Category Archives: Science

Thoughts about: knowledge, science, culture, and reality

First contents page of A Guide to the Scientif...

Human beings are obsessed with knowledge. We instinctively believe there are facts about the world which are true, which can be known, and which explain our experience of reality. But real knowledge – thoughts about reality which are true – is incredibly elusive. Human beings aren’t very good at dealing with this.

This post is quite a long and mainly philosophical one, and part of a thought in progress. Continue reading Thoughts about: knowledge, science, culture, and reality

New blog discovered: the “because” charade

I was recently delighted to discover that Daniel Harbour, one of the linguistic theorists I’ve most enjoyed reading, has a blog – about language and also other interesting topics. It’s called the “because” charade, and here’s how he explains that curious name:

My blog is called the “because” charade because what follows the word because (in a lot of discussion of science, ethics, politics, religion, …) is rarely a reason, or reasonable, or rational. And I believe that we’d all be better off if reason(ableness) played a bigger part in public life.

Recent topics have included the Pirahã controversy – an important linguistic debate, which he explains in terms a layman can understand – and the theory of evolution. A pleasure to read!

Semi-electives: a university paradox

For the BA degree in linguistics, me and my classmates are required to choose some courses from outside of the core linguistics curriculum. This is, in theory, a good thing – it gives undergraduate students a chance to see what’s going on in other departments, and particularly gets us acquainted with some fields related to our own. However, these semi-electives are simply the introductory modules that students in other programs take in their first semesters; this can cause a lot of frustration.

Over the past days, I spent several frustrating hours doing homework in such a course. I remember seeing what must have been the same frustration in students from outside of linguistics in the introductory courses I’ve taken and the one in which I tutored. I think this frustration is an indirect result of the Bologna Process, which creates a basis on which courses from different departments, universities, and countries, across Europe, are evaluated for accreditation. The problem, I think, is that it’s very hard to evaluate a course and the effort that goes into it outside of context. Continue reading Semi-electives: a university paradox

Slides: my BA thesis analysis

As you may have noticed (at least one reader did!) I haven’t been posting lately. The main reason for this is that I’ve been exceedingly busy writing my BA thesis. Yesterday, I presented my analysis to the grammar theory colloquium at the Institute for Linguistics. The curious amongst you can take a look at the presentation slides (PDF), which I’ve even edited slightly to correct mistakes I noticed during the presentation.

Be warned: without being familiar with modern linguistic theory you probably won’t find most of this stuff interesting, or even intelligible. I might find the time some time soon to write a post that explains what I’m working on without requiring prior knowledge, but since that technically doesn’t count as working on my thesis, it may have to wait until after the deadline (December 20th).

If you can’t wait, you can use the Internet to educate yourself on some of the background. I’ve collected a few Wikipedia links that may be helfpul, but you may well have to conduct some independent research as well:

Needless to say, this rabbit-hole goes very, very deep. Have fun!

Hobby and Career, Academia and Activism

For a while now I have been very conflicted about what I want to do after my BA. The two main options on my mind have been on the one hand to (somehow) become a full-time activist for democratic education (or perhaps for human rights), possibly along with some translation and writing to make ends meet; on the other hand, I could continue with my studies and move towards an academic career in linguistics.

For a very long time I’ve wanted to be an academic, but when I decided to start studying it was important for me not to think too far ahead and take things one at a time. I wanted to stay open to other options, some of which, I knew, could not have even occurred to me at the time. As the degree gets closer and closer I know I have to at least decide what the next step will be. There have been times when it was clear to me that a BA was not enough, that I’d need at least an MA to satisfy my curiosity. At other times (in particular when I get annoyed at the university’s structure) I’ve wished to just be done with it as soon as possible and go do something else.

What makes the whole thing more difficult is that I find both fields absolutely fascinating, and both engage me in a way that makes use of my skills. Activism stands out to me as a particularly worthy way of spending one’s time, because activism means working for the greater good (or one’s vision thereof) and would have a clear goal. The goal in linguistics is less clear to me, and I know that the best one can do is create, or help improve, a model that is useful for understanding the phenomena of language — hoping to achieve total understanding would only be a recipe for disappointment. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking and speaking about democratic education since I was thirteen, and I don’t think it’s much good to advocate it as a graduate who hasn’t spent much of their adult life outside the movement.

In the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about one way of seeing things, a way that had occurred to me when I started to study but I somehow forgot about in the meantime. The idea is essentially to make a hobby into a career, and work on something you believe in in your free time. In my case, the hobby-career would be linguistics — a pursuit that is valuable to me simply because it’s fascinating and fun. I could be an activist on my free time, as time allows.

I’m far from done figuring this out, but this approach seems like a good one. Going into a career without any lofty expectations would allow me to spend time on something challenging and enjoyable, while pursuing more lofty goals on my free time would let me continue being part of something I consider really important, something that seems to make a real difference in people’s lives (which, outside of academia, linguistics rarely does).

I’m writing this just because it is on my mind and I feel like writing. I should actually be doing my computer science homework. I’d appreciate thoughts on all this, especially if they come quickly enough to distract me from my homework!

A rant about degree requirements

University of Leipzig, in 2009 partly occupied...
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Lately I’ve been having a very hard time accepting the structure of the university program I am in. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but I certainly have not been happy with the requirements this semester.

Over the four semesters I completed so far, I mostly took courses in linguistics. They were not all exactly my cup of tea (only about half of them) and I don’t have to repeat what I think about being tested at the end of every semester, but for the most part I was happy to jump through the hoops, knowing it was progressing my understanding of the discipline and domain of research that I had chosen. My fascination with linguistics and language grew over time as I learned more, understood more, and appreciated new ways of approaching the subject matter. I could accept the expectation that all of us learn a little of all of it, even the approaches we are not interested in pursuing.

However, the way this BA program is designed is a little strange. After the 4th semester, there are no linguistics courses anymore. For the last year of our studies — the year in which we are expected to write our BA thesis in linguistics, mind you — the plan is to take courses from the three different lists of more-or-less elective courses. In total, the program requires 180 ECTS credits throughout the six semesters of study, corresponding to the unrealistic total of 900 hours of class and self-study time per semester. (Hardly anyone at the university, student or instructor, takes this requirement seriously. It seems like something the Bologna process dictates and the universities do their best to fulfill, mostly on paper.)

90 credits — half of the program — are to be obtained in linguistics courses, including 10 credits for the thesis. The other half is composed of:

  • 30 credits: courses you get by lottery (from your first few choices) from other departments, university-wide, usually limited to introductory offerings
  • 30 credits worth of courses from an “obligatory electives” list, which lets you choose from exactly 70 credits worth of courses from other departments — introductory computer science (20), inter-cultural communication for Russian (10), philosophy of language (10), the languages of Africa (10), the system and history of German (10), or basic Hausa (10)
  • 30 credits worth of “key qualifications” courses, being a strange mixed bag of courses offered by different parts of the university on a basis which is not quite interdisciplinary as much as it is simply unrelated to any of the disciplines of those who might take the courses. Luckily, 10 of these credits have to be taken in a language course and the other 20 can be semi-officially replaced by language courses.

I have a feeling this is a case of good intentions gone amiss. There is apparently a social norm of going straight from highschool into university if you were in the academic “gymnasium” highschool system — which you are selected for at the age of 10. As a result, most beginning students have no clue what they’re getting into. So it’s probably doing many students a favor to force them to get a taste of other disciplines before giving them a degree, and indeed the majority changes to another program, or quits, by the second year of studies. But perhaps it’s just cruel, seeing as those of us without wealthy parents have two semesters of grace in which to switch majors, after which financial aid is no longer available.

But I digress. The point is that the structure of this program — not the content — is crushing my interest and desire to complete it. I can’t emphasize enough how this is not a matter of content. I feel like those 80 credits worth of linguistics courses both gave me an excellent, broad understanding of the discipline (and sub-disciplines) of linguistics, as well as giving me a chance to develop real interest in research.

The problem is that the structure of the program makes it entirely impractical to continue pursuing that interest. It’s not just that I have to take some other courses. It’s that a student like me, who is engaged in extra-curricular activity and dependent on financial support, can’t realistically do much besides the required work.

Right now I feel trapped. I am working as a tutor in the introduction to linguistics, and as a research assistant in a language documentation project. I decided to take these jobs both in order to stay involved in linguistics and to work towards more financial independence. I’m very glad I made that choice, and I think it is entirely in line with what engaged and serious students are supposed to do (faculty seems to agree entirely). Yet with all of the time and effort my work requires, I’m struggling to keep up with the computer science coursework, and just desperate to devote more time to reading linguistics literature and perhaps work on some research of my own. (With theoretical grammar as my primary interest, research is thankfully something I can do without any special equipment.)

It makes me furious that in order to receive my BA in linguistics, I am expected to now more or less put my interest in linguistics aside and focus on hoop-jumping.

A note

As some of you may know, as of last Thursday I’m taking time off from my work on EUDEC Council, until the end of 2010. This makes some much-needed room in my schedule for dealing with these requirements. Hopefully it will also give me more time to blog.

I do not expect to make a habit of personal, emotional posts like this one, lacking a clear and general point. It’s just something I had to write about today. At any rate, comments are open and I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on all of this.