Saturday, April 1, 2017

Statement of Objectives

My 'Statement of Objectives' in applying to the MIT Department of Linguistics (1988-1993). So this is almost 30 years old now. 

As a statement of objects to get into graduate school, I would say it is OK. I would now advise myself to write a bit more on the SVC research. I probably thought that describing that research was redundant with the writing sample. But the problem is that the first connection that the faculty have with the research of the student is through the 'statement of purpose/objectives', and so it should be described in a bit more detail.

The statement is a remarkably prescient document. I did miss a few things, and included some things that I never pursued, but I was largely correct in predicting the arc of my career. In a way that is kind of boring.

Here are links to the original document. I also type it out below, and added some explanatory notes on the document.

Statement of Objectives (annotated)

I would like to discuss my reasons for wanting to study linguistics, my immediate academic goals, and finally my long term professional goals.

I have always been interested in studying the human mind. In college I took courses on Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, Freud, Neuropsychology, and Linguistics (including three graduate level syntax courses).  In addition, I worked as an aide to a neuro-psychologist doing research on cognitive deficits in Alzheimer's disease.

[I transferred from the University of Minnesota to MIT as a Sophomore (halfway through the year). At UMN I was a math major, and I transferred as a math major. All the cognitive science courses and linguistics courses I took at MIT, not UMN. If I had not transferred, there is some chance I would not have found syntax or linguistics.

The graduate syntax courses were by Ken Hale (Introduction to Syntax at the graduate level), a course on the ECP by Luigi Rizzi and a course on islands by Haj Ross. Taking those three courses, by those three very different syntacticians was a very special opportunity that shaped the rest of my life.]

In principle, all of the above fields could serve as inroads to studying the mind. I have chosen linguistics for a number of reasons. 

First, there is an intimate connection between language and the mind. This relation can be detailed in a number of ways. For example, researchers working in the Government-Binding framework have formulated the idea of a language faculty which is responsible for the use and acquisition of language. Formulating a theory of this faculty is equivalent to studying an aspect of the human mind. But there is another way in which the mind and language are related.

Researchers have used linguistic evidence as a window on conceptual structure. For example, Jackendoff in Semantics and Cognition hypothesizes that the syntactic structure of sentences reflects conceptual structure. Lakoff, in Metaphor and Meaning, shows how the conceptual system is metaphoric on the basis of linguistic evidence. For example, we conceptualize an argument as war, as seen through he use of expressions such as "he attacked my most basic assumptions."

[Now I would be less inclined to draw a distinction between syntactic structure and conceptual structure. I am not a big fan of the "two syntax" view of the mind, where one has a language of thought and natural language syntax which corresponds to it.

I think my interest in Jackendoff and Lakoff has now been replaced by an interest in trying to understand the interaction between syntax, formal semantics and thought.]

The second reason I have for wanting to study linguistics is that I enjoy learning languages. I just returned from two years and four months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, Africa, where I had the opportunity to learn French and Ewe. I find that I really like learning languages: learning new words, phrases, tone patterns, idioms, proverbs, technical vocabulary. When studying an language I get the idea that I am a human being in its element. I feel that as linguist I would have plenty of opportunity to be exposed to new languages.

[And this is true. I have had lots of opportunity to learn about new languages. Although, as it turns out, the only languages that I have learned how to speak (other than English) remain to this day French and Ewe. That is a bit of a disappointment. I could have tried harder with Spanish, Swahili, Setswana and other languages.]

The third reason to study linguistics is the whole complex of relations it has to mathematics and computer science. On one level, certain formulae and theorems find their way into linguistic argumentation, for example, they logarithmic formula of glottochronology, or the complexity theory results used to justify certain linguistic theories. 

[These complexity theory results were really in the air when I was an undergraduate. I remember that Berwick and his students were writing papers on this. So people were talking about it.]

On another level, linguistic reasoning resembles mathematical reasoning. Certain words and phrases apply to describe mathematical reasoning: rigorous, combinatorial, axiom-theorem approach. They also describe some aspects of linguistic reasoning. 

[This is true, and it is ultimately one of the things that drew me to linguistics. That part of me that was attracted to mathematics as an undergraduate was attracted to linguistics as a graduate. In other words, I liked mathematics, but I wanted to do psychology. So linguistics was the solution to the equation.

I would say that these ideas underlie my paper with Ed Stabler "A Formalization of Minimalist Syntax". That paper is the one time in my career where I written something of a formal (semi-mathematical) nature.]

In addition to all this, there is also the current effort to implement parsing systems that correspond in some way to linguistic theory (like the Marcus parser).

[I was blown away by Marcus' book on parsing.
The idea that one could locate in the parser an abstract condition like Subjacency was absolutely mind blowing. I believe I read it before graduate school.  Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to do work on natural language parsing.]

One of my immediate academic concerns would be to continue studying verb serialization in the context of Government-Binding theory. During my last four months in Africa I made some headway in studying serial constructions in Ewe (I enclose a copy of my notes). 

[A chapter of my thesis ("Topics in Ewe Syntax") was written on serial verb constructions. Also, my fourth journal publication was "Argument Sharing in Serial Verb Constructions". So I did exactly what I promised to do in my Statement of Objectives.]

Secondly, I would like to continue work that I started as an undergraduate on the passivization of idioms. Specifically, why do some idioms passivize and others don't, while retaining their idiomatic meaning. 

*The bucket was kicked by John.
Some strings were pulled by John.

[Unfortunately, I never got back to the topic of idioms, which was the topic of my very first linguistics papers. Also, it is not clear from this Statement of Objectives what absolute joy I have had in doing English language syntax over the last 30 years. There is little in the statement that would have allowed one to predict this aspect of my career.]

I think that I would be a balanced linguist. 

[What in the world is a balanced linguist?]

On the one hand I enjoy hard core syntactic analysis as exemplified in LGB, which appeals to my mathematical instincts. On the other hand, I am also interested in many other aspect of language. While in Africa I became interested in language policy in multi-language societies and in the historical antecedents of American Black English. 

[I have since written an argument on AAE ("An AAE Camouflage Construction") with Paul Postal and Simanique Moody. More to the point, when I was in Ghana teaching for NYU Abroad, I taught a course on AAE in the Department of Lingusitics at Legon, and a number of students in the class got interested in this question of historical antecedents. So I fulfilled my goals in that domain. However, I have never worked in language policy, nor studied it to any depth.]

While working as a research aide in Alzheimer's disease, I became interested in aphasia.

[I have never had the opportunity to do further work on aphasia, and I am not familiar with the work that has been done on it.]

Eventually, I would like to be in a position where research into linguistics, and in a broader context research into the human mind, becomes part of my everyday life. I can imagine several possibilities. I could become a research at a university. 

[This is exactly what happened.]

With the current effort of many larger corporations to develop language processing systems, I could go into industry. 

[I did not do that. But I did devote a number of years of my life to designing and implementing a cross-linguistic database of the world's languages.]

Lastly, many third world nations are becoming increasingly aware of the advantage to researching indigenous languages, for educational purposes as well as for cultural reasons. In African there are many african as well as foreign linguists involved in this work. This is also a kind of work I would feel comfortable doing.

[This last goal has been fulfilled in a number of ways. First, I have spent large amounts of time doing fieldwork on various African languages (mostly Ewe and the Khoisan languages). Second, I created the African Linguistics School, which has been a great instrument for educating African students in linguistic theory.]


  1. Now I see where the present passion comes from. I am glad you achieved your early career goals and have become a significant name in the field. This is an eye-opener to me. Thanks for sharing this with me and others.

  2. You talk about statement of objectives. I see that your academic goal is very right. This post is best benefit for the students. I am interested about nyu statement of purpose info.


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