Friday, May 3, 2019

Compassion in the academy

One of the difficulties I find in being an academic is the standards that you place on yourself. Many of us have gone from doing excessively well in primary school, high school, and college to excelling in graduate school and beyond. At each stage it can feel like a competition. The academic job market is also a competition - you compete for limited positions at limited universities in limited places you would like to live. Yet, if you love research and teaching, then you find yourself committing to being in the race and you try to consistently hold yourself to a high standard.

The sense of competition does not end with getting an academic job either - you compete for grants, for tenure, for papers to be accepted, and for recognition. All of this can wear your spirit down and burn you out. And, frankly, many of us do not want to be "warriors in the fight." We want to be curious and explore our interests and help students become researchers in the process.

One particularly exasperating area of academia is the article review process. Whether I wish to or not, as an author, I often take comments to heart. A criticism of a particular method or point can feel like a criticism on me as a researcher. Replying to reviewers can feel like standing up before a tribunal which is judging all of your perceived defects. It is the place where your harsh, internalized judgment appears to be validated by other people in your field.

In reality though, I have grudgingly learned that my internalized judgments are rarely accurate. Put another way, if a colleague of mine came to see me and verbalized the same self-criticisms, I would be likely to say that they were mistaken. Other people almost always see us better than we see ourselves. You might believe the internalized criticisms though if you struggle with finding self-validation in other ways, such as if you are a minority and feel left out. This can make submitting papers and responding to reviews rather scary. 

Submitting your work for publication does not have to feel this way though. So, I began to think about how some of the dynamics of the review process might be changed to be more encouraging. I've compiled these notes below as a way to encourage mindfulness and compassion in academia, as both an author reading reviews and as a reviewer.

1. Praise is just as valid as critique

Either as a reviewer or as an author receiving a review, we think of any praise as faint praise. If someone tells us "The topic is really interesting and I like the way in which you analyzed X and Y..." we almost universally are looking for a 'but....' to follow. The positive commentary is instantaneously invalidated. We believe it's inserted just to lessen the blow of the criticism to follow.

Yet, it is equally valid to point out positive aspects of the work as it is to point out areas in need of improvement. Doing so also does not need to involve lowering one's standards for scholarship. As a parallel, consider the comments you might provide on students' homework assignments. If you only ever pointed out problems on the homeworks and ignored praise for doing well, you would probably get labeled a harsh and demanding academic. 

We have come to expect that the review process will be all criticism, so we brace ourselves when we receive a review. We open it, put it down, walk away from it for weeks, and then pick it up again when our emotions have subsided. This is a sign that more compassion needs to be part of the process. Incidentally, being mindful in providing and interpreting praise in one's work are significant ways to create gratitude for the process. Wouldn't it be a paradigm shift if we saw peer review this way?

(As a side note, if you find yourself reading this and mentally dismissing the advice, consider that other people might not be as able to brush off criticism as well as you. Then, consider giving empathy a try.)

2. Your pet peeve might not be crucial

There is no perfect research in academia. Each paper that is submitted to a journal has its flaws. A large part of what makes scientific discovery move forward is addressing flaws in future studies. Regardless of how methodologically good a paper is, it is easy to find some flaw that you, as a reviewer, might interpret as a critical error. This issue can get easily blown out of proportion if there is little else to criticize in the paper. Framing personal pet peeves in relation to the aspects of the research that are sound provides a more useful perspective for the authors of the paper.

3. The when of the review and asking for help

Sometimes academics review papers when they are exhausted or unable to concentrate. A hallmark of this type of review is an excessive number of questions related to clarity. The paper may otherwise be clear, but the mental state of the reviewer has deteriorated. The tone of the review can be set badly if a reviewer gets a general feeling of unease because they read the paper while tired - even if they return to it the next day refreshed. It is the job of editors to help guide authors through such reviews, especially if questions of clarity come from just one of the reviewers.

What this means in practice is that authors should ask for help. Unless your research is simply rejected out of hand with no review (rare in my field), editors want to see the publication eventually succeed. I have always had a better experience in revising a paper if I have discussed the review with the editors explicitly than when I have skipped doing so. So, ask if the issues of clarity are serious. Ask if a small point has been blown up by a reviewer into something much bigger than it needs to be. Even if the editors agree with all the points raised by the reviewers, they will have helpful advice about how to tackle the points constructively.

Friday, April 26, 2019

You can relax now, I'm running for president

The last couple of years have been kind of tough, right? We've had to deal with a corrupt and immature president and administration that thinks more about doing what serves them than what serves the American people. It's been a real doozy for the democrats. Fortunately, I'm here to tell you that it's going to be okay. You can all calm down because I'm going to run for president.

“Another person running on the democratic ticket?!” you ask yourself. Now, now. There's no reason to be alarmed. I happen to have some experience and what Americans need now is someone confident to take on Trump and his cronies, someone who is able to set the record straight. 

I've raised three sons and all were All-American football players in Delaware. Growing up, they got their fair share of stern warnings from me and my wife Molly. They listened because I am a firm believer in sitting down and talking like rational human beings. I'll do the same as your president.

We should all be looking toward the future. Many of the other candidates are stuck in the past and this really worries me. The Democrats have the better path forward than the Republicans do but, listen, an old man whose hair is frizzed out yelling about how evil corporations are in America is not gonna convince people to vote for us. Neither is a school mom doing the same. Americans know that the public and private sectors can still work together like they used to. We can do this while protecting our rights at the same time.

It's a big playing field out there and I know that you have lots of options. Some of the other candidates come from different ethnic backgrounds and they all have important things to say.

You know though, as I was brushing my pearly whites with Aquafresh this morning, I remembered something my coal-miner dad used to tell me - “Here, we're all Americans first. We all eat apple pie on the fourth of July.” So, whether you have it with vanilla or strawberry ice-cream, whether you're a same-sex couple or African-American or Hispanic, or any of the other different flavors, you're an American. My campaign is about getting beyond our differences and doing what's right.

As long as we're stuck on what divides us, we'll never move forward. This is my promise to you as a candidate - I'm going to push hard to do what's right and we're going to make progress unified as a country because we're all in this fight together. My name is Joe Biden and I am running for president.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The forgotten public universities

"Yes, in most of the world, young people go to university in the city where they grew up, but in the United States, I would explain, most young people aspire to “go away” to college, and that means that even a pre-application tour is a costly and time-consuming proposition.”

I would like to point out that this is most likely incorrect. According to a report by the National Center for Educational Statistics (, undergraduate enrollment at public universities in 2016 was 13.7 million students, while undergraduate enrollment at private universities was 2.7 million students. Public university students outnumber private ones by factor of 5. As a faculty member at a large public university, I can tell you that the majority of the undergraduate body is local. That is, they did not go away to university (or go away very far). So, in fact, most students in the US do indeed go to the university in the state where they grew up. Though a percentage of these students may have strived to attend private universities, most have believed public institutions to be a good deal in financial terms (they cost 1/3 the amount of private universities) and sufficiently good academically. It is the large public universities which teach most students in the US. It is also, incidentally, the large public universities that do much of the federally funded research in the US. 

The recent scandal regarding college admissions touches upon our hope in meritocratic institutions in the US. It leads us to important conversations. Yet, this criticism is itself elitist. It reflects the idea that the only educational systems worth discussing are those which are private and whether intentioned or not, it excludes at least 80% of the students attending universities and colleges in the US. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Linguistic common ground as privilege

2019 was named the International Year of Indigenous Languages by UNESCO. My friends and colleagues at the recent Annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) have been on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media discussing what this means for Linguistics as a field. With respect to publishing, several journals have pushed to emphasize linguistic research on indigenous languages. The LSA's own flagship journal, Language, has put out a call for submissions on different indigenous languages of the world. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America has even put out a call for submissions on under-represented languages.

There may be other journals too (which I am currently unaware of) attempting to emphasize how work on indigenous languages enhances our knowledge of language more generally, improves scholarship, and, in many cases, can promote the inclusion of ethnic minorities speaking or revitalizing these languages. This is all very positive and, as a linguist and scholar who studies indigenous languages of Mexico, I applaud the effort.

Will it be enough though? If linguists are serious about promoting the equality of indigenous languages and cultures in publishing, a greater type of paradigm shift needs to take place in what we believe is worthy of scholarship.

1. Not just a numbers game

When you read academic articles in linguistics, chances are that the topic is examined in a language that you know about. This is partly due to speaker population. There is extensive scholarship in English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, French, Russian, and Portuguese because 4.54 billion people speak these as their first or second languages.

Where linguistic scholarship has developed has also played a strong role. There are 263 million first language speakers of Bengali and 23 million first language speakers of Dutch in the world. Bengali outnumbers Dutch by more than 11:1. Yet, a quick search on Google Scholar for "Bengali phonetics" reveals 4,980 hits, while a simultaneous "Dutch phonetics" search reveals 52,600 hits. A search for "Bengali syntax" reveals 11,800 hits while "Dutch syntax" reveals 180,000 hits. When it comes to academic articles, the numbers are reversed. Here, Dutch outnumbers Bengali by either 10:1 or 16:1.

Dutch phonetics and syntax are not inherently more interesting than Bengali phonetics and syntax. Bengali has a far more interesting consonant system (if you ask me as a phonetician). Even Bengali morphology, which is far more complex than Dutch morphology, is under-studied relative to Dutch. Dutch speakers just happen to reside in economically-advantaged countries where there has been active English-based scholarship on their language for many years. Bengali speakers do not.

2. Small phenomena in big languages, big phenomena in small languages

A consequence of studying a language that has a history of academic scholarship is that many questions have already been examined. There is a literature on very specific aspects of the sound system of English (look up "English VOT", for instance) and Dutch morphology (look up "Dutch determiners", for instance). If linguists wish to study these languages and make a contribution, they must take out their magnifying glass and zoom in on specific details of what is already a restricted area.

To a great degree, the field of linguistics respects this approach. Scholarship is enhanced by digging deeply into particular topics even in well-studied languages. Moreover, since many members of the field are familiar (at least passively) with the basic analyses of phenomena in many well-studied languages, linguists zooming in on the particular details benefit from shared common ground. Resultingly, linguists are able to give talks on very specific topics within the morphology, syntax, phonology, or pragmatics of well-studied languages. One can find dissertations focusing on specific types of constructions in English (small clause complements) or specific morphemes in Spanish (such as the reflexive clitic 'se'). This is the state of the field. Linguists all agree that such topics are worthy of scholarship.

But imagine if you were asked to review an abstract or a paper where the author chose to zoom in on the specific details of a particular syntactic construction in Seenku (a Mande language spoken by 17,000 people in Burkina Faso, see work by Laura McPherson) or how tone influences vowel lengthening in a specific Mixtec language (spoken in Mexico). These are minority and indigenous languages. Many linguists would agree that these topics are worthy of scholarship if they contribute something to our knowledge of these languages and/or to different sub-disciplines of linguistics, but where do we place the bar by which we judge?

In practice, linguists often think these topics are limited in scope - even though they are no more limited than topics focusing on the reflexive clitic 'se' in Spanish. A consequence of this is that those working on indigenous languages must seek to situate their work in a broader perspective. This might mean that the research becomes comparative within a language family or that the research is a case study within a broader survey on similar phenomena. Rather than magnifying more deeply, if they want their work to be considered by the field at large, linguists working on indigenous languages often take the "go wide" approach instead.

Note that this is not inherently negative. After all, we should all seek to situate our work in broader typologies and compare our findings to past research. It's just that the person working on the Spanish reflexive clitic is seldom asked to do the same. Their contribution to scholarship is not questioned.

3. Privilege and a way to move forward

For the most part, academic linguists believe that all languages have equal expressive power. It is possible to express any human idea in any language. Linguists also believe (or know) that language is arbitrary. De Saussure famously argued that the relation between the signified and the signifier is arbitrary. In other words, it is equally valid to express plurality on nouns with an /-s/ suffix (in English) or a vowel change (in Italian and Polish). No specific relation is better than another in a different language. If we take these ideas seriously, research on certain languages should not be more subject to scrutiny than research on other ones.

Whether intentioned or not, both people and languages can be granted privilege. Scholars working on well-studied languages benefit from a shared linguistic common ground with other scholars which allows them to delve into deep and specific questions within these languages. This is a type of academic privilege. Without this common ground, scholars working on indigenous languages can sometimes face an uphill battle in publishing. And needing to prove one's validity is a hallmark of institutional bias.

So, how do we check our linguistic privilege in the international year of indigenous languages? As a way of moving positively forward into 2019, I'd like to suggest that linguists think of the following questions when they read papers, review abstracts/papers, and attend talks which focus on indigenous languages. This list is not complete, but if it has made you pause and question your perspective, then it has been useful.

Question #1: What languages get to contribute to the development of linguistic theory? Which languages are considered synonymous with "Language"?

If you have overlooked an extensive literature on languages you are unfamiliar with and include only those you are familiar with, you might be perpetuating a bias against indigenous languages in research. "Language" is not synonymous with "the languages I have heard of." Findings in indigenous languages are often considered "interesting footnotes" that are not incorporated into our more general notions of how we believe language works.

Question #2: Which phenomena are considered "language-specific"?

There is value to exploring language-specific details, but more often than not, phenomena occurring in indigenous languages are considered exotic or strange relative to what is believed to be typical. Frequently, judgments of typicality reflect a bias towards well-studied languages.

Question #3: Do you judge linguists working on indigenous languages or articles on indigenous languages by their citation index? (h/t to Laura McPherson)

Citations of work on indigenous languages are often lower than citations of work on well-studied languages. In an academic climate where one's citation index is often considered as a marker of the value of one's work, one might reach the faulty conclusion that an article on an indigenous language with fewer citations is poor scholarship.

Question #4: Do you quantify the number of languages or the number of speakers that a linguist works with?
If a linguist studies one or two indigenous/minority languages, do you judge their knowledge of linguistics/language to be lesser than that of someone who does research on one or two well-studied languages? If so, you are privileging well-studied languages.

I'd like to specifically note that I am not a sociologist of language or a sociolinguist. There are undoubtedly others who have probably worked on this question.