computer scientist of sorts, I have been trained to begin by tracing apparently complex problems down to their roots, and following the roots outward until an error is encountered. The idea of looking at linguistics from this perspective appealed strongly to my training in neuroscience. I eagerly anticipated his argument.

He then spoke about his minimalist program. He mentioned his issue with the term, saying that the term was misleading, because it renamed a program of study that hadn’t changed and was simply a continuation of ongoing work. He then defended the minimalist perspective, by saying that it was simply one research program out of many. All are necessary and do different things, so if you don’t like the minimalist program, you should simply follow another. When Chomsky mentioned that some people differed with him about this ‘minimalist program,’ whatever that was, I sat up in my chair and geared up for a fight! I don’t know why people resent Chomsky so much, but maybe this was it?!

Well, touche. This was not the lead up to a fight. This was the lead up to a talk that I didn’t understand at all. He spoke in formulas, none of which were meaningful to me (I mean, what is the social context of X+Y=[XY]? Why is this such a revelatory departure from X+Y=Z? What the heck are X? And Y? And Z?). He spoke about about binding theory (never heard of it), repetitions vs copies (never heard of them in this context), and phase theory (?). He spoke mostly about internal and external merges (don’t know anything about either).

So what did I get out of the talk? I got a reminder that I think like a programmer and feel most comfortable in situations where people approach problems like computer scientists, from root to tips instead of tips to root. I also got a reminder that I’m no linguist, rather someone who is gaining valuable training in discourse analysis.




Renewing my Vows?

Anne Steen came to our Proseminar class last week to discuss personality types, the strong skills inventory, and the search for an ideal job. She used an excellent analogy to describe the difference between doing work that we are and are not suited for. She said that doing work that we are well suited for is like using our dominant hand to write. We do it without really thinking about it. Writing with our other hand is possible, but it is more difficult. I have always felt that way about my work. I remember when I first began to work in research. I had done other kinds of work before, some of which I had enjoyed more than others. But work in research was almost meditative, because it came so naturally to me.

Because of that feeling, it has always been hard for me to see outside my field. I don’t feel as though I have a great understanding of what other people do in their work on a day to day basis, and I can’t easily envision myself doing any different kind of work. The results of the strong skills inventory and MBTI reinforced my contentedness with my current position. Many of my daily work activities were listed as work activities that I would particularly enjoy. I feel like, professionally speaking, I married my first love and am too content in my marriage to imagine being with anyone else. In fact, I work at an organization where people tend to stay for their entire careers, so the metaphor is particularly apt. In a culture where people don’t consider looking elsewhere or changing jobs, it feels particularly backhanded to explore other options. In this way, I feel like I have seen my matches on a dating website, and my partner was right on top of the list of potential matches.

Because of this, I feel like I need to go deeper in order to ‘think outside the box.’

One aspect of my current job as a survey methodologist that I really love is designing surveys. For paper surveys, I really love obsessing about the color of the survey and the mood it will immediately evoke. I love playing with space. I love the way that each aspect of the space is meaningful and every design element must be consistent, because it will be taken as meaningful. I love the way rearranging the questions changes the context and meaning of the questions themselves. I love reading the research about what people like to encounter first, and what you need to squirrel away last, and what questions increase respondent’s confidence in the survey. I love the crisp, professional look of a well-designed survey, and I love the way each aspect of the design is based on research.

I also love designing web surveys. Many of my other job activities are based on programming, so working with CSS really resonates with me. I started out working with html and then discovered CSS, so the flexibility of CSS was a real revelation. It turned out that I could set text styles, just like on a gui editor, design all aspects of their appearance, and tweak them with ease. Tweaking margin spaces until I feel content looking at them appeals to my artistic sensibilities. I really love survey design for its technical challenges and artistic rewards. When I am in a design phase, I even tend to read design books, like Norman Cook’s The Design of Everyday Things or Steve Krug’s web design classic Don’t Make Me Think, in my spare time.

Although I really love most aspects of my job, survey design is the one aspect that I have volunteered to specialize in. My small department’s workflow style has been best described as “jack of all trades, master of none,” but I have approached my directors and told them that we could use an expert in survey design, because it’s such an important part of collecting quality answers. Since then our tech guru has created a survey template, so I no longer get to do much survey design. I am interested in finding new ways to apply those skills, or ways to bring those skills back into my work life.

However, I worry about this kind of a step, because I’m so interested in research methodology.

I suppose that having too many interests is not a bad problem to have!


“Words are things. They get into your walls, your upholstery, your floors, and eventually, they get into you.” Maya Angelou


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