On the vagaries of the market and the field

In their interesting (and well-worth reading) comment on Travis Bradley’s “A leap of faith?” post, Adam Ussishkin and Natasha Warner express the following suspicion (emphasis added):

There exist a fair number of papers where people have done an interesting experiment, discussed the interesting implications of the finding, and then added a theoretical discussion involving constraints and tableaux in order to make it a phonology paper. We suspect that this sometimes occurs purely in the interests of the job market. […]

There also exist papers of a different sort, where the writer has a formal phonological analysis of some formal phonological question. They then add a small amount of experimental data or cite someone else’s experimental data (possibly overgeneralizing from it), in order to have the formal theory backed up by phonetic experimental evidence. This is formal phonology with an overlay of phonetic data, and it may also occur in the interests of the job market sometimes.

Let me say up front that I tend to agree with this suspicion, so long as the crucial “sometimes” is not left out. Adam and Natasha don’t specifically comment on what it is about (being on) the job market in particular that invites this sort of hybrid work, but the implication is clear enough: the job candidate either feels or is made to feel that they must appeal to experimental folks on the one hand and theoretical folks on the other. This way, there’s something for everyone. Right?

Well, it’s not clear. In the post, Travis highlights how two reviewers of recent edited volumes that contain hybrid work of this type found the marriage less than satisfactory, and Adam and Natasha clearly agree. So what’s with the job market?

I got to thinking about this after seeing this FYI today on LINGUIST List, announcing that the 14th mfm (Manchester Phonology Meeting, to be held in May; abstracts due Feb. 20) is dedicated to the memory of Peter Ladefoged; specifically, the special session on “Fieldwork and Phonological Theory” (or “Phonology Theory”, depending on where you read it). Now check out the blurb for this special session:

Phonological theory and fieldwork maintain a symbiotic relationship that has enriched both during their histories. On the one hand, data and analyses from the field have enabled phonological theory to develop a broader and more in-depth understanding of the nature of the knowledge of human sound systems by extending the “parameters of the possible” from those that might be hypothesized from, say, European languages alone. Yet on the other hand, phonological theory has equipped fieldworkers with, arguably, ever more useful and insightful questions with which to interrogate the sound systems of the world’s languages. The purpose of this special session is to consider ways in which both phonological theory and field research can continue and strengthen this important symbiosis in the 21st century, an era of improved speech analysis technology, easier travel, greater and more empowered participation from native speakers in field research, and a wider range of theoretical models based on an ever-widening range of languages. Some of the papers in this session will focus on new empirical results that illustrate the need for and means of developing greater interactions between field research and theoretical phonology. Questions that will be asked in this session include those like the following: (i) how can linguistic training better equip future linguists to be both theoreticians and fieldworkers, undermining the idea that these need be different people? (ii) how should developments in theoretical research, such as Optimality Theory, Dispersion Theory, Government Phonology and Articulatory Phonology, affect field research? (iii) how can new technology have an impact on the methodology of fieldwork? (iv) how is ongoing fieldwork affecting theoretical research in nontrivial ways? what are some current examples? Papers in the session will also address the logically prior crucial question: what is phonological field research?

Other noteworthy recent conferences (such as WCCFL 22, held here at UCSD in 2003) have had sessions, special or otherwise, that have invited the type of hybrid work we’re talking about; if I were willing to take some more time to dig a little, I’m fairly sure I’d find that there have been more edited volumes (such as those Travis noted) and special issues of journals dedicated to this sort of thing, too, and job announcements themselves have for a long time now been listing such hybrid work as at least “desirable” if not required.

My point is that the field as a whole is clearly inviting this hybrid work. The result is fairly predictable, I think: there are better and worse examples of hybrid work, experimental-types will find some kinds of problems with it and theoretical-types will find other kinds of problems with it, and many of the folks out to get a job (or a publication, or tenure) will undoubtedly be caught in the middle.

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