Category Archives: Academe

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The Importance of Not Knowing

Graduation_cap copyIt’s graduation season, a time when we celebrate the academic accomplishments of students. At this moment when we are celebrating learning, I think it is important to remember the importance of not always knowing—a message I had the opportunity to share a few years ago at a high-school commencement in Cleveland. I wanted to share part of that speech here in hopes that it might be meaningful for some of this spring’s high-school graduates and students already in college. So, a few thoughts…

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There Was No Committee

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British empire, 1919. Image courtesy Historic UK

English is becoming a global lingua franca not just for trade, industry, aviation, research, and entertainment, but also for higher education. We scarcely needed the conclusions of a new research report by the department of education at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the British Council, released Wednesday, to tell us that.

Ph.D. students in countries like Finland or the Netherlands have (at least in my field) long been writing the…

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Yo Hablo HTML

We are nearly five months into Britain’s “Year of Code,” an effort to promote computer-coding skills among Britons young and old. The British media’s coverage spiked in February, when the campaign’s director admitted she couldn’t code a computer to save her life, but has ebbed since.

Still, I’ve been taking advantage of some of the Year of Code offerings (which are not restricted to British residents), and spent a few hours last week at codecademy.com learning enough HTML and CSS to create a bar…

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And the Other Is a Jellyfish

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Image via Wikimedia Commons

Last week the British prime minister, the right honorable David Cameron, was trying to enjoy a quiet holiday on Lanzarote, the easternmost island of the Islas Canarias, ignoring the lurking press photographers constantly seeking to document his leisure activities. Unfortunately he also ignored the advice of locals about sea swimming, and had a painful encounter with an organism of the subphylum Medusozoa.

Cameron is not very popular in Britain. The right wing sees him…

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On Clarity

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What do John Boehner and Rachel Maddow have in common?
Image: Screen shot from MSNBC, via The Blaze

One cannot but be dismayed by the extent to which pollution of thought is endemic in our culture.

The illness is ubiquitous: in Washington, in academe, on the radio and TV, among activists. Being clear, explaining oneself lucidly, seems to be an endangered form of human behavior. Was clarity ever better regarded? Or is the current attitude toward it a constant in history? One could blame the educat…

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A Postcard From Salzburg

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Members of Golden Dawn break up a dictionary launch in Athens. Photograph by Victor Friedman.

Salzburg, Austria—Mozart’s beautiful city provided an ideal locale for the conference I am attending here, where Slavicists and Balkanists have been discussing the role of ideology in grammar. Salzburg is close enough to allow scholars from Croatia or Kosovo or Macedonia to attend easily, without being actually in the Balkan region itself.

Matters relating to the great Balkan laboratory for sociolinguis…

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Just Call Me …

Email_Names2 copyIn any given week, I typically write several emails to other academics I do not know or do not know well. As I decide what greeting to use, I am reminded of the politics of names and the subtle—or sometimes not so subtle—power dynamics at play in everyday conversations, often in even the smallest conversational choices.

For example, when writing to a colleague I’ve never met, do I have the right to assume we’re on a first name basis, despite the fact we don’t know each other? Or do I go wi…

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Dolphin Talk and Human Credulity

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Potentially communicative bottlenose dolphin
(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It appears to have been just bad luck that one British newspaper, The Independent, chose April 1 as the day to publish James Vincent’s science report about a significant animal-to-human communication breakthrough.

I hope it worries animal researchers at least as much as it worries me that I had to do some reading around and cross-checking to be sure that the report wasn’t an Onion-style April Fool’s Day hoax. But I found t…

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Communicating With the Public

The last time I dared to look at Tom Chivers’s article about my work and my views online (published inSeven, the Sunday Telegraph magazine, March 16, 2014, 16–17), the number of comments had risen to more than  1,400. And they formed a sorry spectacle. I couldn’t bear to do much more than skim a small quantity of the discussion. Even if the average comment length is no more than 50 words, the whole thing must be approaching monograph length. But not monograph quality.

If I had ever thought that …

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The Sex Class

550px-Censored_rubber_stamp.svgIn the last few weeks, the topic of my class “Love” has been romantic love, and, within that category, the language of sex.

I told students that by language I implied a standardized system of signs that serves to express a wide range of meanings and that by sex—not sexuality but sex—I implied intercourse, that is, sexual intercourse. Sex, then, has its own grammar. Could we analyze that grammar together?

For starters, I asked why, when referring to the act of having sex, we say to make love? Do …