LINGUIST List 10.144

Sat Jan 30 1999

Sum: Small Linguistics Programs

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. David Wharton, Summary: Small linguistics programs

Message 1: Summary: Small linguistics programs

Date: Fri, 29 Jan 1999 17:14:34 -0500 (EST)
From: David Wharton <>
Subject: Summary: Small linguistics programs

Dear Linguists,

In November I posted the following query:

>The linguistics program at my university will be 
>undergoing review this year, and I'd like to solicit 
>comments from other linguists on how to make small, 
>interdisciplinary linguistics programs thrive.
>Like many universities (I suppose), ours does not have a 
>linguistics department, but we do offer a linguistics 
>major and minor; our linguistics program is currently 
>administered by faculty and staff from various departments 
>such as English, Romance Languages, and Anthropology.
>What I'd like to know is to what extent similar programs 
>at other colleges and universities have been successful at 
>attracting majors, maintaining a vital presence in the 
>intellectual life of their colleges and universities, and 
>-- perhaps most importantly -- garnering the good will and 
>largess of university administrators. If your program has 
>accomplished any or all of these goals, how did you do it? 
>That is, what works best? Conversely, what *doesn't* work, 
>and what kinds of things should such programs avoid?
>In particular, I'd like to know the fate of linguistics at 
>colleges and universities that do not have either a 
>linguistics department or a linguistics major/minor, but 
>which allow students to study linguistics as one of those 
>"make-your-own-major" majors which are common in the
>United States.

I'd like to thank everyone who responded, and apologize 
both for taking so long to post the summary, and for not 
answering each respondent individually. Your responses were 
most helpful and informative, and I'm grateful to each of 
you. Here are the responses:

>From Pius Ten Hacken <>: 
"In Basel (Switzerland) we have a small programme of 
general linguistics, but I am not sure whether it is of 
interest to you, because the university situation is 
probably very different from the one in the USA. It is 
based on the combination of courses offered at various 
institutes as part of their own discipline, supplemented by 
a few special courses. You might want to have a look at our 
web-page I am afraid everything 
is in German, but if this is a problem and you are 
interested I would be pleased to answer specific questions."

>From Rebecca S. Wheeler <>:
"For a couple of reasons, I was quite interested in your 
posting to LINGUIST regarding the fate of linguistics in
various types of small departments. First, I've recently 
been appointed to the LSA Undergraduate Program Advisory 
Committee and so I'm "officially" concerned with these 
questions. Second, and related to the first, I see myself 
as representing the interests of small programs such as you 
describe in my work on the LSA committee.

"I teach at Weber State University, Department of English. 
There is no linguistics major and no linguistics minor 
here. The requirements and offerings of the department are 
so far, fairly traditional: an intro to language (this is 
really intro ling), history of the language, and English 
Grammar (structure). These offerings reflect the 
training/inclinations of the two linguists who have been 
here for more than a decade.

"You asked about the following: 'In particular, I'd like to 
know the fate of linguistics at colleges and universities 
that do not have either a linguistics department or a
linguistics major/minor, but which allow students to study 
linguistics as one of those "make-your-own-major" majors 
which are common in the United States.'

"While Weber State's version of 'make your own major' is a 
Bachelor of Integrated studies, I have never heard of any 
student structuring a BIS degree with an emphasis on 


"I've started working to make changes.
We've now got a course on TOPICS IN LANGUAGE STUDY. And 
I'm offering that seminar with the following title/focus 
this spring: 
		From slang, hill-speak, and sign,
		To humor, media and political design:
		Exploring English in America.

This is a seminar which will run off a collection I'm 
currently publishing The Workings of Language: From 
prescriptions to perspectives.

In the future, I would want to use John McWhorter's new 
book, The Word on the street: Fact and fable about American 
English. Its purpose is a close reflection of my purpose 
working in an undergraduate English department, without a 
ling. major -- to identify and respond to the common myths 
and prejudices that people hold about language in our 

That is, I believe that a department of English to help 
students learn among other things, what language is and 
isn't. Thus, I would hope that an English graduate would 
not fall prey to the prescriptive fallacies rampant in our 
country ("the language is going to the dogs." "southerners 
are just lazy, unable to get English right." "people 
butcher grammar -- look at the way they say ' between you 
and I..', etc). They would understand that often these 
fissures that some call "bad grammar" actually indicate 
language in the process of change.


"I'll be developing computerized presentations on these 
issues, and taking my act out of the department, into the 
University more broadly, (into teacher education classes) 
and on, into the community -- the local secondary schools, 
and into civic and church groups.

"I am betting that this approach will indeed "garner... the 
good will and largess of university administrators" because 
it is anchored in the university, society, and community. 
I paste in the LINGUIST call for papers which describes my 
project proposal for the two books I've just edited, 
Language Alive in the Classroom, and The workings of 
language: from prescriptions to perspectives. The proposal 
lays out the departmental motivation for my approach.

"That one call for papers resulted in the two volumes I've 
described. So ignore the table of contents, as it has been 
modified, and the title, which was draft. The project 
description is what is relevant to the question you've 

"What not to do? Technical linguistics does not work with 
average state school undergraduates (our students have an 
average combined SAT score of 1000). The abstraction is too 
abstruse for them, and doesn't forward any of their life 

>From Terry Potter <>:
"Here at the US Military Academy, West Point, we do not 
have a linguistics minor or major. We (I) do teach a 
language and linguistics course that is required for all 
language majors. We teach 7 languages with a major possible 
in 5 or a combination of the 7."

>From shelly harrison <>:
"we're a programme with 2.5 academic staff and a 0.4 
secretary, so i empathize with your situation, but can 
offer little by way of constructive advice. students say 
they find big departments impersonal, but in reality, in my 
experience at least, they don't take small ones seriously. 
the only major league is the big league!

"we've worked hard to make our intro course 
'user-friendly', putting our most popular teacher there 
(though why a given student finds jones more simpatico/a 
than smith continues to be a puzzle to me), having course 
notes and, more recently web materials, available, and so 
forth. the theory, at least, is that you can garner a 
larger audience by reputation, and that retention rates are 
constant, so you want to start off with the biggest pool 
possible. (i often murmer to myself that we're better off 
being small, since quality, in terms of student numbers, is 
not constant over quantity!) some programs i know of have 
managed to do sweetheart deals with speech therapy or 
foreign languages, though we've had little success here 
with that strategy. the admin has made us all lean and 
mean, and suspicious of the motives of our colleagues.

"about the only other advice i can offer you, and this is 
practical and based on very bad experience -- if the dean 
says jump, you say how high. it's no guarantee that they 
won't shaft you, but they sure as hell will if you don't!"

>From Joseph Tomei <>:
"Though I can only personally speak from the experience of 
being a student in an interdisciplinary linguistics 
program, you may be interested in a collection of articles 
that my Greek professor, Mark Clark, at the University of 
Southern Mississippi, put together concerning the 
maintenance of interdisciplinary programs in large 
universities. I can't find my copy, but it was co-edited by 
him. If I can locate it, I will send the title on to you.

"Unfortunately (as you probably well aware) it's rather 
depressing reading because the articles generally detail 
the struggles of keeping a program together in the face of 
bureaucratic indifference or hostility."

>From Carl Mills <>:
"At the University of Cincinnati we have a linguistics 
program very much like yours. I do not know hold old the 
program is: it was here before I came in 1975. Faculty in 
the linguistics program come from a variety of disciplines 
in the College of Arts and Sciences, with English and 
Anthropology constituting the "center" of the program. 
English has 2 full-time linguists. A third English 
professor teaches and conducts research in linguistics, 
Celtic languages, Arthurian literature, and folklore. In 
addition, a fourth faculty member, who is normally Director 
of Freshman English but who is currently Acting 
Head of the English Department, has an M.A. in linguistics 
and normally teaches one linguistics course per year. 
Outside A&S, and therefore outside the linguistics program, 
there are several persons with some linguistics training 
and interest, mostly in the College of Education: 
Educational Foundations, Special Education (Deaf Ed), and 
the ESL program (which for reasons peculiar to the history 
of this university is in Education).

"The linguistics program has a major and awards the B.A.. 
Typically, the linguistics program enrolls about a dozen 
majors, which for a university with 35,000 students is not 
huge, but it has remained rather stable over the years. As 
for "maintaining a vital presence in the intellectual life 
of their colleges and universities," the question 
presupposes that this university *has* *an* intellectual 
life. There is plenty of intellectual life here, but the 
university has a "tradition of strong collegiate autonomy," 
(read: "the university is quite Balkanized"). The "vital 
presence" of the linguistics program has waxed and waned 
over the decades, with it currently being in a state of 
near-eclipse. The strength and weakness of this presence 
has depended chiefly on the efforts and personality of the 
program director. 


"Aside from the general fragmentation and isolation of 
intellectual life at this university, some characteristics 
of linguistics as a discipline have also tended to further 
and retard the presence of the linguistics program. The 
program offers no graduate degrees. But the university 
Graduate School offers "make-your-own-M.A.s and Ph.D's" in 
Interdisciplinary Studies. Scarcity, but not a complete 
lack, of graduate financial aid for Interdisciplinary 
Studies has kept enrollment in graduate linguistics degrees 
via this program rather low, but occasionally we graduate 
one. Within the English Department, we have an M.A. 
program in English Linguistics, which enrolls from 1 to 4 
students at any given time. Students from this highly 
successful program have gone on to employment, graduate 
school, and law school. In recent years, M.A.s in English 
Linguistics have gone on toward the Ed.D. in the ESL 
program in the College of Education. Linguists from English 
serve on nearly all the doctoral committees in the ESL 
program. The M.A. in English Linguistics and the close 
cooperation with doctoral programs in the ESL program have 
provided linguists in English with a surrogate graduate 
program--especially in recent years as programs and 
students in the English Department's graduate programs have 
slid increasingly into post-modern drivel. However, 
focusing on the M.A. in English Linguistics and the ESL 
doctorate has tended to divert linguists in the English 
Department from the undergraduate A&S linguistics program.

"As for "the good will and largess of university 
administrators," there is none. The strongest selling 
point of the linguistics program has always been 
that--since it draws its faculty from other, existing 
departments--the linguistics program has no budget and 
costs no money. Unfortunately, in the long run this 
contributes to the program's lack of visibility.

"On the whole our linguistics program has been quite 
successful. We are proud of our graduates' successes.

"However, the very nature of small interdisciplinary 
linguistics programs contains the seeds of their own 
stunting, if not ultimate disintegration. In such a 
program, linguists owe dual allegiance--to the science of 
linguistics and simultaneously to their host departments. 
Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult not to get 
drawn into departmental concerns which are usually quite 
remote from linguistics. And if one does not participate 
in one's departmental life, one is apt to suffer more than 
mere individual career losses. One is apt to wake up and 
find one's linguistics courses cancelled. Departmental 
administrators tend to regard linguistics as just another 
speciality--like Romantic lit or the 18th Century. When a 
course in Phonology draws 5 students (not bad for a 
linguistics core course at a university without a 
department) and Freshman Comp courses are going unstaffed, 
departmental administrators tend to cancel the small 
linguistics course and shift the faculty member to Comp. 
Furthermore, the modes and venues for the presentation of 
research in linguistics are unfamiliar to Full Professors 
in English (or Spanish or anthro). Work that would 
automatically score high marks toward promotion and tenure 
can get slighted in department, especially those in the 
humanities (sic).

"So my advice for any small interdisciplinary linguistics 
program is to cultivate the Provost and become a 
Linguistics Department--ASAP."

>From Marianna Di Paolo <>:
"As the Director of our Linguistics Program for the last 
six years, I have often thought that the LSA should address 
the very issues you are asking about. I have spoken to 
many other people from Linguistics Programs in various 
stages of organization who have questions similar to yours. 
I've even considered volunteering to chair an interest 
group for the LSA.

"Anyway, it looks like our Program will become a department 
at the beginning the next academic year. (We expect to 
receive the written approval in the next few weeks.) I 
would be happy to send you a copy of our department 
proposal if you think it might be useful to you."

>From Richard Henry <>:
"I, too, am interested in how we might make a small 
linguistics program thrive. We have _just_ instituted an 
interdisciplinary minor in Language and Linguistics, with 
core courses in Philosophy, Anthropology and Linguistics 
(linguistics being part of a department of English, 
Writing, and Communication) and have expanded our offerings 
within the English department. I believe the program can 
be found at ...?"

I also received a great deal of helpful advice from Stanley 
Dubinsky at the University of South Carolina, whose 
linguistics program home page can be found at 

Again, many thanks to all who responded. By the way, our 
linguistics program has survived -- but just barely. The 
advice I received will be very useful.

- --------------------
vDavid Wharton
Department of Classical Studies
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Greensboro, NC
tel. 336 334 5214
fax 336 334 5158

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