Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Liminal Characters: A Group of Friendly, Intellectual Eccentrics

Indo-European Linguistics is a small, and not particularly popular, field. I once heard from a grad student in a history department that the historians thought the classicists were intense and intellectual in a way that was impressive, unnerving, and furthered their image as social misfits. She said that the classicists felt that the Indo-European studies students were impressive and unnerving in a similar way and never came out in the light of day [1]. In stereotypical fashion, I made the assumption that the IE people were going to be unattractive, socially-deficient, overly-technical misfits. I was pleasantly surprised at what I discovered.

Over the two days, there must have been about 70 people who were at the conference, although there were never more than 40 people in the conference room at any one time, and most of the lectures drew about 25. The group of professors in the room was diverse in specific interest, but they were primarily men over the age of 60 of European descent. In general, they were also sweet, although I think that they were a little suspicious of me [2]. The professors were split between those who were smartly dressed in suits, and those in shorts and t-shirts, which was amusing to me.

The rest of the room was made up largely of (I presume) graduate students in the field. Those of the students who were presenting could be divided into generative linguists and non-generative linguists and this correlated to hipster [3] and non-hipster (respectively). Even though I did not necessarily understand (or like) the methodology of the generativist hipsters, I found some of them charming and some of their presentations to be interesting. There was one by a particularly hipster student which used some kind of a crazy Apple-based web function that actually made me seasick because it was moving and changing sizes as he spoke, and he spoke very quickly. However, I found him moderately charming and I think I would have found his presentation interesting if he had not been speeding through it. Aside from the hipsters, there were a pretty diverse group of attendees from girls in tight suit-dresses to girls in hippie-style floor-length skirts to guys dressed like trendy business men to guys who looked as though they had hardly noticed their attires as they put it on. I noticed, oddly, that among the attendees and moderators, the gender split was about 50%-50% (surprising for an old-boys-club-style field), but the presenters were only about 20% female.

Overall, the conference was enjoyable and the people were eccentric and friendly.

  1. At my alma mater, there were majors that were ranked in a similar fashion (although many majors such as chem, biochem, physics, classics, and history-lit seemed to all but themselves at the top of the "crazy" pyramid). There was also the opposite side of this chain, which were the majors that everyone made fun of for neither being difficult nor academically rigorous. Psychology (excepting the neuropsychology people who most people spoke of with respect) usually landed at the bottom of the heap as the most disparagingly-spoken-of major. However, above psych it depended on the person that you were talking to as to which way they ranked the departments.
  2. They had some right to be suspicious. Not that I meant any harm, obviously. Rather, I overheard some one of the graduate students say that someone in the department had proposed the idea of having name-tags for the conference, but the proposal was roundly rejected on the grounds that "we all knew each other." The conference was free and open to the public, but I guess they expected no one new would show up. 
  3. I find it pretty hilarious that my spell-check does not accept "Indo-European" or "neuropsychology," but it is perfectly happy with "hipster." What does that say?

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