Linguistics: The Sound & the Fury

The call to arms to save Harvard's linguistics department seemed to evoke a furor among linguists everywhere. Jeremy Knowles, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, was bombarded with protesting letters. "I can't believe all the noise that has been made over my decision to examine the situation," he says. 

In August students and faculty of the department got a letter from their acting chairman, Christoph Wolff, professor of music and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. It announced Dean Knowles's decision to appoint a committee to recommend possible alternatives to a departmental structure. "The fundamental interdisciplinary nature of linguistics suggests that [it could become] a more broadly based faculty committee rather than a small department," wrote Wolff. Professional linguists and undergraduate concentrators recoiled. Dissolving the department would be fatal to linguistics at Harvard, they felt. 

Their field, they insisted, is not fundamentally interdisciplinary. Though recent advances in linguistics have had important applications in psychology, philosophy, computer technology, and cognitive science, linguists say that the field must be studied in its own right. "In calling linguistics 'inherently interdisciplinary,' Harvard's administrators are at odds, not merely with the judgment of others, but with the facts," David Pesetsky, associate professor of linguistics at MIT, wrote Knowles. 

"Linguistics is just as technical and formalized as math and physics," says Joel Derfner '95, president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Undergraduate Linguists' Society. "You need specialized training if you want to teach it." 

Derfner and other undergraduates question the ability of a committee to teach "generative linguistics," a subfield created by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s that has since revolutionized modern linguistics. In his "transformational" approach to linguistics, Chomsky tries to account for creativity in language by positing the existence of a series of linguistic rules inherent in the human mind. "Generative—as opposed to behavioral—linguistics studies how the mind understands language," explains Derfner. "It asks what it means to know a language." Says linguistics concentrator Genevieve Roach '94, "The problem is, nonlinguists don't study generative linguistics. Period." 

But Knowles insists he has cause to examine alternatives to a departmental structure. Harvard has a "long history of difficulties in linguistics," he says. One has been the department's inability to appoint senior faculty, according to Knowles. It currently has only two senior professors, appointed in the late 1960s. With both approaching retirement age and no recent appointments, the administration is worried. "It's very serious. We have to ask how the department is going to perpetuate itself," says professor of philosophy Warren Goldfarb '69, chair of Dean Knowles's advisory committee on linguistics. 

The controversy intensified when undergraduates questioned the veracity of administrators with whom they had met. Members of the Linguistics Society talked with Knowles, Goldfarb, provost Jerry Green, dean of undergraduate education Lawrence Buell, and Christoph Wolff, the acting chair of the department. After those meetings Derfner compiled a page of conflicting comments. Morris Halle, professor of linguistics at MIT and former chair of the Harvard linguistics department's visiting committee, disputed the administration's contention that responsibility for failing to appoint senior faculty lay with the department. In a letter to the Crimson, Halle wrote that "since 1989 the department has made three outstanding junior appointments. This shows that given the opportunity [it] is capable of handling appointments with dispatch and excellent results." 

Goldfarb agrees that committee members made contradictory statements before their first meeting on November 15. He says policy will be clearer in the future and emphasizes that the administration has the interests of students in mind. The animus of linguists was aroused, he says, by the closing of Columbia's and Yale's departments due to budget cutbacks. Goldfarb believes the linguistics community suspects Harvard is acting similarly. 

As for Dean Knowles, he insists his actions have been misinterpreted: "All I've done is to inquire whether there is an alternative structure to better serve the students." But others—including Goldfarb—say the situation is more complicated than that. Goldfarb says his committee was originally charged with "finding the best committee structure for linguistics." The decision to change the department into a committee was perceived as a faitaccompli. 

Knowles says he will not bring any formal proposal before the Faculty Council should his advisor)' group find a committee structure to be disadvantageous. "The dean originally felt more optimistic about the change," says Goldfarb. "But there was an outcry from the faculty, who felt they hadn't been included in the decision. He's more tentative now. There are more ins and outs in 

the situation than he foresaw It's more of a public relations flaw than anything else." 

Most of the department's thirty undergraduate concentrators are angry about the way the situation has been handled. "I've been lied to, snapped at, and condescended to by several deans, and all I want to do is find out what's going on," says Derfner. "The administration has acted with almost total disregard for the students, and for the first time I am disappointed with Harvard." 

Linguistics concentrators are fiercely loyal to their department—an attitude that cannot be taken for granted at Harvard. Their loyalty is striking because much of their teaching has been handled by junior faculty. What the administration views as a weakness may in fact be one of the department's real assets. "I've never taken a course with a linguistics professor who wasn't an astounding, stellar teacher," says Derfner. "We love our department. There's a fervor there that I don't think any other department matches. The reason I'm so into this is because I've had such a wonderful experience." Professor Goldfarb says no final decisions will be made until sometime this spring. 

* * *

The Harvard Independent's, issue of November 18 offered a preview of The Game, and with it the requisite mockery of Yale. Harvard may have lost in football, but it scored well in repartee. 

The Indy interviewed a dozen Harvard and Yale undergraduates and asked them to compare their respective schools. The responses may be indicative. 

Harvard is to Yale, said Mark Freeman '96, "as the USA is to the former USSR. [Harvard] is now the only Ivy League superpower." But to Yale sophomore Sarah MacArthur, Yale is to Harvard "as America is to Europe. You guys have lots of diversity, but everyone's kind of secluded off into their own community, and they don't mix more with people from other social scenes." 

Harvard students seemed to appreciate power; Yalies boasted about the ease and abundance of social life. "Saturday nights at Yale are out of control—there are ten college parties going on," said Yale junior Krista Scholten. "But a friend of mine visited Harvard one Saturday night, and there was no one doing anything—except one really drunk man who ran naked through the Yard yelling 'There's nothing to do here!'" 

Yalies griped about dining-hall food; their better-fed Harvard counterparts deplored the Core, the teaching, and the competitiveness. "There is a heaviness to the atmosphere here [at Harvard]," said Gladys Ignacio '95. "People are not lighthearted." 

The cutting-edge Harvard-Yale analogy may have been offered by Julie Bentley '95. Harvard is to Yale, she said, "as a velociraptor is to Barney." I.e.: Yale is a cartoonish character with a simpering giggle, Harvard a flesh-tearing predator. 

Read more articles by: David Lefer

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