Sunlit Water

April 29, 2012

Disciplinary Traditions

Filed under: Academia — by teofilo @ 12:56 pm

It sounds like what Tim Burke is suggesting here is basically for history to become more like linguistics in certain ways. Beyond the fact that it’s a more journal-oriented field to start with, there’s a long tradition of major linguistics journals publishing short papers (or “squibs”) presenting bits of ongoing research or little findings that are nevertheless potentially of interest. Also, it’s long been common for graduate students to publish reference grammars or dictionaries as their master’s theses or doctoral dissertations. Despite the extremely theoretical orientation of the field in the Chomsky era, it’s always been well understood that solid data is the essential foundation for any theoretical musing, and the incentive structures of the discipline reflect that. This is of course true for history as well, but in Burke’s telling it sounds like the discipline hasn’t really appreciated that in recent decades. The existence of an alternative model that works quite well in linguistics might make it easier for him and other disgruntled historians to try to change practices in history.


December 1, 2010

Mandarinism And Cheating

Filed under: Academia,Culture,Planning — by teofilo @ 1:04 am

Tim Burke has some interesting thoughts on a cheating scandal that casts into stark relief the gatekeeping function of so much professional education these days.  I think he’s definitely right that churning vast numbers of students through low-value-added degree programs that provide little more than a credential that serves as a ticket to a white-collar job practically invites cheating, and that it’s probably a bad way for these professions to be selecting their members.  His proposed solution is to improve the education in these programs so that their graduates actually come out of them knowing something.  I wonder if it might be better, as long as we’re talking about wholesale restructuring of the higher education system, to just get rid of these programs entirely, at least in the universities.  If the professional organizations want to institute training requirements as barriers to entry, maybe they can set them up and run them themselves.  That might have the additional benefit of making what professional education there is more practical, as it would probably be taught mainly by practitioners rather than by academics with little connection to professional practice.

I think in a lot of cases, though, it would just mean lower barriers to entry to a lot of professions.  Some of the more ridiculous pseudo-professions could do with a lot less of this credentialing.  Planning is a prime example; I’m almost through a masters-level program at a well-regarded planning school, and while I’ve enjoyed the program and learned a lot, I don’t feel like I’m going to be much more prepared to do actual work in a planning job when I graduate than I was when I entered.  The degree is basically a credential, and while that’s fine with me personally I do wonder if there’s any real reason for programs like this to exist at all.  Planning is the sort of field where it’s very close to literally true that anyone could do the job with or without any formal education, and efforts to “professionalize” the field over the past several decades have had only limited success.  It’s still quite possible to get a lot of planning jobs without any formal education in planning, although it’s more difficult than it used to be.  While it’s obviously in my personal interest to keep the credentialing system in place, I don’t see much reason for anyone outside the field to support that.

October 20, 2010

Too True

Filed under: Academia — by teofilo @ 8:38 pm

I’ve been reading Inventing the Middle Ages by Norman Cantor, which is quite good.  Buried deep in the endnotes is this trenchant observation, relevant well beyond the narrow field of medieval studies:

The American academic world is a strange place.   There 95 percent of humanists cannot do first-rate work because they do not have the time, leisure, facilities, or income.  The other 5 percent get all the plum jam and often don’t do their best work because they are not pressed hard enough.

February 28, 2010

An Alternative Vision For Scholarship

Filed under: Academia,Blogs,Culture — by teofilo @ 12:32 am

I’ve had many disputes with John Emerson over the years, but I’m very much in favor of this idea of his.  Personally I think I’m much too bourgeois to go for the full bohemian version, but I can definitely see myself supporting myself with a non-academic middle-class job of some sort and doing research on the side.  Blogging, as a medium with both low barriers to entry and minimal distribution costs, seems like it will be enormously useful in this context.

January 23, 2010

The Real Stuff

Filed under: Academia,Personal,Planning — by teofilo @ 10:46 pm

Last week was the first week of classes of the semester.  I’m very happy with the classes I’m taking.  The ones I took last semester were mostly basic background stuff, and those that weren’t were pretty theoretical.  I enjoyed those classes, and I feel like I got the opportunity to think about a lot of important issues, but I don’t feel like I learned a whole lot of practical things that I hadn’t known before.  This semester, though, all of my classes are mainly about teaching practical, useful stuff, though in different ways.  I’m particularly excited about finally taking a GIS class, since that’s a skill I really think I should have, both for its practical value and because it’s the sort of thing that I think would be really interesting to me.  I’m also taking some classes on the planning process, which will finally give me a real sense, I hope, of how this all actually works in the real world and where I can see myself in it.  It’s been a bit awkward so far to be getting a graduate degree in planning without having a sense of what I actually want to do with that degree.  Hopefully I’ll have a much better idea after this semester.  All these classes will involve a ton of work, of course, so I’ll be very busy, but I think it’ll be worth it.

November 25, 2009


Filed under: Academia,Job Search,Personal — by teofilo @ 2:04 pm

I had a job interview today (for this job).  It went okay, but I doubt I’ll get the job.  I probably wouldn’t have been the best fit for the job anyway.  I mostly just applied for it because I was so desperate for a job, and it’s not particularly closely related to my background or interests.  It also seems like the project is not yet clearly defined, so it’s not quite clear what sort of skills are going to be most important for the position.  Probably not my skills, though.

It’s kind of frustrating the way these jobs all seem to expect substantial relevant background and skills.  That’s the kind of stuff I came to grad school to learn.  It really puts people like me at a disadvantage relative to people who come in with a lot of related experience.  Which makes sense from the perspective of the people doing the hiring, of course, but it’s still frustrating.

I did see another position advertised right after I got out of the interview.  It looks a lot more like the kind of thing I’m interested in, so I applied for it.  No idea how likely it is that I’ll get it, but here’s hoping.

November 8, 2009


Filed under: Academia,Personal,Planning — by teofilo @ 11:25 pm

For some reason registration for next semester began at 10:00 pm tonight.  The system was a little slow, presumably because of overcrowding by people anxious to get into their preferred classes before they filled up, but I got into mine with no trouble.  So that was nice.

October 21, 2009


Filed under: Academia,Personal — by teofilo @ 10:51 pm

I had my first midterm today.  It was pretty easy.  It also brought me back to a situation I’ve been in a lot when it comes to test-taking.

I not only test well, which seems to be pretty common among my internet acquaintances, but I also test fast.  I’m almost always the first person done with a test, sometimes by a considerable margin.  Since I’m also shy and self-conscious, this usually means I end up sitting there with my completed test until someone else finishes and hands theirs in, which tends to embolden me to turn mine in too and get the hell out of the room.  Today I finished the test, which had a three-hour period set aside for it, in about an hour, and then waited about half an hour until a couple other people had turned theirs in before I turned in mine.  My roommate, who is also in the class, later told me that most of the remaining people turned theirs in shortly afterward, so I may not have been the only person doing this.

I do tend to get good grades on these tests, but even when I don’t do particularly well I finish quickly (sometimes I just don’t know the answer to a question, and there’s no use agonizing over it).  I often wonder, though, just what all the other people in these tests are doing for so long.  Am I really that unusual in finishing so quickly?  I emphasize that it’s not that I’m particularly well-prepared or anything.  This seems to happen regardless of how well I’ve studied or how well  I know the material.

September 1, 2009

Back To School

Filed under: Academia,Personal — by teofilo @ 11:49 pm

Today was my first day of grad school, although I didn’t actually have any classes because of the orientation events.  It was a bit of shock to be back in an academic setting, and I felt kind of overwhelmed at first, but over the course of the day I began to feel more comfortable.  Everyone I’ve met has been very nice and supportive, which I think says good things about the culture of the program.  I think this is going to work out well for me.

August 21, 2009

How I Spent My College Education

Filed under: Academia,Personal — by teofilo @ 1:36 am

Inspired by AWB’s post of her college transcript (with annotations!), here’s mine:

  • Fall 2003
    • History 209 – Seminar in Early America – Quite possibly the best course I have ever taken, with a professor who is a towering figure in the field and has since become something of a mentor for me.  Much followed from this course for me.
    • Medieval Studies 101 – Freshman Writing Seminar: Sacred Pilgrimage – This was an okay class.  Freshman were required to take two writing seminars, in place of freshman comp, and this was one.  There was some interesting information, and it probably made me a better writer, but otherwise I doubt it had much effect on me.
    • German Studies 121 – Introductory German I – I was not all that interested in taking German, but I figured it was a useful language to know for many purposes, and I’m glad I took it.
    • Linguistics 101 – Introduction to Linguistics – I was somewhat interested in linguistics going in to college, but not 100% set on majoring in it.  It was just one of several subjects that I was considering.  I ended up deciding to do this course my first semester, rather than trying out something else, and I liked it enough that I decided to go ahead and major in it.
    • Physical Education 007 – Trail Maintenance – There was a PE requirement, for which there were many options, most of which involved rather high fees.  Some, however, which were considered to have redeeming value beyond recreation, were free, and this was one of them.  We rerouted a section of trail.  It was fun.
  • Spring 2004
    • Classics 237 – Greek Religion & Mystery Cults – An elective.  The course material was quite interesting, although the professor wasn’t the most scintillating lecturer.
    • Math 275 – Elementary Probability – I had to fulfill the math requirement somehow.  It was an okay course, but I don’t think I ended up getting much out of it.  I probably should have just taken some more calculus.
    • German Studies 122 – Introductory German II – More of the same, really.  I continued to do fairly well, as I tend to do when first starting out with new languages.
    • Linguistics 236 – Introduction to Gaelic – An interesting language, and a pretty good class.  I’ve forgotten all the Gaelic I learned by now, of course.
    • Spanish Literature 127 – Freshman Writing Seminar: Writing about Conquest – Another writing seminar.  This one made me wish I had taken the damn AP exam, which could have gotten me out of one of these seminars.  The subject matter, on the Spanish conquest of the Americas, was interesting, but the instructor was terrible.  She was a grad student who had only taught language courses before, and she was just totally in over her head and couldn’t handle the class at all.  I felt kind of sorry for her, but on the other hand she just made the class miserable for everyone.
  • Fall 2004
    • English 311 – Old English – This class was a lot of fun.  It was cool to learn a language in a more philological way, by reading original texts and translating them, rather than the conversational method by which modern languages are generally taught.
    • German Studies 200 – Contemporary Germany – Here my German studies hit a wall.  The class, basically an intermediate language course with lots of cultural content, was conducted entirely in German, and I was able to more or less muddle through, but I didn’t have the motivation to put in the work necessary to bring my German competence up to the necessary level to really excel.  This was the last German course I took.
    • Linguistics 301 – Introduction to Phonetics – One of the core courses for the major.  It went okay.  The instructor was a grad student who wasn’t the best lecturer, but he was a nice guy and did a passable job of running the class in general.  I decided I kind of liked phonetics.
    • Linguistics 303 – Introduction to Syntax – Another core course.  This instructor was another grad student, who was fantastic.  I realized quickly that syntax was not for me, and this class would have been excruciating if she hadn’t been such an engaging lecturer.  The members of the class also developed a rapport which would serve us well later on.
    • Near Eastern Studies 111 – Elementary Arabic I – I had been intending to take Arabic since I began school, but held off for the first year to take German and make sure I could handle the college courseload.  (I did fine.)  When I did finally take it, it turned out to be quite interesting, and not nearly as difficult as people generally make it out to be.  The way it was taught was rather unusual compared to other schools, which meant this first part, which was taught by a Lebanese grad student, may not have been as difficult as it might have been elsewhere.  Still, I think I learned a fair amount.
  • Spring 2005
    • Food Science 250 – Kosher & Halal Food Regulations – Kind of a famous course in some circles.  An evening course that met once a week.  Very interesting, somewhat entertaining, and not at all difficult.  I learned a lot.
    • Astronomy 104 – Our Solar System – I needed to get some science requirements out of the way.  This is one of those huge lecture courses that people take for this reason, but one of the professors (it was team-taught by two) was a really prominent guy who had a huge role on the expedition that had just sent two rovers to the surface of Mars.  He would come in on his days and show us pictures he had just downloaded from Mars before beginning his lectures.
    • English 312 – Beowulf – Followup to the intro Old English class.  We read most of the poem in the original.  It was great.  I ended up translating the rest on my own over the summer.
    • Linguistics 302 – Introduction to Phonology – Another core course, with a professor who happened to be my adviser.  I mainly learned that I didn’t much care for phonology.
    • Linguistics 303 – Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics – With the same instructor as the syntax class.  Just as fun.  I definitely learned that semantics was not for me.  We didn’t do much pragmatics, but it seemed a bit more intriguing.
    • Near Eastern Studies 112 – Elementary Arabic II – Different instructor, but otherwise more of the same.  Still interesting.
    • Physical Education 007 – Snowshoeing – Not free, unlike trail maintenance, but not very expensive, and a useful skill to have.  This was a really fun course.
  • Fall 2005
    • Economics 301 – Microeconomics – Not actually Econ 101, but the higher-level calculus-based version.  The math was a little beyond what I’d taken before, but not to the extent that I couldn’t figure it out.  The econ, though, was really hard.  I had thought of taking more econ courses, but I just barely made it through this one.  I’m just not very good at that particular sort of problem-solving, I guess.
    • Linguistics 314 – Introduction to Historical Linguistics – This was the sort of linguistics I was really interested in, and the class didn’t disappoint.  Unfortunately, it was basically the only class in the subject that the department offered regularly.
    • Near Eastern Studies 113 – Intermediate Arabic I – With the professor this time.  Getting into more difficult territory, but still an interesting language to study.
    • Near Eastern Studies 333 – Elementary Akkadian I – Another more philological language.  We didn’t learn as much of the original cuneiform as I would have liked, and worked mostly from transliteration, but it was still a great class.  Only three students.
    • Earth and Atmospheric Sciences 131 – Basic Principles of Meteorology – Getting more of that science requirement out of the way.  Not a difficult class by any means, except that it met early in the morning and was really far away, but very interesting.
  • Spring 2006
    • Linguistics 400 – Language Typology – Sounded like an interesting subject, but turned out to not involve much actual typology.  More just the professor teaching her somewhat idiosyncratic theory of syntax, using a variety of languages from around the world for examples.  One of the languages was Southern Tiwa, the language of the Pueblos around Albuquerque, which was cool.  My final paper for this class was one of the worst papers I have ever written.  I pulled an all-nighter the night before it was due to write it basically from scratch.  This was the semester when I began to develop real problems with depression, which did not make getting my work done very easy, especially for the classes I didn’t like.
    • Linguistics 419 – Phonetics I – Since I still had some linguistics electives to take to complete the major, and since phonetics was the core course that I had enjoyed the most on an intellectual level, I decided to go for more phonetics.  It turned out to be a great choice.  The class wasn’t always the most organized, but the professor was great.  She worked in the private sector doing speech synthesis and had for a long time, so she had a different perspective on things.
    • Near Eastern Studies 210 – Intermediate Arabic II – Still pretty interesting, but starting to get into that area where it gets harder and less interesting as time goes on.  The innovative methods that the Arabic program uses may only contribute to this feeling.
    • Near Eastern Studies 310 – Language of the Qur’an – Luckily, there was this course, team-taught by my Arabic professor and another professor from the department.  It looked at linguistic issues in the Qur’anic text from a variety of perspectives, and thus gave us a level of insight into Classical Arabic and linguistics as applied to Arabic well beyond what we got in the regular Arabic sequence.  A fascinating course.
    • Near Eastern Studies 334 – Elementary Akkadian II – A bit more cuneiform this semester, but still not much.  Otherwise similar to the last.  Still great.
  • Fall 2006
    • Linguistics 425 – Pragmatics – I still needed a couple more linguistics courses, so since I had been somewhat intrigued by pragmatics before, I decided to check it out.  I was not pleased with the course.  The professor was disorganized and not good at making anything clear (ironically enough), and the whole class was kind of excruciating.  The subject matter wasn’t even very interesting.  It was much more like the semantics I had learned in the previous class than I had expected.
    • Linguistics 493 – Honors Thesis Research – I don’t know why I even decided to do a thesis.  It wasn’t required.  I did have a subject in Arabic historical linguistics that I found really interesting, though, so I went ahead and did it.  The first semester I basically just read a bunch of books, which was fine.
    • Near Eastern Studies 311 – Advanced Intermediate Arabic I – Here my Arabic studies faltered at the same point where my German studies had.  The course was theoretically supposed to be conducted entirely in Arabic, but our spoken Arabic wasn’t quite at that point yet, so there ended up being quite a bit of English.  I eventually decided that I wasn’t going to get any further like this, and I didn’t have the motivation to put in the work necessary to actually improve my Arabic beyond where it was already, so I decided not to take the next semester, which would have been the last of the basic sequence.
    • Policy Analysis and Management 210 – Introduction to Statistics – I still had one math class to get out of the way, so I figured stats would be a useful thing to do.  And it was.  The class was not very interesting, but it was pretty easy, and I did fine.
  • Spring 2007
    • Linguistics 416 – Structure of the Arabic Language – Here my linguistics and my Arabic finally came together, in a course taught by my (former) Arabic professor but on the linguistics of Arabic.  The class was an odd mix of Arabic students and linguists.  The material wasn’t much of a surprise, but it was not stuff that the regular Arabic sequence had really covered, so it was nice to have it all laid out.  There were some interesting side topics covered as well.
    • Linguistics 494 – Senior Thesis Research – Here, when it came time to actually write the damn thing, my escalating depression and lack of motivation became serious roadblocks.  In addition, my hard drive crashed in the middle of the semester and I had to deal with that (and eventually get a new hard drive) while trying to write the thesis.  I’m amazed that I actually got it done, but somehow I did, and graduated Magna Cum Laude.
    • Linguistics 648 – Speech Synthesis – A graduate seminar with the professor I had had for phonetics earlier.  It was a great class, and I learned a lot about speech and programming, but one of the things I learned was that I was no good at programming.  At least in Python.
    • Near Eastern Studies 214 – Qur’an & Commentary – Although I had given up on the regular Arabic sequence, I was still interested in a more philological approach to Classical Arabic, not least because it was important to my thesis, so I took this course with the professor who had team-taught the earlier language of the Qur’an course with my Arabic professor.  It was a pretty good experience, and I think it helped my thesis quite a bit.

So there it is.  Looking back at it, it really doesn’t seem to contain any courses even vaguely related to what I’ve ended up doing with my life since graduation or to what I intend to study in grad school and do with my life from then on.  Ah, well.  Such is life.

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