LINGUIST List 3.487

Fri 12 Jun 1992

Disc: New linguistics dept.

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  1. , new linguistcs dept.

Message 1: new linguistcs dept.

Date: Fri, 12 Jun 92 12:01
From: <>
Subject: new linguistcs dept.

I see from the LINGUIST list that I am not alone in feeling distressed and
depressed at the recent news of yet another linguistics department under
threat of closure (but recently reprieved - see 3.476). Fortunately (or
otherwise) my innate optimism eventually surfaces and I start to think of
possible courses of action.

After making a few informal enquiries I have come to the view that there
is a non-zero possibility of creating a new Linguistics department here
at The University of Birmingham. However, I need some help in preparing
a case - hence this posting to LINGUIST.

The situation at present is that there is some teaching and research in
linguistics. Some of this done in the School of English, some of it in
the School of Computing (for example as part of a new M.Sc. course in
Cognitive Science). There is growing demand for a wider range of topics
than those covered by the few people involved, and there is growing
concern to be able to offer linguistics at various levels - undergraduate,
M.Sc/M.A., Ph.D.

Within the university the 'market forces' ethos underpins much of the
decision-making about courses, staffing levels, resources, etc., but - and
this is important - if a good case can be made for starting something then
central 'pump-priming' resources can be made available (viz. Cognitive

My plan is to build a case out of independently good components/arguments.
The help I would like probably sensibly falls into three categories, and
the materials I assemble may make use of attributed as well as unattributed
data, opinion... so please indicate if you do/do not/ want to be quoted on
something. I am looking for factual 'INFORMATION' (student numbers, trends
etc; probably quotable without problem); 'SUGGESTIONS' (of any sort, but
typically ranging from - 'you must be mad' through to 'great idea, perhaps
you should...'; I probably won't need to quote any of these(!) but will do
so where necessary - e.g. if I act on a really good idea from someone);
and lastly 'COMMENTS' (I suspect I may get a few long essays on the role of
linguistics in ..., or the best name for such a department, or whatever,
and I would definitely be interested in quoting from such materials in
support of a case - being careful not to take things out of context).
>>Please also send course brochures.<<

Obviously I will be collating data from many different sources - and
I haven't provided a standard format for anyone to use when sending me
details of their courses, experiences... - so how can I be sure to get
the sort of information I need? I may want to follow up some points with
individual respondents - so please make sure when you send stuff to me
(and not to LINGUIST) that you give sufficient contact details. I am happy
to receive email (see the details on this posting - but be sure to spell
my name correctly - we have a dumb mailer), or by FAX:- +44-21-414-4281
or by snail-mail to me:
Dr William Edmondson, Cognitive Science Research Centre,
School of Computer Science, The University of Birmingham,
B15 2TT, Britain.
(NB the speed is really molluscan if you send stuff from abroad
without the airmail stickers.)

I suspect that no-one has collected the sort of information I am gathering
so some sort of general purpose summary document might be more useful to
the linguistic community than a specific set of papers in support of a
particular case. I will produce something for distribution via LINGUIST;
watch this space for further details.


In no particular order, then, here are some candidate components on which
I'd like some feedback (I have views, of course, but don't want to force
the feedback into any particular mould):-

It might seem that starting something up when 'all around' are closing down
is a silly idea. So, just how bad is the situation at the moment? We have
heard of three departments in difficulties since last autumn, is that the
total or are there others not so widely publicized? And, three out of how
many? Is there a trend which needs to be reversed or is it that just a
few cases have caused disproportionate noise? To my mind the answers to
these questions needn't threaten the enterprise, they simply alter the way
the arguments are put.

What is the place of linguistics in the wider academic scheme of things?
Why should anyone care if there isn't a Linguistics department? How does
one persuade a non-academic member of a university council ('governing
body') that such a field of study/teaching/research is important?

In many ways related - but necessarily so? - what about links with other
disciplines? Is it a good idea to point to the value of linguistics in
the study of languages, psychology, medicine, anthropology, history...?

Another way of looking at the question just raised is - should 'Linguistics'
be a department/school 'by itself' or should it be part of a larger grouping
and if so what? Is a department/school of English the obvious home (as so
often appears to be the case)? Should 'Linguistics' be in the Arts/Humanities
sector of university activity, or in the Sciences? Should it be in both
(don't worry about how!)?

On a completely different tack - how are student numbers in 'linguistics'
(define this for yourself) courses around the world? Rising? Falling? Steady?
Where do the students come from - direct from school? adult/mature students
from all walks of life? And what about postgraduate students - where do they
come from? What about the ratio of women:men - is it biased one way or the
other? Are there any particular points to note regarding course publicity?

And a related issue - how difficult is staff recruitment for posts in
Linguistics? Are departments small and overworked? Do Linguistics
departments provide course(s) for other departments, etc. Does this
strengthen the case for independent existence or weaken it?

Changing focus yet again - consider setting up a new course as a 2 stage
process. Are there special factors associated with 'start-ups' - special
transition problems or benefits? Is the current situation favourable or
unfavourable for starting something (e.g. are there well qualified senior
staff looking for jobs?). How long should the start-up phase last - is
3 years enough, too long...? Is it a good idea to try and start everything
at the same time - undergraduate courses, postgraduate taught courses,
research degrees - or should things build more slowly?

And when things are 'established' are there problems of student recruitment
or whatever which present specific problems for Linguistics departments not
likely to be seen in other departments?

Resource issues of a technical nature also raise a batch of questions. Some
technology may be required for various components in a Linguistics course,
for example, computational linguistics, phonetics. Are there any trends in
the popularity of various topics within the broad range one could call
linguistics which have implications for technical resources? (Are there
such trends which have implications for human resources and should one pay
attention to them?)


There are bound to be many questions, or lines of thought, not drawn out
explicitly in the above. Please feel free in any responses you make to
point these out, and to offer your information, suggestions and comments
on them, in addition to your offerings on the above components. In your
responses you should assume very little. Of course I have some views, and
some training, and even some favoured areas of interest in linguistics.
However, I think it best to proceed with as much neutrality as possible,
and to assemble the materials in that spirit also. (Note - this is not a
discouragement to those of you who have had - are having - survival problems.
If you have some particular insights, or some general comments, these could
be most valuable, even if the circumstances are necessarily 'special' or
'local' or whatever.)

As mentioned earlier, my aim is to assemble a good case out of good components
and the themes above are at least one way of slicing that cake. Are there
other (better? more persuasive?) ways of factoring the totality of the case
for starting/having a Linguistics department?


This call for information will remain 'open' for about a month, or until I
'stop getting stuff sent to me' - whichever is the longer. I will announce
the closure. Please email me if you think this call should be posted on
other lists which you know of, and send me the details. Why? I am trying to
avoid the situation where 300 of you decide on the same day to send this
to some other list which you all just happen to belong to, thus overwhelming
the moderators, if there are any, or boring the readers if the list is
unmoderated; I would like to know which lists the posting is on - in case
I want to make any special efforts to contact people in particular countries,
or disciplines...; and also, if I assume responsibility for wider circulation
then I can close the call uniformly.

Thank you for your help.


Having prepared this file for emailing to LINGUIST, and having looked at the
recent distributions on the list, it occurs to me that many people might
want to see the material generated by this posting in 'email discussion mode'
rather than in summary form from one subscriber. I leave it to the list
moderators either to reaffirm my opening request for the stuff to be sent
to me directly, or to welcome wider initial circulations on the list. My
problem is that a) I want to be sure of receiving material, and not just
via email, and b) I will need to put together my case over the summer (and
the discussion may go on and on....), and c) I suspect the email discussion
could become repetitive. Of course, you can always send stuff direct to me
regardless of whether or not you participate in any email discussion.

[Moderators' note: we do think this is an interesting topic for discussion
on the list, so please feel free to send LINGUIST copies of your responses
to Edmondson. However, we also think Edmondson's summary will be interesting
and useful to subscribers, so we'd appreciate his posting it, even if
some of the responses have already been aired over the list.
-Helen & Anthony]
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