Fostering a fieldwork tradition
acw at mail.utexas.edu
Mon Feb 3 14:23:33 UTC 1997
[I'm posting this on behalf of Mark Donohue <mfusmde at nessie.mcc.ac.uk>, who
was having trouble posting it from his one site. --Tony Woodbury]
Dear endangered language listers (?),
Last week a number of us on a not-quite mailing list had a discussion,
based on a point raised by Nancy Dorian. Tony Woodbury suggested posing it
to this list, since 'there are alot of people wanting to toss around the
things you said and think it might be best done via a facility like the EL
list. Moreover, I think that both of your topics are fully general, going
beyond merely the community and sphere of interest represented by CELP.
[the LSA's Committee on Endangered Lgs. and their Preservation--tw]'
So here are three posts, condenced into one. It starts off with my reply to
Nancy Dorian [already posted to this list--tw], continues with Dan
Everett's response, end ends with my reply to him.
Subject: fostering a fieldwork tradition
Nancy Dorian raised two points about fieldworking, and I'd like to respnd
to both of them, in reverse order:
(the first is to do with a [series of] book[s], as she's already mentioned
on this list. I'm all for it)
Second, and less optimistically:
> > I wanted to suggest another possible "action item"
> >for the CELP to consider, something that might be useful
> >in rousing interest both among upcoming young linguists and
> >among a wider reading public. Compared to anthropologists,
> >linguists do almost nothing to foster a fieldwork tradition/ethic/
> >mystique within their profession. Even tho the "mystique" aspect
> >can be overdone, near-total silence about the rewards of doing
> >fieldwork isn't a useful alternative, especially at a point when
> >it's critical to get professionals out into the field.
I have just completed (well, a year and a half ago) a PhD, by describing
the grammar of a previously undocumented language. I can't honestly
recommend to anyone contemplating a PhD that they do the same: the
personal rewards to me have been immense, I have had an amazing amount of
fun doing the work, and meeting the people, learning to speak a language
that obeys perverse and obscure rules, etc. etc. (not so great was what
passed for food out there).
But the long and the short of it is: there aren't jobs for fieldworkers.
Scan the linguist list's list of job adds, and count on the fingers of
one finger, if you're lucky, how many universities (or anywhere) want
to hire someone who's got the fieldwork expertise. This is what has to
change before anyone is going to want to take up fieldworking, on the
(what is it, about 3,000?) languages that have never been tainted by a
linguist describing them.
What I'm saying is, is that in today's linguistic academic climate, the
rewards of doing fieldwork and being known as a fieldworker are purely
personal: there are no financial rewards (I have no savings: they went
into paying for fieldtrips, since the allowance that the few places which
fund fieldwork give you never cover what you need to pay; I still owe
financial accounts, otherwise I'm up for another $1000 that I don't
have); and there's no job future.
Given this, isn't it rather perverse to try to encourage people to become
****************** Part 2 ******************
Dan Everett provides encouragement:
Let me respond to Mark Donohue by saying that for any position filled by
my dept. a person with significant field experience will always enjoy an
advantage over someone without field experience. We do not use this as our
only criterion, but it is an important one. And I do not think that we are
alone in this. Over the next few years, I believe that linguistics depts
will favor people with field experience. There will always be exceptions
to this, of course, but I do not think that it is accurate to say that
field work only has personal rewards.
Moreover, I believe that the National Science Foundation and other funding
agencies are being quite generous these days in supporting field research
on endangered languages. A proposal on documentation of a previously
undescribed language is, ceteris paribus, much more likely to get funded
in my experience than one on discovering UG by introspecting on one's
That said, I think that it might be worthwhile for the CELP and others to
survey linguistics depts in the US to see how many count fieldwork
(heavily/lightly) in a candidate's favor when hiring.
Department of Linguistics
University of Pittsburgh
****************** Part 3 ******************
Mark back again:
Phew, what a busy emailing day. Not only has the an-list hotted up, but
here as well.
Dan Everett writes:
> Let me respond to Mark Donohue by saying that for any position filled by
> my dept. a person with significant field experience will always enjoy an
> advantage over someone without field experience. We do not use this as our
> only criterion, but it is an important one.
VERY nice to hear that there does exist a linguistics department out
there that values such things. I think that , tacitly, it is indeed a
"sort of policy" in many places: if you have two candidates, otherwise
equally well presented for the job, select the one with that little bit
extra - in this case, a little bit of extra field expertise. Fine.
Standard job-hiring practice.
HOWEVER, although we fieldworkers do our best to try to keep up with
things, inevitably a fieldworker's knowledge of the latest conference
presentation, journal article, unpublished discussion paper will be less
than that of the pure theory person: a decent description of something
isn't done in a summer break, or even a 6-month break, it takes a lot of
time, that in an x-year PhD programme could otherwise be spent, depending
on your institution, doing grad courses, talking to visiting profs,
attending conferences, giving seminars, getting feedback, etc. The choice
between a fieldworker and a theoretician isn't equal. Sure, the
fieldworker can make her/his self more hireable by becoming superbly ept
(the opposite of inept, a word I've always wanted to introduce to the
English language) at something or the other.
But that's then demanding that if you want to do fieldwork, you find the
time to not only stay at least as good as the people who spend,
full-time, the last x years as postgrads doing solely that, but that you
also do this fieldwork thing. It's asking a lot. It would be a reasonable
request, if the number of jobs asking for field expertise firstly, and
some of the latest OT minimalist a-structure based HPSGing construction
grammar type whatever as an optional extra, were equal to the ones
wanting theoreticians who think that fieldwork is, to borrow Dan's
phrase, "introspecting on one's idiolect" (or, I might add, someone
> And I do not think that we are
> alone in this. Over the next few years, I believe that linguistics depts
> will favor people with field experience.
I'd like to think so; judging from the reaction at, for example, Emmon
Bach's address at the 1996 LSA in San Diego, when he suggested (just
suggested!) that MAYBE it would be a good idea to study some languages
other than English, Dutch, Italian, Japanese (we all know the list of
those old favourites), I don't see it happening very quickly. I come from
a part of the world where it's not like that, where fieldwork is very much
encouraged, but still you'd look long and far before you found a place
that'd actually hire you to do it.
At the most optimistic I can let myself feel, I'd say that we should then
encourage people to go and do some fieldwork in a few years' time; but
 for the endan list: for those who weren't there, the audience was
rather surprised and subdued: surely we don't really need to get our hands
dirty with those OTHER languages? After all, universal grammar can be
deduced from any ONE langauge, can't it? The dominant paradigm tells us
> There will always be exceptions
> to this, of course, but I do not think that it is accurate to say that
> field work only has personal rewards.
No, I didn't mean that it only has personal rewards: there's the
knowledge that, when (as I personally think is inevitable) the current
theories are all dead and buried (does anyone REALLY think we've worked
it out, now, and that we'll never change our minds again? The Chomskyan
paradigms only last about 10 years....), I'll have made a contribution,
and unearthed some facts that linguistis will be referring to and mulling
and reanalysing. But for the moment monetary / job security rewards are not
> That said, I think that it might be worthwhile for the CELP and others to
> survey linguistics depts in the US to see how many count fieldwork
> (heavily/lightly) in a candidate's favor when hiring.
This I find to be a really fine suggestion: given that it's lately been
discovered by the LSA as an issue, a poll on what different departments
would actually be willing to do about it would be most interesting. Put
me down to receive that posting.
Sorry about being so gloomy-sounding: I don't mean to be, and I wouldn't
for anything change my fieldwork thesis for anything theoretical: I feel
that I've learned a lot more from it, made friends and learnt to
understand (partly) a world-view so radically different to my own, live
in a different world, eat unbearable food (oops), and, as I said in the
first posting, have a great time. I now have a whole extra family out
there that cares for me, for instance.
But I'm not convinced that modern linguistics (as a whole, with
exceptions, such as Pittsburgh) really cares for that sort of qualifications.
Addition for the endangered languages list:
I'm talking to a wider audience now, so I expect some more diverse viewpoints.
Do you think that this is maybe too sweeping a generalisation? I can offer
some empirical evidence on the state of linguistics today. I present for
you the unedited, promise I'm not making this up excerpt of a review for an
article that I submitted to 'Language'; this excerpt is the view of an
anonymous reviewer, and does not (I've checked) reflect either the policy
of 'Language', or the opinions of its editors, but it most certainly does
reflect on (at least some of) the people who review articles, who are
themselves presumably respectable linguists. I might add that Language has
published the article (in the December 1996 issue), thus proving that they
don't subscribe to the view expressed here. Here it is. I assure you, I am
not making this us:
"I think that by including the short reports in the journal, Language is
asserting that work on languages is important; I think it would be a
mistake to reinforce this too much in individual papers that are published
as short reports."
No kidding, that's what s/he said.
Yours, with no regrets about having done fieldwork, but misgivings my
future given the hiring conventions that place theory and theoretical
theses so far above fieldwork,
Tony Woodbury <acw at mail.utexas.edu>
Dept. of Linguistics Phone: (512) 471 1701
Calhoun Hall 501 Fax: (512) 471 4340
University of Texas
Austin, TX 78712
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