nth birthday, (n+1)th year; visiting professor

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook about the imminent 25th anniversary of my Stanford appointment, wondering what would be a suitable marking of the occasion (unfortunately, Elizabeth Traugott, the principal responsible person on this end — it was Ilse Lehiste on the Ohio State end — will be out of the country until January, so I can’t easily fold her into whatever event I cook up).

I noted on Facebook that when the department has its beginning-of-the-year festivities, and the students get to say things like “I’m a first-year student in semantics and computational linguistics” or “I’m a third-year [truncated nominal] in sociolinguistics, specializing in pidgins and creoles”, I’ll get to say, “I’m a 26th-year visiting professor, specializing in syntax, morphology, variation, grammar and usage, and lots of other things”.

Two parts of this confused some people: the apparent conflict between a 25th anniversary and being a 26th-year visiting professor; and the apparent oddity of someone’s having visited a place (continuously) for 25 years.

1. nth birthday/anniversary, (n+1)th year. (Read here as either “n plus oneth year”, though it could instead be “n plus first year”, depending on whether the ordinal suffix attaches to n plus one as a whole or just to its last element, one. You can’t have it both ways at once.) Birthdays and anniversaries are labeled according to the size of the span in years from a fixed initial point — hence my 25th anniversary, reckoning from the time of my first appointment at Stanford — while for other purposes we want to talk about the ordinal index of the year (the year-sized subspan of life) someone is in, again reckoning from a fixed initial point — hence my 26th year visiting at Stanford.

My grand-daughter Opal was at first a bit puzzled but then entertained by the fact that, though she’s six years old, she’s in her seventh year. (“So, Opal, what about that year from the time you were born until your first birthday? What year of your life were you in then?” — skillfully skirting the question of how old she was during that year.)

The 25th anniversary/26th year thing was a momentary head-scratcher for some of my friends and colleagues too.

I spent some time a few years ago working out ways of reckoning ages (in years, decades, centuries, or millennia), noting that there were at least three different schemes for doing this, all well-defined mathematically and equally exact, but having different virtues and used in different contexts. For most purposes, European cultures reckon age “retrospectively”, looking back to the previous birthday (you’re six years old from your sixth birthday until just before your seventh). But age can also be reckoned “prospectively”, looking forward to the next birthday (and so according with the ordinal numbering of years). Or it can be reckoned “to the nearest birthday”.

Some careful discussion of all this in a piece I wrote for Bernard Comrie’s 60th birthday, here.

2. Visiting professor. Lots of people think it’s ludicrous that I should have been “visiting” Stanford for 25 years. Isn’t it time that you stayed? they ask. Or they suggest I should settle in, buy a house (I did, 24 years ago).

Where things go wrong here is in the assumption that the meaning of visiting professor is entirely compositional, that visiting professor as a technical term of academia provides a definition of the relevant notion. But idiomatic composites (Adj+N and N+N) are everywhere, and labels are not definitions, as I chant regularly.

The academic label does have something to do with visiting, of course: a visiting professor has a primary academic appointment elsewhere (like mine at Ohio State, though I’ve been Distinguished University Professor Emeritus — an almost entirely honorary title, though I do get a pension from the state of Ohio — there for 15 years now). So in a sense such a person is “visiting” from somewhere else, but the label is compatible with all sorts of arrangements. (And in the case of Stanford, you could be “visiting” from another institution in the Bay Area while living in the place you already have — that is, “visiting” without moving house.)

You can be a visiting professor who gets only certain academic amenities (for example, use of the library, license to buy a faculty parking sticker, office space, a computer account) or who also gets paid for teaching or on a research grant. Whatever the arrangements, the arrangement is temporary: for some months, a year, some period of years. My own appointments in 1985 started out in six-year chunks, now down to three-year chunks, but these can be renewed again and again, which is how I ended up about to embark on my 26th year of visiting professorship.

(It’s now most unlikely that I’ll ever be paid for teaching here again, so there’s a sense in which I’ve become a visiting professor emeritus, though there’s no such actual title. But I can still offer individual studies courses to students, advise grad students on their qualifying papers and dissertations, and even offer courses for free if I want. Like Monty Python’s Mary, Queen of Scots, I’m not dead yet.)

One Response to “nth birthday, (n+1)th year; visiting professor”

  1. Ned Deily Says:

    There would be one less confusion in life if we followed Edsger Dijkstra’s advice in his famous little article, “Why numbering should start at zero” (available in his precise handwriting at http://userweb.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/ewd08xx/EWD831.PDF), though I am sure that is not the zeroth time you’ve heard that.

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