Bad omens for generative syntax

In the last few weeks there have been a couple of posts in the generative linguistics blogosphere that don’t bode well for the field.

The first is the sad announcement from Omer Preminger that he is leaving academia in order to live in the same town as his wife. This news is also rather shocking, since Preminger is a fairly prominent syntactician—someone whose work, though I didn’t always agree with it, had to be addressed seriously—and if a scholar of his prominence and ability can’t negotiate something as reasonable as a spousal hire, what hope does anyone else have in having a life and an academic career too. I’m just a sessional lecturer, so treating me like a robot is still the norm, but to hear that faculty members are also expected to be robots, is disconcerting to be sure.

Omer promises more reflections on his time in academia, which I will read with some interest when it comes out, but I am sorry to see him leaving academia.

The second concerning report comes from Chris Collins. Collins, it seems, applied to some of the same tenured/tenure-track jobs as me this past year, and got the same boilerplate rejection emails as me. That a tenured professor is in the same job market as me is not especially surprising, It should be surprising that no university wanted to hire him, since he not only has a fairly strong empirical program, but he’s made important contributions to syntactic theory—while the idea of label-free syntax is commonly attributed to Chomsky (2013; 2015), he cites Collins for the idea, and slightly more recently, Collins’ work with Ed Stabler formalizing minimalist syntax in a few ways predicted Chomsky’s most recent move to workspace-based MERGE, and on a personal note, has been an invaluable resource to my work.

Collins’ explanation of his unsuccessful applications is twofold and both parts suggest bad trends in generative syntax.

The first explanation is one that I gather is common across all academic fields[1]At least those fields that modern capitalism deems useless.—department budgets are too tight to hire a senior scholar like Collins, when junior candidates are available and cheaper. Collins is probably right on this, but unfortunately commenting on the last war. While it’s probably true that junior hires are preferred over senior hires for budgetary reasons, junior tenure-track faculty are not the floor. Why hire an expensive faculty member who you have to provide with an office, a small research budget, and a pension, when you can hire a few precarious adjuncts for cheaper?

As an aside of sorts, I remember having arguments in grad school with my fellow grad students about whether our department should hire tenured faculty away from other departments. The standing wisdom was that that was the trajectory—smaller departments hired junior faculty, and once they’d proved themselves they’d move on to bigger and better places, opening up a spot at their old place. There was a feeling that, sure, there was no growth in faculty positions, but they were at least going to replace faculty that left or retired. I was skeptical of that line. University administrators had adopted the neoliberal model almost entirely—The Market reigned supreme—and The Market was clear: Linguistics, along with the broader humanities, was useless, so why not take every opportunity to squeeze those useless departments, say, by delaying replacement hires.

All of this is to say that I think Collins has identified a trend, but not a new one. The lower echelons of academia have been enduring this trend for some time now. Perhaps now that it’s reaching the upper echelons, we can see about stopping or reversing it … perhaps.

Collins’ second explanation is that, while he has made valuable contributions in recent years, the field doesn’t appreciate those contributions, and I think he might add the qualifier “yet” to that assessment. Again, I think he’s correct, and he’s identified a trend that I first saw identified by Norbert Hornstein, namely that much of what we call “theoretical syntax” is actually empirical/analytical work. This trend, I think, has morphed first to the point where so-called theoretical syntacticians were puzzled by actual theoretical work, then to the point where they are hostile to it. I suspect Collins has been a victim—though he in no way frames himself as a victim—of this hostility.

So, while there is a decided difference in degree between these two career setbacks, I think they are both part of the same trend, a trend which has been affecting more marginalized and vulnerable parts of academia for some time. The fact that this trend is now directly affecting established generative syntacticians should make the field as a whole take notice. At least I hope it does.

References

References
1 At least those fields that modern capitalism deems useless.
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