Discussion re: Fieldwork today

Karl Teeter kvt at husc.harvard.edu
Tue Feb 4 16:41:42 UTC 1997

I started doing linguistic fieldwork with a last speaker in 1956
and I am hooked! While it is true I have spent most of my time since 1989
writing up results rather than doing direct work, I'm not out of it yet.

As for linguistics in the USA, it is true that
fieldwork has suddenly dropped in rank as an important criterion for a
lingustic anthropologist.  Curently I have a student who started out as an
MIT theoretician. I converted him to treating fieldwork as basic, and one
result is that he has becomde a gypsy scholar, with only annual
appointments, and no sensible job befitting his
considerable accomplishments as yet.

It is also true that academics is a cyclical industry, as our modern
dominant right wing viewpoint would put it, and you gotta know that.
Leonard Bloomfield, who was a realist, regularly advised his students NOT
to go into linguistics, they wouldn't be able to make a living. And right now
a low point in the cycle, especially for the humanities. But it is a
cycle:  I happen to be the son of two professors who became a professor
because eventually after being a high school and college dropout it was
the line of least resistance, and growing up during the 1930s I can
testify that my two college professor parents, in Chemistry and
Philosophy, received salaries lower than skilled industry operatives,
when they had jobs at all. Things got better for a while and now are bad
again -- who cares about knowledge when, in the somewhat altered words of
a familiar U.S. Army recruiting poster, you can, "join the Army, travel to
foreign lands, meet interesting and exotic people -- and kill them!"

And then we have our own cycles within linguistics to contend
with: I remember being told in the 1950s that we already had too much data
on languages to deal with properly, so forget about field work, instead
spend our intellectual effort figuring out how to understand the data
already on hand.  I do not wish to be cynical, and certainly not to
discourage anybody who wants to do field work.  In the face of all of what
we have to put up with in the modern world, we need to (God help me as
an atheist for saying this!) have faith in a sense. We have to know and
believe that dealing with primary sources amnd not letting them
disaplper unrecorded is the most important thing we can be doing. The
urgency is emphasized by the fact that the primary sources in our field
are dying out, but only emphasized, the principle remains.  Jobs are not
the point, real jobs for dedicated people come up from time to time and
often for irrelevant reasons in the cycle of academic employment.  One
need not despair, however. First of all, and basic, is the consciousness
that one i doing "what needs to be done" in the words of the famous
humoriest Garrison Keillor. And sometimes, with luck, life will oblige.
Thus for your truly, lucky enough to get my Ph.D., in 1962, a Harvard
appointment from 1959-89 and now professor emeritus, allowed to keep my
study and get on with my work. Hang in there!  Yours, kvt

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