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24 February 2010 / April

Linguistics at Williams – or lack thereof

Note: My apologies for the pretentiousness and even preachiness of what is to come.  But this shit has been making me upset for months.

First of all, ask every student he’s had over the past seven years and I would bet large sums of money that none of them would have anything but praise for Nathan Sanders.  The single 75-minute lecture I visited in September ’08 was a key part of my decision to come to Williams, because it showed me something important about his classes and, I hoped, most other Williams classes.  Namely, that they’re awesome.

Sanders is an engaging lecturer, both in the sense that his lectures are fascinating and that he encourages students to speak up and express their insights or confusions.  There is this clear energy and passion for what he’s teaching that emanates from every word he utters and every stroke he writes on the chalkboard.  But it’s always so incredibly controlled, so the energy and passion don’t overwhelm you.

He obviously gets such a kick out of witnessing a student realize something for the first time.  Sometimes I think that if every teacher would simply experience that same sympathetic reaction of happiness and pride from seeing a kid learn, half the education problems of the world would vanish.

I’ve also heard that he’s great to talk to outside of class and during office hours, which I can now vouch for thanks to him generously joining WSC for dinner yesterday.  He has a fantastic sense of humor, a grounded sense of humility, an expansive sense of popular culture, an all-around friendly personality.  He’s easy for a student to get along with, besides being wonderful to learn from.

And next year, he’ll be gone.  Professor Sanders, the only professor of linguistics at Williams College, was denied tenure (twice) and will not be here next semester.

By now it should be obvious that I don’t think Sanders deserves to be denied tenure.  Furthermore, with the odds of a new linguistics prof being hired slim to none (yay hiring freezes), there basically will not be a linguistics department anymore.  This sucks for everyone who enjoys linguistics or has yet to be exposed to the field, but it must have especially devastating repercussions for the students pursuing a contract major in linguistics (as no official linguistics major is offered at Williams).  Imagine discovering that your passion is linguistics and being on track to finish a linguistics major soon, only to find that the department will disappear next year, leaving you to scramble to fulfill the requirements for a new major.  Not a pleasant surprise.

I sometimes joke that unless Sanders is secretly a psychopath, there is absolutely no way the college could have found him unworthy of tenure based on his teaching abilities, because those abilities are as flawless as I have ever encountered in any teacher.  Actually, no.  I’m not joking at all when I say that.  Unless Sanders is a psychopath, he should have tenure.

So we are left with two sad potential truths.  Either Sanders is indeed a psychopath – in which case I would almost risk my safety in order to continue taking linguistics classes with him, but maybe that’s just me – or Williams College simply does not value its linguistics department enough.

Just think of how many dozens of economics professors there are, or professors of almost any other subject (not to target economics, because that’s cool stuff), many or most of whom are not as high-quality profs as Sanders, at least one of whom we could surely afford to say goodbye to with virtually zero detriment to his department.  But get rid of a department’s sole professor and that destroys it.  Get rid of Sanders and the linguistics department, until the hiring freeze thaws, is gone.

This, incidentally, is the department that Sanders essentially founded – and when I say founded, I don’t mean there was a baby linguistics department and then Sanders came and made it awesome.  I mean that besides a few courses scattered among other departments, there was no linguistics department at Williams until Sanders came and made one exist.

Think about that.  Other schools, including small liberal arts schools comparable to Williams, have long had linguistics departments, and have linguistics departments with more than one prof and more than a couple courses taught per semester.  Other schools are actually expanding their linguistics programs, adding sub-disciplines like computational linguistics which is, quite frankly, the shit.  Other schools seem to be sticking with their linguistics programs.  Do you know why?

Linguistics is important. The development of languages tells us about the history of humanity; even the contemporary short-term evolution of language can teach us a lot.  Do you wonder why suddenly everyone is misusing “literally”?  A linguist could tell you.  Studying how the brain hears, processes, and produces language is crucial to understanding human psychology.  Do you care about how people think?  Do you deal with people on a daily basis?  Are you a person?  You better fucking care about how people think.   And what about how computers think?  Language processing is hugely significant in AI research.  Do you wish that annoying automated voice you hear when you call customer service could actually understand what you’re saying?  Do you know who’s trying to help?  Linguists are.  Linguistics is important.

Linguistics is also perfectly suited to a liberal arts college environment.   Williams doesn’t have an engineering program either, but that’s not something you’d expect to find at a liberal arts school.  Liberal arts schools blather a lot about teaching you how to think, and of all the classes I’ve taken here – of all the classes I’ve taken ever, really – none have done more to teach me how to think than linguistics classes.  Linguistics class is where you force yourself to analyze very complex and messy things with excruciating precision, express them coherently and rigorously, yet also delve into some very profound metaphysical issues about truth and nonexistence.

I actually believe linguistics is the perfect class to teach people who hate math how to think mathematically.  Call me crazy, but I would argue that thinking mathematically is a skill that everyone should have a decent grasp on before being allowed to become a functional citizen of the world.

I don’t mean thinking with cold-hearted rationality about everything, but being willing to think rationally about very many things, and being able to apply the precision and rigor I mentioned before to more aspects of their lives than just math homework and logic puzzles.  Linguistics is a great example of mathematical thinking being applied to non-mathematical material.  Right now, mathematical thinking seems mostly locked up in math or science classes that probably scare off a good portion of the student body.  Linguistics sets mathematical thinking free of the mathematics.

And it is this, all this overwhelming importance of linguistics, more than my unwavering conviction that Nathan Sanders is an invaluable asset to Williams, that angers me so much about this issue.  It is the principle behind it.  Is linguistics the number one most important department in the college?  Of course not.  Would humanity continue to survive if there were no more people studying linguistics?  Of course it would.

But the goal of a liberal arts college is not to only teach subjects that ensure the survival of humanity.  The goal of a liberal arts college, or one of its goals at the very least, is to provide an environment with outstanding professors to teach students to think.  And eliminating a department that teaches students to think, by denying tenure to an outstanding professor, is not the way for Williams to achieve that goal.



Leave a Comment
  1. Rafael Lizarralde / Feb 25 2010 6:19 am

    Figure out where he’s going and follow him… Or try to make it known to those with the power to keep him there how valuable he is.

    • April / Feb 25 2010 9:41 am

      My friends and I have seriously discussed following Sanders, including if he ends up going to Amherst. Unfortunately, “Where are you going now that your tenure was denied?” is kind of an awkward question to bring up.

      And I’m pretty sure earlier in the year there was an entire student group devoted to keeping him, to no avail.

      • Rafael Lizarralde / Feb 25 2010 12:21 pm

        That really sucks. It may be an awkward question, but I think it’s a completely legitimate one, worth asking. Is there not a chance that he can stay without tenure? (you indicated that denial of tenure has happened before, and maybe it’s financial)

  2. kati / Feb 27 2010 9:36 am

    I certainly hope you sent this to someone in a relevant position of authority. Just to make them aware, even if it’s too late to do anything. This is brilliantly argued.

  3. April / Feb 27 2010 3:31 pm

    Raffi: Sorry, to be clear, he was denied tenure once, appealed it, and the appeal was denied. I don’t know exactly what the protocol is for professors who are denied tenure, but the understanding seems to be that he’s leaving.

    Kati: I don’t really think this is a strong enough argument to even be published as a letter to the editor in our student newspaper, let alone sent to anyone in a position of authority. But thank you!

  4. Swarthmore Student / Jul 18 2010 10:59 am

    Professor Sanders is coming to Swarthmore College this fall. Thanks, this left me really excited to take a course with him.

    • April / Jul 22 2010 6:48 pm

      So I’ve heard! As much as many of us at Williams will miss Sanders, I know Swarthmore is a great school with a good linguistics department (wow, a real department!), so I bet he’ll be happy there – and you guys are lucky to have him.


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