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Re-mapping perceptual linguistics
I discovered that actual geographic regions do not matter much in the mental maps people carry with them of the different ways people in the United States speak. Much of what we thought we understood about linguistic perceptions of speech differences has been influenced heavily by the methodology of earlier studies, particularly the geographical maps that subjects were asked to divide into speech regions. When asked to sort states represented by index cards into piles representing areas where people speak similarly, subjects tended to distinguish thirteen distinct dialects. Regions far from each other, like New York, Florida, and California, for example, were grouped together by many participants. Studies of other kinds of cognitive domains show that people usually classify knowledge into seven categories, plus or minus two. This is very interesting because it suggests that the degree of discrimination between different speech types is far greater than for other cognitive domains that have been studied.

—Susan Tamasi, visiting lecturer in linguistics, from her lecture “Y’all Talk Funny Over There: The Regional Categorization of Linguistic Perceptions in
the U.S.,” sponsored by the Program in Linguistics on November 19, 2003

Discussing race in the classroom

I often talk to young graduate students or assistant professors who will say, “If I teach about this stuff [race and racism], I will get negative teaching evaluations.” If you are teaching about stuff that makes people anxious, feel isolated, confused, guilty, all those things, even if you are an excellent teacher—if you are doing that, it is likely to reflect negatively on your teaching evaluations. . . . I actually had the opposite experience. The key for me is paying attention to the effect. If you don’t pay attention to the effect, then you do get that negative response. But I try to acknowledge that this information is going to make people uncomfortable. I say that at the beginning of the semester: “It’s going to make you uncomfortable. This is a common experience. Many people get frustrated. When you get frustrated, here is what I am going to do about it. That is one of the reasons that I ask you to keep a journal, so you can process those feelings.” . . . When you normalize it, it reduces their anxiety, and it serves as a protection for you as the instructor.

—Beverly Tatum, President of Spelman College, from “Talking About Race, Learning About Racism,” a lecture sponsored by the University Advisory Council on Teaching, November 3, 2003