New publication: Talking about Impact

Over the past couple of months I’ve been putting together a new project, a brief handbook aimed at pre-tenure faculty members in the humanities and social sciences. It actually started as a blog post here, then expanded well out of control, and now here we are.

Today, I’m pleased to announce the open-access publication of Talking about Impact: a handbook for pre-tenure humanists and social scientists, through the Wayne State University Digital Commons.   My own work straddles several disciplinary realms, and it’s been fascinating, over the past decade, to speak to colleagues from disciplines as far afield as Semitic philology and cognitive neuroscience about what they value, and why.  Being on the tenure track is extremely stressful, and nearly everyone feels anxiety about the process.   When going up for tenure, your work will be read and evaluated by people who have no knowledge of your field, and often have very different ideas about how to evaluate scholarship.  It’s worth taking some time to organize some knowledge about how and why your work matters, to leave as little as possible to chance.  Talking about Impact is meant to serve that function for people across the humanities and social sciences, whether they’re tenured or not.

I’m making the handbook available for everyone, freely, under a Creative Commons license, in the hope that it will be of broad use.   I decided against traditional publication because it’s an article-length work, but hardly the sort of thing that a journal would publish, and in any case, any venue like that would have far too restricted an audience.   Please feel free to download and distribute widely.

Throughout history: a history

Throughout history, undergraduates have peppered the opening sentences of their term papers with a phrase.  That phrase, of course, is ‘throughout history’.  And no matter how much we (college instructors) may tell them that it is too vague and general to possibly be useful in almost any paper, we run into it again and again.  But where did it come from?

A quick search on Google Ngram Viewer reveals that not only has throughout history not been used throughout history, but it is of relatively recent origin, and increasing rapidly:

The first instance I’ve been able to track down of these two words in order is from 1761, in Henry Brooke’s The Tryal and Cause of the Roman Catholics (1761: 104):

Many and various, throughout History, have been the Mischiefs, the Miseries, the inexpressible Calamities, that attended the King-deposing and King-killing Doctrine.

After that, we get them in quick succession, with new instances in 1764, 1767, 1769, and 1774 (you can see the little bump on the left of the Ngram).  Thereafter it remains in rare but steady use for nearly a century, and then really starts to take off through the 20th century.   One wonders (though I wouldn’t want to make too much of it) whether it’s a product of Enlightenment thinking or the broader historical perspectives of Enlightenment and modernist thought.  Opinions on the course of history abound in 20th century thought, of course.

And, although Ngram viewer gets really weird after 2000, so I can’t extrapolate the curve, I am sad to say that even the most esteemed authors use it in recent works:

This study is a comparative analysis of all numerical notation systems known to have existed throughout history – approximately one hundred distinct systems, most of which can be grouped into eight distinct subgroups. (Chrisomalis 2010: 3)

Ahem.  Well, I can defend my use in that I really am talking about all the numerical notation systems used throughout 5000 years of written history, right?   I suppose the broader point is that this phrase is at least ten times more common now than it was 100 years ago, and we should hardly be surprised, then, that our students pick it up.  After all, they have to get it somewhere, don’t they?


Beyond Cargo Cult Science (Cafe Sci Colorado, 11/19, 7:30pm)

Are you attending the American Anthropological Association meetings this week in Denver?  Feel like hanging out with me, having a beer, and hearing about some big ideas?  Check out my talk, co-sponsored by Cafe Sci Colorado and the Society for Anthropological Sciences, ‘Beyond Cargo Cult Science: Reclaiming Anthropology from the Fringe‘, held at Brooklyn’s near the convention center (map) at 7:30pm on Thursday, Nov. 19.   Many thanks to the SAS (a section of the AAA) and the folks at Cafe Sci Colorado for putting this all together to help expose social-scientific ideas to a broad audience.  It’s an open event, free of charge, and if you’re already registered for the conference you can find it on the program here.

In his famous essay, Cargo cult science’, the physicist Richard Feynman used the anthropological concept of the cargo cult to illustrate the dangers of those who adopt the trappings of science without understanding the fundamental nature of the enterprise. The risk of self-delusion, he argued, was greatest when this form-without-function was followed mindlessly by scientists: ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’

Forty years later, anthropology’s own status as a science is in question. Pseudoscientific ideas abound – claims of ancient aliens and lost civilizations on the History Channel suggest that there are a lot of self-deluded fools. Feynman didn’t think much of social science, because of its annoying lack of laws, but he was wrong. We can and do scientific anthropology as long as we don’t fool ourselves. We only need to be able to ask What would convince me that I’m wrong? and Why should I believe I’m right? In this talk, I will show, using linguistic evidence, how non-specialists can think critically about pseudoscientific ideas in anthropology, and why it important to care about anthropological junk science in the media.

Linguistic anthropology is particularly open to spurious claims of cultural contact across thousands of years and kilometres because most people are not linguists, so it is possible to make superficially plausible claims with limited knowledge. Against this position, it is possible to show that with a little knowledge and a critical eye, we can separate verifiable long-distance similarities – the remarkable new discovery that Navajo is related to some languages of central Siberia – from wildly implausible claims, such as that the Maya were descended from Egyptians. Learning how to think about linguistic evidence for cultural contact is a powerful inoculation against bunk.

And, for those conference attendees who haven’t had enough strange science, you can then check out my panel, ‘Strange Science: Anthropological Encounters with the Fringe‘ on Friday morning, 10:15-12:00, in room 607 of the convention center.  Hope to see you there!

… or, you know, maybe October

Apologies for the long delay in posting – I have been juggling too many balls and this one has dropped.  But have no fear – perhaps it … bounced?  … and is now … coming back into my hand?  This metaphor needs to be taken out back and shot.

In the interest of actually giving you some real content, here are some brief musings on things I’ve posted recently to my Twitter feed:

Old (from 2012) evidence of a new (to us) medieval Viking settlement in Canada – this one on Baffin Island, probably Helluland of the Icelandic sagas.  This is becoming increasingly a settled matter – there’s too much European content in artifact assemblages from the eastern Arctic and sub-Arctic for anything else to be so.  Still no Vikings in Minnesota, though, except the football ones.

Nick Enfield, Mark Dingemanse, and Francisco Torreira at the Max Plank Institute for Psycholinguistics won a prestigious (to some) Ig Nobel Prize for their work showing that ‘huh’ is a universal word cross-linguistically.   In the spirit of ‘make you laugh and then make you think’, but this is one of the finest cross-linguistic comparisons I’ve read in a long time, with lots of methodological controls.

And in sad, but predictable, and actually, not all that sad news after all, Rome is abandoning the Roman numerals!  Or rather, addresses and street names that use Roman numerals will be replaced with Western numerals over the next few years.  Reminds me of the first time I used the Montreal metro and was momentarily baffled by the announcement for “pine oeuf” station, which is of course Station Pie IX (Pius IX).

Language and Societies abstracts, vol. 7 (2015)

The abstracts below are summaries of papers by junior scholars from the 2015 edition of my course, Language and Societies, and presented at the course blog of the same name. The authors are undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and linguistics at Wayne State University. Over the next few weeks, some students will be posting links to PDF versions of their final papers below their abstracts. Comments and questions are extremely welcome, especially at this critical juncture over the next week, when the authors are making final revisions to their papers.

Kat Slocum: Greensky Hill Native American Methodist Church: the role of language in group identity

Nicole Lopinski:‘The Hobbit’: An Analysis of Popular Media Portrayal of Homo floresiensis

Kimberly Oliver: Voodoo in Popular Music: Linguistic Semantics’ Influence on Identity and Stereotype Formation

Laura Cunningham: #NotAllMen and the Blame Game: A critical discourse analysis of a Twitter hashtag

Krist Bollano: Word Frequency and Online Dating: Self Promotion Through a Text-Based Medium

Adam Bender: Is Intercultural Bilingual Education (IBE) Appropriate for Adapting Quechua to Modern Society?

Dovie Jenkins: Logically Speaking: Loglan, Lojban and the Search for a Logical Language

Erika Carrillo: Hoarding and the Material Accumulation of Time

Grace Pappalardo: Hausa Kinship Terminologies: Insights Into Culture and Cognition

Jaroslava Maria Pallas: From Little Acorns Big Oaks Grow: Exploring the nature metaphor in anarchist discourse

Kaitlin Scharra: Menstrual Authority: A Lexical Semantic Evaluation of Kotex’s First 20 Years

Sarah Beste: Pornography of Ruin: The Metaphor of Sensuality in Ruination as It Applies to Detroit

Mark Jazayeri: Arriving at a Cultural Model of Artificial Intelligence

Glenda Wyatt-Franklin: In Front of the White People: Black Speech, White Perceptions, and the Effects on African American Health

Samantha Malette: “Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”: Montserrat’s “Brogue” Examined

Kayla Niner: Don’t Stay Here!: An Analysis of Words Used to Describe One-Star Class Hotels

Madeleine Seidel: Retelling Snow White: The Tale and its Reflection of Western Culture

Michelle Layton: Creating an Image of Purity Through the Use of Metaphor: The Case of Pure Michigan

Theia Easley: Language of Inclusivity: Womanist Theological Thought in Addressing Issues of Social Injustice

Eduardo Piqueiras: Countering an Equitable Multilingualism with an EU English Variant: The Role of Language Policies and Translators in the European Union

Elizabeth Bonora: Identity and Ink: An Interpretation of Kanji Tattoos on English-Speaking Bodies

Wendy Hill: The language of the law: linguistic discord in the courtroom

Livija G. Marina: Serbian Heritage Language Maintenance and Language Shift: Identity of the ‘Voice’ from a Serbian Orthodox Church in Michigan

Andrés Romero: Testimonios of Violence: A Discourse Analysis of Colombian Demobilized Paramilitaries

S.M. Hamdan: Identity & Second Language Acquisition: International Saudi Students Studying Abroad

Kathryn Nowinski: Constructing Identity through Sound: Brand Naming Practices and Phonetic Symbolism

Richard D.H. Bridges: Catching It in the Net: Some Lulzy Acronyms

Jeff Rowe: Divergent Definitions of Food Justice: A Critical Discourse Analysis

Inger Sundell-Ranby: Use of the word ague by pioneers in the Midwest

Language, Culture, and History: a reading list

Having appropriately propitiated the curricular deities, it appears that this coming fall, I’m going to be teaching a graduate seminar in linguistic anthropology on the topic of Language, Culture, and History.   The readings will be drawn from linguistically-oriented historical anthropology and ethnohistory, anthropologically-oriented historical sociolinguistics, and linguistically-oriented archaeology, if that makes any sense.  Maybe not?

Anyway, last night I put together my ‘long list’ of 40-odd books that we might potentially read. Some of these will come off the list due to price or availability.  Others I haven’t looked at thoroughly yet, and when I do will come off because they aren’t suitable.  That might get me down to 25, but then I’ll need to get it down to 13 or 14, one a week. The rest can go on a list from which individual students can pick to do individual book reviews and presentations.

Here’s the list, below.  Additional ideas of books that fit these general themes would be welcome. Any thoughts?

Continue reading

Reassessing reasses in our pubic schools

As a college instructor, I run into the same typos and spelling mistakes all the time.   You just have to laugh, because I don’t think I’ve ever written a typo-free paper, and most of the time they’re just honest mistakes.  I might be aggravated by writing that is vague, unclear, or awkward, but not whether you’ve spelled aggravated correctly.   So just to be clear, this is NOT a ‘kids these days’ rant.

Having disposed of that, let’s get on to the fun stuff, and talk about two of my favourite frequent errors that show up, not only student writing, but in all kinds of written English.  As you might have guessed from the title, these are reasses in place of reassess and pubic in place of public.    These snigger-worthy faux pas happen all the time; when I see them, maybe I circle them and maybe I don’t, and  I don’t take points off, but I do chuckle.  Because hey, I’m human, and so are they.  So are the numerous people who use ‘reasses’ on Twitter every day, or the authors of major educational texts (or this giant billboard) that refer to ‘pubic schools’.

But there’s a major difference between these two errors, namely that reasses is not a word, whereas pubic most certainly is.  As a result, when I type reasses in my word processor or here in my WordPress interface, it gets a little red squiggly line underneath it, whereas the only way to catch pubic is with a careful eye.   (That sounds like a double entendre, but it isn’t. Or is it?) Let’s look at some Ngram data that shows how this makes a difference.  First, the Ngram for reasses (multiplied by 200 for comparability) vs. reassess.


We see that reassess is really a product of modernity – it doesn’t start to take off until the 1950s and then steadily rises until 2000.  Reasses, its ill-begotten error-form, takes off around the same time (at about 1/200th the rate, so that there is a consistent 0.5% error rate) until the early 1980s, and then it undergoes a sharp decline until the present day.   This decline can reasonably be attributed to the rise of spellcheckers in word processors, publishing software, etc.   Human error is still human error, but the little red squiggle is immune to the vagaries of the eye and the mind.

Contrast this with the Ngram for pubic school (here multiplied by 5000) vs. public school. (I’ll use the phrase in order to avoid any intentional uses of pubic.)

pubic school

First of all, we can see that pubic school is far less frequent an error than reasses; by 2000, it’s about a 0.05% error rate, or one-tenth that of reasses, but for most of its history it was far less common.  This might be because pubic stands out more to the eye as an error.  Another possibility is that while there are probably no writers who think that public is spelled without an l (i.e., it can only occur as a typo), there certainly are writers who don’t know the spelling of reassess (and, of course, words with two sets of double letters are notoriously prone to error).

Secondly, pubic school has a long history, at least according to the Ngram; setting aside that blip in the 1830s, we still have over a century of pubic schools.  Looking through the actual sources, though, a lot of these are OCR-related errors in the Google corpus – for instance, some are actually the typo publc rather than pubic,  and others aren’t errors at all in the original text, but just Google’s OCR having an off-day.

But note that just at the point when reasses starts to go down, right around 1985, pubic school takes off quite dramatically (even as public school remains perfectly flat). I don’t think this is a coincidence.  Rather, I suspect that it’s just at this point where the little red squiggles take their revenge.  Just as the addition of spellchecking to the editor’s arsenal brought reasses under control, it brought about a new era where the role of authors, copyeditors, and publishers in controlling for typos began to be handed off to machines.   It’s not that we stopped caring, but we started to take for granted that spellcheckers would do our work for us better than we could ourselves.  And while that works well for words like reasses, not so much for pubic school, much to the amusement of all.    I do note that my current version of MS Word puts a blue usage squiggle under pubic in pubic school, but not in the general pubic, so there’s at least some awareness of this error, but without highlighting every single instance of pubic, you can’t solve the problem.

To show how this works, let’s look at some asses.  No, you filthy-minded person!   I’m talking about when you asses the impact of something:

asses the impact

We can see that assess the impact is becoming more common over time, but asses the impact, which gets a slower start, takes off more rapidly in the late 1980s – where it was once a 1/500 error in 1980, it’s 1/250 by 2000 – in other words, right about where reasses was (0.4% error rate) before spellcheckers were common.  The moral is that reasses get caught, but asses don’t.  (Insert humorous quip here.)

Of course, you can also get the opposite problem, found in phrases like public hairThe Ngram here shows a lot of noise and possibly a slight increase over time, but I don’t want to make too much of it, since there are real contexts where you can use the two words ‘public hair’ side by side innocuously.   But there certainly are several modern biomedical texts that use it in error.  Apparently the photographer Edward Weston once received a letter from a museum administrator complaining that his work could not be exhibited due to its ‘public hair’. Weston was so enamored of the phrase that he used it thereafter to refer to pubic hair.

The fine folks at Language Log have talked for several years about the Cupertino effect, a term coined by Ben Zimmer to refer to errors introduced by uncritically accepting the spellchecker’s recommendation for a word (like Cupertino for cooperatino).    The effect I’m describing here is slightly different, because it relies on the blind spots of spellchecking software – it basically subdivides typos and spelling errors into those that it catches, which decline dramatically over time, and those that, because they’re English words in other contexts, actually become more common as we rely on spellcheckers.

I’d call it typographical assesment, but I’d worry that no one would get the joke.