Tuesday January 9, 2007

LSA 2007

I'm back from the 2007 meeting of the Linguistic Society of America:

...and it was great.  There's nothing quite like hanging out with a thousand or so colleagues for four days to renew your enthusiasm for linguistics.  After the jump, you'll find my notes on the meeting.

  • The linguist-blogger gathering went splendidly.  I was a little worried that turnout was going to be low, but attendees included Mark Liberman, Claire Bowern (who also blogged about the meeting), Heidi Harley, the long-mysterious Semantic Compositions (who posted here and has been blogging up a storm since the meeting), Russell Lee-Goldman, Neal Whitman (who has begun a series of posts about the meeting), Included Middle (who has posted here), Firespeaker, and Aaron-whose-URL-I-don't-know.  Later, I also ran into Nassira, who has also been blogging about the meeting.
  • Mark Liberman's talk "The Future of Linguistics" was great, and also described in part the history of the field.  It seemed to inspire members of the audience to volunteer to help reconquer the academic world for Linguistics.
  • The symposium titled "Missionaries and Scholars: The Overlapping Agendas of Linguists in the Field" was a fascinating discussion of the extensive but unofficial connections between academic linguistics and the Summer Institute of Linguistics.  I'm happy to report that in spite of the sensitive subject, no chairs were thrown.  I thought the proposals about cutting ties between LSA and SIL seemed a little overheated, not to mention lacking some crucial details (which ties are we cutting, exactly?).  I would have liked to have heard more discussion of Jeff Good's questions about the dependence of academic linguists on SIL's software tools.  Dan Everett's anecdote about how he became a Christian after going to church on acid was worth the price of admission, though.
  • You know how linguists are always worried that they're not going to be able to find a job?  They're apparently right to worry—there are enough unemployed linguists that the LSA has a special registration price for them:

  • Scariest moment: when Sally McConnell-Ginet spilled a glass of water on her laptop during her speech.  I just about fainted—in fact, I'm having a little panic attack now just thinking about it.  (Back-story: when I was in Leipzig this fall, I dropped and slightly damaged my laptop.  If it had been broken, it would have been very, very bad, so I'm a bit gun-shy.)
  • The awards for contributions to the field are a nice idea, but I think they may be scraping the bottom of the barrel.  For instance, they gave one to some guy called "Nome", which I don't even think is a real name.
  • At one point, while watching somebody trying to figure out why their PowerPoint presentation wouldn't start and it became clear (from the task-switcher) that they were using a Mac, I had to resist the urge to say, "Oh, there's your problem—you're using the wrong version of Windows."
  • As Claire also noted, the name tags on lanyards were a disaster—they were constructed in such a way that they wanted to hang sideways, so at any given moment roughly 50% of of attendees had inward-facing name tags.  Geoff Pullum (who was very gracious when I introduced myself) came up with the proper solution: he wrote his name on the back, too.
  • The free wireless in the conference was nice, though I think it was down for part of Friday and Saturday—the signal was strong and the DHCP negotiation went smoothly, but no connectivity to the Internet resulted.  To the organizers' credit, when I complained at the desk, it was back within the hour—in fact, I think it was within the half-hour.
  • I learned a lot about presenting at a conference, some from my experience at my own talk (paper, slides), some from others':
    • Slow down, fool.  If the talk takes 20 minutes when you practice it at home, there's no reason to race through it on stage.  (Back-story: I finished about a minute early.)
    • When there's someone in the audience who seems to be engaged and interested, focus on that person.  Note: "focus" does not mean "visualize naked".
    • When listening to a question from the audience, be careful not to back-channel through the microphone.  It's too loud and you sound overbearing.
    • Bring lots of handouts.  I brought 100, which seemed like overkill, but when I checked after the session, only seven were left.
    • The most complicated part of the talk is the part where you should take the most care to go slow and get it right.  I think my talk went slightly to hell for about 30 seconds when I was talking about statistical significance because my mouth got ahead of my brain.  Some folks in the audience told me afterwards that they thought it was perfectly clear, but, well, since when have I paid attention to other people's opinions?
    • PowerPoint is tricky.  You know how they say text in a slide that's too small isn't readable?  They're right.  Also, a green background with some foreground text in black and some in white is not readable.  At all costs, avoid Comic Sans MS.  Furthermore, if you choose a futuristic-looking sans-serif font, make sure it has a reasonable italic face instead of one that looks too sharply slanted.  Finally, the effect in Carol Padden's slides where blocks of text fade in from the background when they appear looked awesome.
    • When I showed up to the location for my talk, I started to get nervous because the room was huge:

      If you find yourself in such a situation, I offer you the following advice, which, like Caesar's Gaul, is divided into three parts:

      1. Don't panic about the size of the room.  A big room doesn't always mean a big crowd.
      2. If a big crowd does show up, don't panic.  Everything will be fine if you don't screw up.
      3. Don't screw up.

Anyway, the conference was great, and I look forward to the next one.  I'm definitely planning to submit an abstract—possibly for the paper that underlies this work, though I'm a little worried the historical linguists would eat me alive.  See you next year!

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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And that "Nome" guy wasn't even there! How involved in the field could he actually be.

In regard to unemployed linguists, this is why I'm glad I have an undergraduate degree in computer science. It seems that's just the sort of thing employers like to see in a linguist.

Posted by: includedmiddle at Jan 9, 2007 9:24:55 AM

It was great meeting you all, which has inspired me to get active again.

Re: PowerPoint, your observations should be prominently featured on the call for abstracts for the next meeting. Your presentation actually looked like the product of someone from industry, not academia (by which I do not mean that industry is better, just that there are certain stylistic cues). I largely have in mind your reinsertion of the agenda at various points throughout the slides with the current section highlighted by bold text. That's a presentation habit that I know I see often via my work, but not so much in academia.

As far as the wireless went, my impression was that the best times to connect were right when the sessions broke up and people were moving around, before they could set up in the registration desk area. Once they did, I think there were too many connections for the router to handle.

Posted by: Semantic Compositions at Jan 9, 2007 10:19:42 AM

... or maybe you could present something more closely related to your dissertation in 2008?

-- Emily, spying ;-)

Posted by: Emily at Jan 9, 2007 11:16:17 PM

FYI, my URL is http://www.aaronbraver.com/blog (or without the /blog, depending on what you're looking for) -- pretty simple ;)

I very much enjoyed meeting all of you - it (and the conference as a whole) really affirmed that I'm going into the right field.

Posted by: Aaron "whose-URL-I-don't-know" Braver at Jan 10, 2007 12:37:11 AM

Heh, you link to my quotes page. Okay, fine, it's the closest thing that I have to a blog these days...

I was just doing some poking around looking for stuff on Liberman's plenary address. I was just at the doctor's office, and was really wishing there were a Popular Linguistics they could put in the waiting room.

Posted by: firespeaker at Jun 22, 2007 3:36:31 PM