On training graduate students

Here is some good advice (and a book recommendation) for PhD students and advisors of PhD students by Sundar Christopher. The book targets the graduate student experience in the US, where students often enter PhD programs right after College. Several European institutions have developed attractive PhD programs that combine the best features of the American system, which places a lot of emphasis on training, and the traditional European system, which places a lot of emphasis on independence. Those programs are ‘apprentice-style’: they include formalized training components, but also allow students to be contributing researchers from the very start. The entrance requirement is usually an MA, which means that students are already weaned off textbooks by the time they begin their PhD. They are ready and eager to see themselves as researchers. I myself grew up in the old-style European system, which had no formalized training for PhD students. By sheer luck, I was apprenticed by the best possible teachers you could imagine and confronted with the best research programs in formal semantics at the time.

When I moved to the US, the American, ‘school-like’, system of graduate student education was new to me. To fit in, I must have overdone it at the beginning of my UMass career. One day, Barbara Partee invited me for dinner at her house together with Terry Parsons, who was visiting. I don’t remember much about that evening except for one thing that stuck in my mind. Barbara told both of us that we ‘overtaught’ our graduate students, that we ‘overprepared’ our graduate classes, and that we were too ‘controlling’ of the discourse in the class room. I took it to heart. I learned (I hope) to treat even the youngest graduate students as researchers who need guidance and help, not so much with textbook material, which they can easily absorb on their own, but with groping in the dark, seeking out their own challenges, getting used to unknown terrain, and feeling comfortable about asking probing questions. I realized that teaching PhD students ‘by the book’ (even if it’s your own) is very easy to do (no preparation required), but it is also a sure recipe for failure in the long run. Students who are taught by the book won’t be ready to do original work by the time they have to write their qualifying papers. They will remain dependent for too long. 

When I visited the University of Maryland during NASSLLI last year, I got to know some of the graduate students there. I saw that even first year semantics students were already working on their own original research projects. It’s not that they weren’t taking any classes. They were, but they were at the same time contributing members of research groups. This is also the way PhD students are trained in the Berlin School of Mind and Brain or at ILLC in Amsterdam. The PhD students in all three of those programs are enthusiastic and self-confident scholars who are deeply immersed in their research, mentored by specialists in their field, as well as by a Graduate Program Director. Maryland has a post-baccalaureate program providing a bridge between College and Graduate School. The Berlin and Amsterdam programs have associated MA programs that offer introductory and more specialized graduate-level classes, as well as ‘methods’ classes. In addition, there are workshops and mini-courses targeting PhD students. I think programs like these might be the future of graduate education in the Cognitive Sciences, including linguistics. The time of the ’60s-style PhD program in linguistics that was so successful in the US may be over. Training in linguistics is bound to become more like training in the sciences. 

Yale University has an interesting combined PhD program in Philosophy and Psychology. Since Zoltan Szabo, Jason Stanley, and Larry Horn are members of the Philosophy faculty at Yale, the program offers the intriguing possibility of PhD-level training in formal semantics and pragmatics in combination with both philosophy and psychology. Rather than acquiring breadth and well-roundedness within a Linguistics program by taking classes in, say, Phonetics or Phonology, semantics graduate students at Yale can acquire a very different kind of breadth via a formal connection with the departments of Philosophy or Psychology. Jonathan Phillips‘ profile on his website is a good example of a specialization in Formal Semantics in the context of Philosophy and Psychology. The Yale program requires students to affiliate with one ‘home department’. This is important because  jobs are still mostly allotted following traditional departmental lines. 

PhD students also have to think about what is ahead of them. Here is a link to a very useful book about preparing students for life after the PhD: “A PhD is not enough” by Peter Feibelman.

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The amazing University of Konstanz


In 1978, semanticists at the University of Konstanz organized a memorable interdisciplinary conference “Semantics from Different Points of View”, bringing together linguists, psychologists, philosophers, and computer scientists in a joint conference on the various ways of studying linguistic meaning. The photograph has Barbara Partee right in the middle (with unicorn shirt). Behind her are Ede Zimmermann and David Lewis. I am on the very left in the first row, next to Max Cresswell, who is next to Arnim von Stechow. In the last row, you see Irene Heim, who was then a graduate student at UMass Amherst, but had been a student of Arnim von Stechow’s in Konstanz before that. Next to Irene Heim is Hans Kamp. Among the other participants are Manfred Pinkal, Renate Bartsch, Dieter Wunderlich, Wolfgang Klein, Urs Egli, Josef Bayer, Rainer Bäuerle, Veronika Ehrich, Eckehard König, Joachim Ballweg, Roland Hausser, and Wolfgang Sternefeld.

I received all of my degrees from the University of Konstanz (MA and Dr. phil – there was no BA in Germany at the time). When I was a student and young researcher in Konstanz in the 1970s, this was an absolutely amazing place, and much of my success in my profession has its roots there. To mention just a few things: even though I was only in my 3rd year of university studies when I arrived in Konstanz (I would have been a mere undergraduate in the US), I was collaborating on a (long-forgotten) 2-volume book on mathematical linguistics after just one year there, and even became (undeservedly) the book’s first author. This wasn’t anything special about me: this was Konstanz in the 1970s. Roughly at the same time, I became one of three members of the Executive Committee running the Konstanz Linguistics department. I was the student member, but my voice had equal weight. I was also a member of the University’s Ausschuss für Lehrfragen (University Committee for Matters of Teaching) – half of the members of this committee were students, the other half were tenured and untenured faculty. The committee was in charge of all important issues relating to teaching. I have been grateful for the education I received in Konstanz ever since – it was pure Utopia – something that wasn’t available anywhere else in Germany (or in the world).  

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Logic and Grammar


Sandro Botticelli: A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts

Why do I make my semantics students learn logic? I ask them to work through both volumes of the Gamut textbook, even though Gamut doesn’t speak the language of linguistics. It is written in the language of logic. Why should semantics students have to learn how to talk and reason in this way? There is a simple answer: In an interdisciplinary field everyone from any participating field has to speak the language of the other fields. That’s your entrance ticket for success in an interdisciplinary enterprise. You have to understand where the practitioners of other fields are coming from. As a relatively new interdisciplinary field, formal semantics has been a success. It is the result of the marriage of two highly formalized and abstract theories: Logic, which provides theories of the human notion of what a valid piece of reasoning is, and Syntax, which contributes theories of how hierarchical syntactic structures are computed in natural languages. The marriage is solid and has been going strong for almost 50 years. Many young linguists, logicians, and philosophers are fluent in three disciplines, and collaborate in joint research institutions, journals, and conferences.

You may have heard people say that theories of logic can’t be cognitive theories because people make logical mistakes. Yes, we all do make logical mistakes. What is important, though, is that, when we do, we can be convinced that we were wrong. How come? There must be a notion of what a valid piece of reasoning is that is the same for all human beings. Imagine what the world would be like if people all had different notions of what follows from what and what is or isn’t consistent. Mathematics would be impossible, science would be impossible, laws and contracts would be impossible, social institutions would be impossible, … For more than 2000 years, logicians have been designing theories of universally shared patterns of valid human reasoning. The resulting theories are among the most sophisticated theories science has produced to date. And they are the most sophisticated formal theories in cognitive science. One of the key insights of the early logicians was the discovery that little words like notandorsomeallmustmay, and so on are the main players in patterns of valid reasoning. That is, those patterns are created by properties of the functional (that is, logical) vocabularies of human languages. It’s precisely those vocabularies that also provide the scaffolding for syntactic structures. Syntax is about the hierarchical structures projected from the functional vocabularies of natural languages, Logic provides the models of how to study the meanings of those vocabularies and how to explain their role in reasoning. In formal semantics, those two disciplines have come together.

Contemporary modern semantics was born when the traditional perspectives of logic merged with the modern enterprise of generative syntax, as initiated by Noam Chomsky. The first worked out formal semantic system in this tradition was David Lewis’ 1970 paper General Semantics, one of the most beautiful and enjoyable articles in semantics to the present day. Lewis made an explicit connection with Chomsky’s Aspects model, the generative syntax model of the time. In contrast to Lewis, Richard Montague was outspokenly hostile to Chomsky’s work. He was not interested in Chomsky’s call for an explanatory syntax. It was only after Montague’s death that linguists like David Dowty, Lauri Karttunen, Barbara Partee, Stanley Peters, and Robert Wall made Montague’s works accessible to linguistic audiences.

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