writing bio research bagatelle home

The Pleasures of a Hyphenated Education

Commencement Address
Undergraduate Interdisciplinary Studies
UC Berkeley, May 18, 2010

Geoff Nunberg
UC Berkeley School of Information

It's quite a challenge to write a commencement address for an audience as diverse as this one. Media Studies, American Studies, Cognitive Science, Religious Studies, and just plain write-your-own-ticket Interdisciplinary Studies -- to look at that list, you'd be excused for thinking that UGIS is just a bureaucratic abbreviation for "none of the above."

Of course a commencement speaker has no obligation to address his remarks to the particular interests of the graduates. The traditional approach would be to offer you some one-size-fits-all word of wisdom that will help to get you through the rough patches you're apt to encounter as you pursue your future careers. But when I thought about this, the only thing I could come up with was "PowerPoint."

And I actually think you all have some important things in common that make you different from other groups of graduates. For one thing, the choice of any one of these majors suggests that you looked on your Berkeley experience as an opportunity for intellectual exploration and growth, and not as just a step in your career advancement. That does credit to both you and your parents. In fact it testifies not just to your values, but to a remarkable farsightedness. It's impressive that all of you had the perspicacity to chose these majors three or four years ago, when your more opportunistic classmates were rushing to get into courses in economics and finance. I mean, who's sorry now?

But beyond this, there's the experience of interdisciplinarity itself. That's something all the faculty in these programs spend a lot of time thinking about -- and so do all of us at the School of Information, where we have professors with a dozen disciplines from anthropology to economics to computer trying to shape a curriculum around the social and political and economic effects of technology.

Not surprisingly, I tend to approach these questions from a linguistic point of view. And it strikes me that you really can't understand interdisciplinarity until you have a solid grasp of… the hyphen. So allow me to make a few little digressions here about punctuation. (Are you sitting comfortably?) As Mrs. Bosch taught us in eighth grade English, the hyphen has two jobs to do. Sometimes it unites two things into a single entity -- Joyner-Kersee, Austria-Hungary, Minneapolis-St. Paul, student-athlete, philosopher-king, blues-rock. That's why the French call the hyphen the trait d'union or "stroke of union." And it's what people are trying to convey when they use the hyphen to form the names of new, hybrid fields of study, like neuro-psychology, bio-ethics, socio-biology, and so forth.

But the hyphen can also be used to oppose and separate -- you think of the Ali-Foreman fight, the Franco-Prussian War, the Lincoln-Douglas debate. And sometimes these two functions can seem to be at odds with each other. Around the time of the First World War, for example, the hyphen became a proxy for a controversy about American identity, at a time, when anti-immigrant sentiment was running high. People took to using the phrase "hyphenated Americans" or just "hyphenates" as disparaging term for the German-Americans, Italian-Americans, Russian-Americans and other recent arrivals whose undivided loyalties were suspect -- immigrants who seemed to be reluctant to let go of their national attachments, their culture, and particularly their languages. That is, the hyphen was seem as something like a minus sign: it was subtractive, as if to say that a German-American was something less than an unhyphenated one.

The former president Teddy Roosevelt was unremitting in his attacks on the hyphenates, and Woodrow Wilson picked up the theme as well. As Roosevelt put it in 1919, "We have room for but one language here and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans… and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house." All of this presupposed a certain view of the cultural role of language. People talked about English as kind of a chosen language, the bearer of Anglo-Saxon ideals. As one New York politician put it, "You have got to learn our language because that is the vehicle of the thought that has been handed down from the men in whose breasts first burned the fire of freedom." (The text he was referring to was the Magna Carta, which as it happens was written in Latin.)  At the same time, foreign languages were regarded as disease hosts that would enable subversive political ideas to enter the body politic. As the Nebraska Supreme Court put it in a 1919 decision upholding a state law that prohibited schools from offering foreign-language instruction, teaching children foreign languages would "naturally inculcate in them the ideas and sentiments foreign to the best interests of their country."

         This is still the way a lot of Americans see foreign languages, and in fact this attitude has bubbled to the surface again in recent years, as numerous states pass laws aimed at restricting the preventing from providing services in languages other than English. Supporters of these measures say that English has to be protected from the encroachment of foreign tongues -- a lot of these statutes talk about the importance of preserving the role of English. (Needless to say, that strikes a lot of Europeans as ludicrous-- as one Frenchman I know put it, passing a law to protect English is like declaring crabgrass an endangered species.) But what's driving this is really the perception that political unity is threatened by cultural and linguistic differences. And it's animated by the same fear and suspicion of hyphenates that were in circulation a century ago -- not to mention an aversion to hyphens themselves, particularly the ones that come between the prefix multi- and the items cultural and lingual.

But of course, this is Berkeley, not Arizona State. This may not be as politically homogeneous a place as the talk shows on AM radio would have you believe. But there's generally a very strong belief in the value of cultural and linguistic diversity. You're not going to find a lot of people on this campus who would support laws that restrict the use of foreign languages, no more than they more than they'd be enthusiastic supporters of a statute that authorizes the police to pull somebody over for suspicion of being brown.

Yet when it comes to language, we academics have our own strain of exclusivity and chauvinism, which grow out of the way we chop up our world into disciplines. The creation of the modern notion of disciplinarity is one of the most significant developments in intellectual life over the past two hundred years or so, and in a way it parallels the rise of these issues of language and identity I've been talking about. In the eighteenth century, people could talk about a Republic of Letters that spanned the whole of human intellectual activity, from science to politics to the arts. And figures like Franklin, Jefferson and Goethe felt themselves free to range over all that territory. Or take David Hume. We remember him today chiefly for his philosophical treatises, but in his lifetime he was more famous for his six-volume history of England and his influential essays on subjects from economics to demography to religion to political theory. Yet with all that range, Hume never had to worry that he might be transgressing some disciplinary boundary. He wasn't going to be stopped by border guards who demanded to see his credentials. "So, David, what exactly is your field of specialization?"

But the map of the intellectual world has changed a lot since then. It looks less like Cicero's Rome than like Martin Luther's Germany, with its patchwork of principalities -- the grand duchy of geography, the electorate of English, the barony of biology, the margravate of musicology, each with its flag, its national heroes, its foundational texts, and above all its own language.

Now when I talk about disciplines having their own language here I'm not thinking so much of the technical and theoretical terms that reflect a particular subject matter. Art historians naturally have their own terms for periods, movements, techniques, we linguists have all these specialized terms for the categories and rules of grammar, and so on.

What's much more interesting is the way these fields feel the need to come up with proprietary words for things that seem have no particular connection to the nature of their subject matter. The contemporary language of the humanities is very rich with these. What other people would call controversial issues are described as "sites of contestation." Pairs of opposing terms become binaries, as in "the binary of public and private" or "the binary of boxers and drawers." And critical examination becomes interrogation, so that you see articles with titles like "Interrogating Post-Political Aporias."

I don't mean to pick on the humanities in particular here -- you could make the same point about the language of education or psychology or art history. And the scientific disciplines have their own linguistic twitches, like their neurotic predilection for the passive voice: "Increased lethargy was demonstrated by the frog."

Now critics very often dismiss this language as empty and pretentious. But I think that misses the point. People within these disciplines will tell you that these words imply distinctions that ordinary language can't convey, and that's often true. But they're also badges of belonging -- they're the equivalent of what street gangs call "representing" except that academics use words instead of tattoos. So while they're often useful, they can very easily become verbal tics that don't really add anything to ordinary language. For example there are good reasons why we linguists sometimes prefer to talk about "lexical items" rather than words. But I know I tend to overuse the word, and I'm always afraid I'm going to come out someday with a sentence like "He's a man of few lexical items."

         We all experience these episodes of semantic infatuation in the course of our education: they're a crucial stage in our intellectual socialization. Like most college students, for example, my daughter went through a period of overusing the word "individuals" during her sophomore year. This ultimately required a family intervention where we managed to break her of the habit by using the word to replace "people" in song titles, as in the Doors' classic "Individuals are Strange," or John Lennon's "Power to the Individuals." (For the graduating seniors I should explain that John Lennon was the guy who did the song before Black Eyed Peas made it famous.) That's really no different from what happens when we're learning a foreign language and we pick up these colorful turns of phrase we enjoy dropping into our speech, because it makes us feel so… native. A few years ago someone at the Oxford English Dictionary did a survey of the use of English idioms and discovered that the vast majority of people who actually use the expression "raining cats and dogs" are foreigners who learned it in their English as a Second Language courses.

         That's what's happens when you acquire the language of a discipline. You scoop up these new expressions and you throw them around promiscuously until you get a sense of when they feel right in your mouth. And you know you’ve become a full-fledged member of the club when you can instantly tell when somebody else is speaking its language with a foreign accent.

         So it isn't surprising that someone who has gone through this process should be politely dismissive of those who aren't native speakers of the lingo -- particularly the hyphenates who try to straddle the borders between one field and another. They make warm and welcoming noises about multidisciplinary collaborations, but there's often an unspoken concern that these people are liable to turn the field into a polyglot boardinghouse, even if they don't put it quite that way.  

         That's the obstacle that interdisciplinary programs always come up against and why all the supportive talk about interdisciplinarity too often comes to very little. And for intellectual hyphenates such as all of you -- people who are actively pursuing one of these cross-disciplinary fields of study -- it creates a practical challenge. Unlike the students who have majored in departmental disciplines like history or psychology, you've had to become multilingual; you had to learn to describe the same things in different languages. Of course, the specific combinations depend on your particular major: some of you have had to move between the languages of anthropology and psychology, others between the languages of political science and history, others between film and literature, and so on. But in the course of things you've all had to become adept at what linguists call code-switching, the shifting between languages that's common among bilinguals who live in linguistically diverse communities: the Alsatians who switch between German and French, the Indians who switch between Hindi and Guajarati, or the people in my own San Francisco neighborhood of the Mission who switch between Spanish and English, often in a single sentence or a single phrase.

         Now the majority of you are obviously not going to spend the rest of your days in the sheltered world of academy, as alluring as I know you find that prospect. But that ability to switch from the language of one field to another will be handy to have around even when you go out into what people like to call the real world. These tribal languages are ubiquitous in American life, and in a society as vocationally and culturally mobile as ours, the ability to operate multilingually is an enormous advantage.

         Are you thinking of going into government? A sea of jargon. The military? Exactly the same thing, except there it's all in acronyms. Or are you planning a business career? Over the last thirty years, the language of the American corporation has become as hermetic and elaborate as the cant of the underworld or a religious cult. And as with the languages of the academic disciplines, this isn't limited to the special terminology for whatever widgets the company makes or sells. It colors the most ordinary and general statements. Some years ago I left a teaching job to work at a corporate research center in Palo Alto, and on the first day I received an email memo that concluded, "Cascade this to your people and see what the push-back is.'' I recall thinking, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not at Stanford anymore." And that's not to mention the portentous vocabulary that was introduced by consultants who promised to create a "high performance corporate culture." In our everyday life we talk about our problems and goals but when we get to the office, we're expected to talk about issues and missions. I remember talking to a friend of mine who’s pretty high up in Hewlett-Packard management who had just finished filling out his required annual vision statement. He said, "It used to be enough that I gave them my body -- now they want me to kiss them on the mouth."

         Of course it's easy to make fun of this, even  -- or maybe particularly -- if you're part of the group that's talking this way. The most dead-on parodies of literary jargon are the ones written by critics and scholars. And corporate managers and human resources people line the walls of their offices with the same Dilbert cartoons that their employees are posting in their cubicles. But our private cynicism about the jargon of the tribe isn't an impediment to its doing its work -- in fact it makes the job easier. George Orwell has been required reading for fifty years now and political and corporate doublespeak haven't shown any signs of diminishing or becoming less effective. The fact is that it's hard to use a word without in some way buying into it. You can ridicule your company's slogan of "a passion for excellence," but when you actually use the phrase, it isn't just to accommodate management. It's a way of signaling your willingness to be a team player, and some part of you believes in the words.

         So how do we keep from getting overwhelmed by words, from allowing the language to speak us, as a German philosopher once put it? Actually, I think most of us don't see that as a problem. We feel that our skepticism makes us personally immune to linguistic manipulation or control. We have this idea that we can see past language if we want to -- that it's possible to "think wordlessly" as Orwell put it, so we directly perceive the nature of things. But that's a delusion. The world is just so much undifferentiated kapok until language comes along and sews its seams into it. And if you have the impression you're thinking wordlessly it's usually because you're utterly oblivious to the work that words have already done for you.

         But if we can't ever free ourselves from language, we can at least get a different perspective on it. And the best way to become aware of how arbitrary our own language can be is to learn to think in another. That's a familiar experience when we study a foreign language and come to realize that English only gives us one of many ways of seeing the world. Some ago I was having a conversation in French, which at the time I fancied I spoke rather well. I wanted to say that a mutual friend of ours had been scarred by her childhood experiences. I knew that the French translation of scar is cicatrice. So I used the verb form cicatrisé to mean "scarred." But my listeners were thrown, and after a bit of back-and-forth I discovered that cicatriser actually means to heal. It turns out that what we English-speakers see as the mark left by an injury is what French-speakers see as the mark left by a process of healing. And of course you can see a scar in either way. So I hadn't just learned something new about French but something new about English -- the way it foregrounds one particular feature of reality rather than another. It's a very small demonstration of something Goethe said: "He who does not know a foreign language does not know anything about his own." 

         This is basically the same kind of experience we have when we shift from one disciplinary language to another. The language of every discipline foregrounds some things and marginalizes others. That's the only way disciplines can make progress, by doing a certain considered violence to the complexities of experience. The risk is that you'll fail to realize that what you're talking isn't the world but only some idealized model of it. Linguists are always making this mistake, and so are psychologists and philosophers and just about everybody else in the academy. And for that matter, so are journalists and politicians and psychotherapists, not to mention the bankers who put together complex financial instruments. In retrospect, you wish they'd been a little better at code-switching so that they could focus on some of the things their models had no place for.

         Every language, every dialect, every jargon colors and occludes our perception of reality. And it's only with constant effort that we can be aware of this. I like the way W. H. Auden put this point: "One notices, if one will trust one's eyes/The shadow cast by language upon truth." 

         But this is where your various majors have given you a special advantage, in forcing you to see the world from different disciplinary perspectives, so that you've become proficient at code-switching from one language to another. When you have several maps of the same territory, you're less likely to confuse any one of them with the actual ground. It's a considerable asset, and I think we're justified in expecting expect great things of you. And wherever you wind up, I hope you'll feel free to drop in at any time and let us know how you're getting on. In the meantime, as we say in Mission District, "Hasta soon."

Copyright © 2010 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.