Monthly Archives: September 2013


Is the Cognitive Revolution Here Yet?


Noam Chomsky

Strand Palace Hotel, London, England — I’m in the heart of London for a few days attending a British Academy conference headlined “The Cognitive Revolution 60 Years On.” The cognitive revolution we are supposed to be reflecting on was not specified, but no linguist would be in any doubt about it: They mean the one that Noam Chomsky is commonly held to have started by introducing bold claims about psychology and philosophy into American linguistics.

The profession was at the time rat…


The Work of Conversation


Meaningful conversations are linked to happiness. (Image: lawgeek)

I am teaching an undergraduate course called “How Conversations Work.” Taking this course is a great way to become so self-conscious about how you talk that it becomes hard to have a normal conversation at all. “It wears off,” I promise the students, knowing that this statement is half-true.

This week I put on the table an argument about conversations that will inform our discussions for the rest of the term: Conversations are wo…


Can Goofy Headlines Cost You Money?

How could anyone pack three major misunderstandings about a linguistic science story into a single eight-word headline?

On September 15, Rachel Martin interviewed the much-publicized economist Keith Chen on National Public Radio’s news program Weekend Edition Sunday. And the headline chosen for the transcript put up on the NPR Web site was: “The Language You Use Might Save You Money.”

This piles new layers of silliness onto previous facile treatments of a topic that needs to be given careful tho…


Pop Up, Pop Down


Photo via Drake’s Instagram

Everything is popping up these days. Like this blog, for starters. You might have found it on a pop-up menu. When you clicked on the link, you might have encountered a pop-up ad. And to keep those pop-ups out of your face, chances are your Web browser offers a pop-up blocker.

But that’s old news. Pop-ups have been hopping around the Web for at least a decade. What’s new is that pop-up fever has spread to the bricks-and-mortar world, if only to keep up with the Int…


Hollywood Ending


Associated Press

It was about five years ago that I got a phone call from Paul Alexander, a biographer of several writers, including, most significantly, J.D. Salinger. I’d later come to understand that he called, rather than e-mailed, because the latter would have been too public and traceable. Anyway, Paul said that a Hollywood screenwriter named Shane Salerno was making a documentary about Salinger. Would I be willing to talk to him?

My connection was that I had written a history of The New Y…


The Genette Game

gerard-genetteI’m teaching a new course this term on what’s commonly known as intertextuality—the web of relations among texts (books, poems, stories, essays, what have you) and the ways in which they comment on, parody, undermine, and otherwise mess with each other. We began with a few theorists, among them the French structuralist Gérard Genette, whose book Palimpsests attempts to name and distinguish various ways of thinking about intertextuality.

By way of illustration, Genette proposes Homer’s Odyssey an…


On Quantity

Title-page-Quantity-Word-WarOnce every semester my students perform what I call the Molly Bloom exercise in class. We read aloud the first page of Molly’s soliloquy from Joyce’s Ulysses and I proffer my completely invented notion of Joyce’s technique. He decided, I say, to set down as closely as possible the contents of Molly’s mind as she lay in bed. He determined that thought never stops, and most of us think in words. He decided that Molly did not “think” punctuation. And he figured that Molly had a word, or phr…


Teachable Moments


U. of Delaware students were upset last week when the police broke up a revel inspired by I’m Shmacked, a popular party-photo-posting company.

One of the pluses of being a poet, fiction writer, journalist, or personal essayist blogger is that everything is grist for your mill. That is, whenever you observe or experience something, you can and probably should think about whether it’s potential material, and, if so, figure out how best to treat it. That’s certainly one of the reasons I find it rew…



Are academics ever really sorry?

A recent kerfuffle (a good Chronicle of Higher Ed word) at Johns Hopkins involved an interim dean who apologized for asking a research professor to remove a blog post.

When the dean’s apology came forth, my friend Christopher Newfield at the University of California at Santa Barbara tweeted “an explanation would be better than an apology.” I take his point to be that when somebody does what they say they shouldn’t have it’s not the expression of contri…


Keep Your Multilingualism to Yourself

Leeuwarden, Friesland, Netherlands — My assignment here in the pleasant Frisian city of Leeuwarden, in Holland’s only officially multingual province, is to debate Guillaume Thierry over whether learning a new language shapes your thinking and your view of the world, at a conference on multilingualism. But already, just from lunch-table conversation on the first day, I have learned something new and surprising about the growing global dominance of English.

I talked to an English-speaking American…