Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Applied language studies" and linguists in language departments

Yesterday, the German and Dutch Graduate Student Association at Wisconsin brought Professor Claire Kramsch to campus as the keynote speaker at their annual conference. Kramsch is a leading applied linguist and teaches at the University of California – Berkeley. Her title managed to move beyond the usual, graphically and syntactically:
e.g., German: Language departments as privileged sites for the study of meaning
The talk itself drew a massive crowd — especially for late on Friday afternoon — and it went beyond the usual in much more fundamental ways. Various members of Team Verb have talked about the MLA report on foreign language departments (do a search of this blog, but maybe start here), which argues for language departments moving in particular beyond the old model of literature-as-the-crowning-glory. Kramsch gave a clear presentation about how instruction can be shaped toward that goal, using the hook of 'meaning'. Particularly good, I think, was her discussion of how language departments need to build strong links outside of the traditional humanities, particularly to the social sciences.

She was speaking most directly to ways to resolve the crisis in language departments, and this is badly needed. In at least a couple of language departments on our campus, there is the mentality that one literary scholar summed up to one of our contributors a couple of years ago:
This department is a literature department. It always has been a literature department and it always will be a literature department.
As it happens, the department in question has a stronger record in non-literary endeavors than in literary and has had for most of its history. The effect of such statements has been to assure non-literary colleagues that they don't belong in that department and really ought to find new homes. As the linguist who was told he didn't belong put it, this mindset will destroy the department if they don't rid themselves of it. Those literary people clearly don't want to re-orient language departments toward applied linguistics, but they are increasingly irrelevant, it seems, and Kramsch is rightly looking for a good way forward.

But Kramsch's line of argument has a far broader implication for those involved in the scientific study of language. We need a very big tent for linguistics. Linguistics, as often noted (very nicely here, for instance), should be a field of the size and importance of psychology, but sectarianism and parochialism have too often stunted our growth.

Think about this, Wisconsin linguists: Just bring together the full range of people working on language across the Madison campus. I don't mean moving them all into a single department, but just affiliating the bulk of them with a department or program, cross-listing courses, promoting student coursework across the full range, coordinating hiring
and sharing resources, etc. Almost no new resources would be needed (maybe a couple of faculty lines) to transform a large chunk of the College of Letters & Science.

There's a lot to be shoveled, but I say let's get to work.


N said...


Anonymous said...

People in a department declaring that the only department is only about THEIR area? Yup, that's gotta get straightened out. I just hope those people don't have any power.

pr said...

Here's hoping you pull this off.