The great work begins

(two morning names, of very different type)

Yesterday morning I came to consciousness slowly slowly, as a voice filled my head with the exulting declaration:

(#1) Society6 art print: The Great Work Begins by Maxfield and Madison

I dutifully sat upon the edge of the bed, facing  the French doors looking out into the dark night, and waited for the Angel to crash through:

Greetings Prophet! … The Messenger has arrived!

(#2) Beth Malone as the Angel, Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter in the 2018 Broadway version of the National Theatre production of Angels in America

From my 8/21/17 posting “Angels in Palo Alto”, about the NT production:

After a build-up stretching over hours … the Angel finally descends upon Prior, on gigantic wings, in an astonishing pyrotechnic display, bringing both this part of the play and Prior to a climax, achieving a deeply moving catharsis, and ushering in transfiguration, transformation …, the coming of the millennium, but also impending death. Here I weep, every time, in some amalgam of great joy and deep sadness.

I sat, suffused with great joy and deep sadness (and experiencing morning wood akin to Prior’s), until I realized the Angel was not in fact imminent and snapped back to the mundanities of my life.

News of a (successful) dissertation defense then brought me another rush of joy. One of the great pleasures of the professorial life. Doesn’t have to be your own student — this one was Scott Schwenter’s student Mark Hoff in Ohio State’s Spanish and Portuguese department, with the dissertation “Settledness & mood alternation: A semantic-pragmatic analysis of Spanish future-framed adverbials” — but every such announcement is a delight. An accomplishment for the graduate student, and usually for the adviser as well; you’ve done a long difficult thing, you’ve done it well, and you’ve demonstrated that in front of an audience. Celebrations are in order.

(These days dissertation defenses are usually not actual ordeals, as they sometimes were in other places and at other times, when the events were public disputations, a kind of ritualized combat against all comers. Students shouldn’t get to the defense stage unless the dissertation is both ripe and tasty, and they should be encouraged to understand that, for some period of time, they are one of the world’s experts, quite likely the expert, on their topic, so that in fact they know more about it than anyone in the audience, and you can all move to talk engagingly about the significance of the work in a wider context. Which is usually a lot of fun.)

After congratulating Mark (who I’ve never met) and Scott (a Stanford Ph.D.) and the rest of the committee (including another Stanford Ph.D. and a colleague from when I myself taught at Ohio State), I got e-mail from yet another Ohio State faculty member in Spanish and Portuguese, a senior lecturer in Spanish, also an Ohio State Ph.D. in linguistics (specializing in phonology). Yes, a former student of mine, Jill K. Welch, who then performed another touching ritual of academia, the fond recollection:

Of course I thought of you yesterday when I heard myself say to a student, “Make the generalization!”

Meaning: don’t just go on citing examples, state a generalization that covers these cases — making sure this hypothesis is precise enough to be testable, then making sure that it actually does cover all the examples you have so far, then testing the predictions it makes about other examples, modifying it if necessary, and cycling through the whole business as many times as necessary. (Stating generalizations is a hard slog for lots of people, and abandoning a first hypothesis to search for a better one is pretty much hell for everybody.)

What was remarkable is that Jill Welch was my morning name one day last week (a great many of my morning names are names of former students and colleagues, going back over 50 years). And here she pops up in my FB feed!

(You probably thought I’d forgotten about morning names, what with the puzzle of settledness in Spanish future-framed adverbials and the headiness of a successful thesis defense — but no. There’s Jill.)

Notes. Mark’s elevator talk on settledness, for a friend of his on FB:

Basically what I find for Argentine Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Italian, and now French is that speakers use the present indicative in future-framed adverbial clauses to convey that they consider the action/event they’re describing to be a done deal [that is, to be “settled”].

Then a note on Mark as a person, thanks to his openness on FB. In addition to his interests in linguistics, he’s an enthusiastic teacher of Spanish and works extensively with the Latinx community in Ohio. He’s also something of a hunk, as you can see from his amiable thumbnail on the OSU S&P site:


And he has a male partner, a pastry chef for a Columbus hotel.

One of the reasons the thesis defense is such a celebratory moment is that being a graduate student is mostly grindingly difficult and wearying: there are the courses you take, filled with people who evidently know an awful lot more than you do; the courses you teach to (often resistant) undergraduates; the grunt-work you do for senior professors; the intellectual and professional relationships you form with other students; the qualifying exams and papers you have to surmount; the papers to give at learned societies; and then a doctoral dissertation that eats away your self-confidence with a project taking, on average, two or more years, for which you alone are responsible.

Somehow, people also try to have lives in the midst of this. They are, after all, mostly young adults. They negotiate intimate relationships (affectional, romantic, sexual), raise children, play music in bands or chamber music groups, sing, work out, engage in political activism, read lots of books, play sports, party, practice their religions, explore ethnic restaurants, write poetry and short stories, do volunteer work in their communities, root for sports teams, go gaming, create art, cook, blog, garden, keep connected to their families, go hiking or rock-cimbing or running or cycling or sailing, and much more. (All these exemplified by graduate students I have known.)

From my 2/15/17 posting “A snapshot of the field’, on Stephanie Shih’s Snapshot of the Field project:

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.

Some examples in that posting. Mark’s pose in #3 would fit right in (but it needs much better camera work, of Steph quality).

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