Theoretical Universals and Toothbrush Theories

Last weekend, one of the plenary talks at the annual meeting of the Linguistics Society of America called for more service to the field.  Specifically, the distinguished speaker wanted linguists to do a better job of educating the public about linguistics issues, and he wanted a push for linguistics to be included in STEM programs.

These were all great goals for the field, but, sadly, one of the things that the talk forgot to mention was all of the work on public education about linguistics that has already been done.  Walt Wolfram at NCSU was recognized during the question and answer period for his remarkable progress on getting linguistically sophisticated instruction into the North Carolina public schools, but many others also deserve recognition.  Anne Charity Hudley and Christine Mallinson have a great new book out on the topic, and Rebecca Wheeler has had several.  Stanford now has a Center for Educational Linguistics, and John Rickford and the others who work there are producing remarkable scholars who are contributing to the community.  Sonja Laneheart championed education issues at the most recent NWAV.  Sharroky Hollie has founded the Center of Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, and he is the director of Curriculum at the Culture and Language Academy of Success (CLAS) of a high-performing charter school serving students who we would traditionally expect to underperform.  None of these individuals were recognized, and neither was The Center for Applied Linguistics in D.C. or any of the other applied linguistics programs that have been operating throughout the country (though Donna Christian, the director of the CAL, was given a service award by LSA).  This is disheartening, because if we’re going to make progress in championing linguistics issues in the public, we need to look at the success stories as much as we need to point out our failures.

I don’t know why these success stories weren’t mentioned, but I’m not inclined to hold the speaker personally responsible.  (My apologies to all of those whose outreach work didn’t make my own list.)  I think that it is symptomatic of a bigger problem in the field, and one that it is not unique to linguistics.  See this link to a the description of a similar problem  psychology:

What happened to theory in the 21st century?.

In it, author Hank Stam echos Gerd Gigerenzer’s “plea for an end to the toothbrush view of theories–the notion that everyone has their own and wouldn’t be caught dead using someone else’s,” and he issues a call for a big tent approach to psychology, saying “the ‘catholic’ nature of theoretical psychology ought to be championed.”

Stam seems to be on to something which I imagine is a “theoretical universal” in most areas of academics these days.  As the publication lists grow exponentially, theories become entrenched, and it becomes more and more difficult to keep up with what everybody is doing in your own subfield–let alone in your own field.

If we’re going to be successful at (re)introducing linguistics to general education systems, we’re going to have to give up our toothbrush approach to theories and embrace a big-tent philosophy of  linguistics.  This should make us more aware of what our colleagues and allies in related fields have been doing over the last several years, and that can only make us stronger.


About LingEducator

Dr. Jaclyn Ocumpaugh received a PhD for her dissertation on regional variation in the acoustics of Mexican American English (Michigan State University, East Lansing). Before that, she received an MA in English/Linguistics from North Carolina State University for her work on the acoustics of /r/--a sound which is highly variable in the English language. Her passion, however, has always been to understand the social implications of language variation. In addition to her work in acoustic sociophonetics, she has worked with rape trial analysis, developed cognitive methods for understanding discourse level variation between men and women, and created sophisticated tools for teaching future educators about the kinds of dialect variation they will find in the classroom. She has taught classes in English, Linguistics, and Education at Old Dominion University, William & Mary, the University of Mary Washington, and Virginia Wesleyan College. She is currently a Post Doctoral Fellow of Learning Sciences and Technologies at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where she is helping to develop models of student engagement in the classroom. She also consults in the private sector.
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