March 22nd, 2006

ozarque figure

Linguistics; what, if anything, are linguists good for?; part 2

leora commented:
"I disagree with your notion that if it is an art, then rigor will not help. I see rigor as highly valuable to the arts."

There've been a number of comments along the same lines as the one quoted above, all of them justified. In my first post on this topic, I managed to express myself clumsily enough to prove that I am a Real Linguist, giving offense generously in all directions. I'm sorry. Let me see if I can clarify what I said a bit.

My objection was to the idea that topnotch rhetorical skills can't be taught because they are something that you just have to be born with, or that you -- if you're very lucky -- just pick up by chance. [This is where I fell into a false "art versus science" dichotomy.] We don't have any really adequate name for the body of knowledge I'm calling "topnotch rhetorical skills," but that phrase will serve temporarily for purposes of discussion; if you have a better name to suggest, I'd welcome it.

I believe that any body of knowledge for which a grammar can be constructed -- that is, any body of knowledge for which it's possible to (a) identify and describe its constituent parts, and (b) write the rules for combining those constituent parts -- can be taught systematically and with rigor. I also believe that the body of knowledge demonstrated by topnotch rhetorical skills falls squarely into that category. It's simply not the case that those skills are mysterious and fall from heaven upon the happy few; rhetorical theory is as analyzable and systematic and teachable as music theory. There will always be individual variation in the results of that teaching, as there is for the results of teaching any other body of knowledge -- some learners will do better than others, and there will be a continuum of excellence -- but there's no mystery.

Certainly the arts (and crafts) and the humanities include subject areas for which a grammar can be constructed, and for which rigor -- as leora says -- is highly valuable. I agree; of course rigor is not confined to the sciences.

When I said, sloppily, "if it is an art, then rigor will not help" -- "it" being equivalent to "the ability to demonstrate topnotch rhetorical skills"-- I meant that I don't see a way to be rigorous in the teaching of something unsystematic and amorphous and mysterious.
ozarque figure

Multitasking; afternote...

A while back, we had an interesting discussion on the topic of multitasking; it's at . In that context, I wanted to mention the article on that topic that's on pp. 48-55 of the March 27, 2006 issue of Time -- which takes the position that (a) multitasking in the usual sense of the term doesn't exist, and that (b) the attempt to multitask, in that sense, is bad for the young brain and dangerous to family life. On page 52:

"Although many aspects of the NET-worked life remain scientifically uncharted, there's substantial literature on how the brain handles multitasking. And basically, it doesn't. It may seem that a teenage girl is writing an instant message, burning a CD and telling her mother that she's doing homework -- all at the same time -- but what's really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing."

If you're willing to watch a brief ad, the story is online at,9171,1174696,00.html .