Fieldwork today

Andy Hickl afhickl at
Mon Feb 3 22:09:35 UTC 1997

Being one of those undergraduates who has fallen in love with field work,
I've read the last few posts with more than a little ice in my veins.

An undergraduate education (especially one in linguistics) can tend to be
"book heavy", all too often dealing more with sanitized data sets and
disembodied universals rather than with actual language.  Granted, I've
been raised a good functionalist here at Rice, but, for me, field work
was (and continues) to be this limitless joy--a time where you
can explore all that you've learned and seamlessly go beyond.

I am going to try to go into this with my eyes as open as possible.  I've
heard your fears--what advice can you give someone who is considering a
career (or at least a part of a career) in this kind of work?

I do appreciate any help that you may be able to offer me.


	Andy Hickl

	Andrew Francis Hickl
	Rice University
	Hanszen College 216
	6350 South Main Street
	Houston, Texas  77005-1888
	(713) 630-8256

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Date: Mon, 3 Feb 1997 15:16:06 -0800
To: endangered-languages-l at
From: hinton at (Leanne Hinton)
Subject: Re: fieldwork volume; hiring potential fieldworkers
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(a) fieldwork volume
(b) hiring potential of fieldworkers

Dear folks,

(a) I haven't had a chance until now to respond to the idea of an edited
volume on the fieldwork experience, which I think is an excellent idea.  I
ran a graduate seminar here at Berkeley once with Wally Chafe and Marianne
Mithun, called "The fieldwork experience," where we invited lots of people
to come talk about their early fieldwork-- how they decided where to go,
how they prepared, what happened when they got there, what they found out,
what good, bad, and funny experiences they had, etc.  People like Mary
Haas, Murray Emeneau, Margaret Langdon and John Gumperz all came to talk
about their youthful experiences.  Did I record it?  No.  I am still
kicking myself.

I very much hope that some of the older generations of field linguists
would consent to be part of such a volume.  Here in (and/or about)
California, Murray Emeneau, Bill Bright, Margaret Langdon, Shirley Silver,
Bill Shipley, and Mauricio Mixco are a few of the folks who taught or were
trained at Berkeley that would have a lot of interesting things to say.

As for topics, besides the ones you listed, another that would be important
would be along the lines of "community followup."  One thing students
should learn is that you don't just come in to a community, do your
fieldwork, and then leave forever.  One tends to develop ongoing
relationships and responsibilities to the community as a result of the
fieldwork.  Responsibilities may include any number of things, including
correspondence, sending photos, hosting return visits from the people you
worked with, and (more relevant to the profession) making sure that the
community has access to the results of your fieldwork, either in the form
of your original field tapes, or publications, or materials worked up into
useful form for the community.  This tends to be a lifetime relationship.
When a fieldworker fails to follow up, the community becomes embittered;
there are tales we can all cite about difficulties subsequent linguists and
anthropologists have had due to the actions or inactions of an earlier

(b) And as to the other discussion going alongside this, about whether
fieldworkers have more or less employability than other linguists, I don't
see that fieldwork is ever anything less than a boon to employability.
First of all, being a fieldworker doesn't say anything about one's
linguistic specialization.  Fieldworkers may of course be theoretical
syntacticians or phonologists, and are in my experience (as a teacher of
people who go off to look for jobs, and a member of a linguistics
department who occasionally hires people) MORE employable than the theorist
who has never been to the field.  Even when a department wants to hire,
say, a syntactician, it is the syntactician who has some interesting
secondary specialization (e.g. fieldwork studying endangered languages) who
catches people's attention.  Fieldworkers often tend to be broader in their
orientation than others, and may find that they will be attractive to an
array of departments seeking an array of different specializations.


>Dear everybody,
>        A few weeks back I made a suggestion to the Linguistic
>Society of America's Committee on Endangered Languages and
>their Preservation (CELP), and when that suggestion was
>circulated to the CELP mailing list a day or two ago there
>was a lively enough response so that Tony Woodbury, CELP
>chair, prompts me to post the same suggestion to the ELL
>for wider discussion. Here's what I suggested.
>        "I wanted to suggest another possible 'action
>item' for the CELP to consider, something that might be
>in rousing interest both among upcoming young linguists
>& 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 isnt a useful alternative, especially at a
>point when it's critical to get professionals out into
>the field.
>        "How about trying to put together an edited volume
>that would bring out the joys, terrors, difficulties,
>surprises, elations, bafflements, etc., of linguistic
>fieldwork, something that could be read with interest
>and pleasure by college students, beginning graduate
>students, and a modest part of the reading publica & might
>attract people's attention both to the critical need for
>fieldwork & to the rewards of fieldwork?
>        "One way of going about such a collection would
>be to gather in indidivudal accounts of fieldwork from
>researchers in very different linguistic, cultural &
>geographic areas.  But I think it might be livelier &
>more interesting to take a topical approach & ask for
>contributions from a variety of researchers on each of
>a number of topics (not excluding the possibility that
>individuals who write vividly, engagingly, or wittily
>could contribute to more than one topic section).
>Examples of possible volume sections might be such
>things as:
>arriving in a new field site & hunting up
>getting started (acquiring data; learning
>to function in/with the language
>under study);
>eureka phenomena;
>breakthrus/insites brought about by the
>researcher's mistakes in linguistic
>reception or production or by
>misapplication in the cultural sphere
>of linguistic knowledge;
>extraordinary sourcepeople;
>extraordinary findings;
>the unique character of the language under study
>& some sense of the remarkable human as
>well as linguistic resource that each
>language represents.
>If a volume of this sort were done well, graduate students
>might covet field experience of their own & be more inclined
>to press for the opportunity to go into the field for their
>dissertation work.  And linguistic fieldwork might become a
>little more intelligible in terms of its appeal to a well
>educated reading public, as archaeology & anthropology
>already have, thanks to some gifted writers among their
>field practitioners."
>        It's clear from the responses to date, from
>members of the CELP mailing list, that there are lots of
>people who have interesting, thotful, & heartfelt
>contributions they'd relish making to such a collection.
>Give or take the edited collection, maybe an archive is
>        One or two people have indicated some interest in
>taking editorial responsibility for an edited collection of
>some sort, & Tony Woodbury has suggested that multiple editors
>might be useful, since fieldwork areas differ so widely &
>many delicate issues of professional ethics arise that might
>be dealt with most sensitively by people with diverse
>experience & backgrounds.
>        But this may be jumping the gun, & so at Tony's
>urging I'm posting this suggestion to the ELL as a whole
>for further discussion of its possible usefulness (or not).
>        Nancy
>Endangered-Languages-L Forum: endangered-languages-l at
>Web pages
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Leanne Hinton, Professor
Dept. of Linguistics
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-2650
email: hinton at
fax: (510) 643-5688
phone: (510) 643-7621

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