A snapshot of the field

Now for something completely different: something that has to do neither with Valentine’s Day nor with sex / sexuality. Instead, a project portraying linguists, in photographs and texts, from an emotional, rather than academic, perspective. A project of Stephanie Shih at UC Merced (a Stanford PhD), who last appeared on this blog as the co-editor, with Vera Gribanova, of the volume The Morphosyntax-Phonology Interface.

Steph — from here on I’ll refer to her familiarly rather than formally —  is not only into linguistics (specifically computational linguistics and phonology) and cognitive science, but also food and music… and photography, all quite seriously.

Her description of the snapshot project:

A Snapshot of the Field: Linguistics: a work-in-progress collection of portraits and origin stories of academic linguists

In academia and particularly in highly theoretical fields, there is a concerted and idealistic effort to divorce knowledge from individual emotion and personality: scholars should remain disconnected from the subjects they study so as to maintain objective points of view, and the topics that are chosen for study should be driven purely by intellectual motivations. As much as this sort of emotional disconnect is championed, however, I believe that such a rigorous divide is humanly impossible. What we care about, how we care about it, who we are as individuals, and how we form our relationships with other scholars drive our academic fields and questions of study as much as the intellectual factors.

“A Snapshot of a Field” is a photographic portraiture project that seeks to create an audio-visual ethnography of the modern-day academic field of Linguistics by documenting the scholars that comprise the discipline. It is a common practice in academia to make appraisals of our fields from a scholarly point of view, asking what progress have we made on the main questions of linguistics and where does the field go from here. In this project, I aim to take stock of the field from an emotional point of view, archiving a slice of the discipline by making portraits of academic linguists, focusing on their individual personalities through portraiture. As a component of the portrait sessions, there will also be short interviews with the linguists on how they started in the field. The artistic goals of this project are to explore how the individuals and the sum of their personalities and relationships form an academic community. These photographs and interviews will ultimately be displayed en masse, as a collection representing how the scholars in the subject define the field of Linguistics.

Of course I now provide a photo of Steph, very much in the style of the photos in her Tumblr portfolio:


Smiling and side-lit — and (to my eye) somehow suggesting enthusiasm, intensity, and playfulness, all together.

The photos in her portfolio are all of (relatively) young linguists, like Steph herself. Almost all are smiling. Many are of linguists who once took courses from me or worked with me in other ways.

Here are two more photos, one woman, one man:


Lauren Hall-Lew, Stanford PhD, now at the University of Ediburgh


Patrick Callier, Stanford BA, Georgetown PhD, now back at Stanford on a post-doc with Rob Podesva

In a later posting, I’ll say some things about how I got into doing the things I do in linguistics (beyond the pleasure of intellectual problem-solving). Advance note: social class and my family’s linguistic background are important.

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