I wrote up two quick blogposts earlier this month debriefing my time at the Linguistic Society of America’s annual meeting. In part 1, I talked about the Word of the Year, and in part 2, I summed up the research I presented at the conference.
This part is a little bit more “inside baseball” — which is to say, let’s discuss how the sausage is made. Academic sausage. Academic baseball. How the academic baseball players make sausage.
The Linguistic Society of America identifies as* a learned society, but I also often hear it called a professional organization. I think this distinction matters, in part because it determines what the organization is trying to do exactly.
The LSA’s constitution starts like this:
1. This Society shall be known as the LINGUISTIC SOCIETY OF AMERICA.
2. Its object shall be the advancement of the scientific study of language.
Okay! Let’s put a pin in exactly what it means to advance the scientific study of language for a second. It’s definitely important.
The current Long Range Strategic Plan (for 2019–2023) states that the mission of the society is, again, “to advance the scientific study of language and its applications.” Interesting! We gained a word, there: applications. The LRSP also sets out some goals for the organization:
I. Foster inclusiveness and community among those who share an interest in language.
II. Expand public awareness about Linguistics through education and outreach.
III. Promote the development and presentation of linguistic research.
IV. Advance the interests and meet the needs of linguistics professionals.
V. Advocate for the value of science, including Linguistics, in serving the needs of society.
These are interesting goals! I can’t actually find info on that page about when this long-range strategic plan was written, but I have to assume it was around 2019 or just before, given that it is the plan for 2019–2023.
Anyways. What’s a learned society?
I actually had to look this up, because people keep using that term and I have not gotten a satisfying definition out of anyone when I’ve asked. Wikipedia defines a learned society as as an organization dedicated to the promotion of an academic discipline; it also specifies that many learned societies are also professional associations. Wikipedia defines a professional association as a group that seeks to “further a particular profession, the interests of individuals and organizations engaged in that profession, and the public interest.” It specifies that professional associations are (usually) not regulatory bodies that have any legal power, but they may offer registration or certification of stuff that’s not otherwise legally regulated.
Back to learned societies, though, again just summarizing wikipedia to you: apparently they sometimes do stuff like publish journals, hold conferences, or have Fellows (LSA does all of these) or make online academic community spaces (LSA arguably does not do this). Also maybe when they act as professional bodies they can apparently serve to “[regulate] the activities of their members in the public interest or the collective interest of the membership,” which is interesting.
And…. that’s about all that wikipedia has to say about learned societies.
So like… what does it mean for an organization like LSA to be a learned society? Would it mean something different if it were a professional association?
Does the LSA have any call to regulate its own members in the public interest or the collective interest of the membership? Not according to its own constitution or bylaws. There is a new position as of January 2023, an Ombud, whose responsibility is to “[organize] the mediation of disputes between members of the Society as well as promoting fairness, equity, and inclusion within the Society.” There are no actual written down rules about how the organization regulates the activities of its own members, at least, that I can find. There are a couple informal documents: a guide on how to post comments online (from 2012!!!), and buried in the meeting minutes there is a Report of the Task Force on Procedures for Evaluating Professional Conduct (from 2020, on page 8).
That report refers to a code of conduct for members that I CANNOT FIND on the website. The search function brought me to a 2017 newsletter, in which it was announced that a code of conduct would be written in response to a letter signed by ONE THOUSAND MEMBERS to the executive committee regarding sexual harrassment. Another thing that came up in my site search, by the way, is, holy shit: a placeholder for somewhere to report an incident, but it doesn’t do anything yet.
There are also a very precious few documents on the LSA’s current website about the conduct of how linguists should behave towards the public, and no clear writing on what exactly the LSA would do if one of its members was found to be acting in opposition to any of these resolutions or statements.
Admittedly, one of the current things going on inside the LSA is that we’re in the process of getting a new website. It has long been agreed among members that the current website is labyrinthine and impossible to navigate or find anything, and the font is small and it’s got a lot of weird pdves that should be html. In many conversations at the meeting earlier this month, a LOT of people I spoke to — in leadership and just random members and students and whoever — all agree that a better website will improve At Least Some Of The Things.
But this is all sort of beating around the bush, because I’m writing for the academic baseball sausage-makers here. If you’re not up to date on the current LSA goss, the goss is this: the LSA is at an extremely weird turning point and there seems to be a huge cultural and communicative divide between generations and classes of its members, which is then reflected in the makeup of its leadership and governance. The younger, precarious, less likely to get an academic job ever, more interdisciplinary, queerer, more racially diverse generation keeps feeling like the older, securely tenured, straighter, whiter, more traditionally formal/theoretical linguists don’t understand or care or are maybe even actively antagonizing. “Just get more of those young ones in leadership” won’t fix it, in part because being in leadership in a (learnéd society / professional association) is a volunteer position, an immense amount of (mostly thankless work), and those of us who don’t have tenure or tenure-track jobs have absolutely no reason to agree to hundreds of hours of volunteering for an organization that gives us very little in return. If it was suggested that I personally run for one of the more “powerful” committees right now I would say “oh absolutely not until I have a JOB, thanks though.”
And, not to be like “the problem is capitalism,” but like. Wait hang on let me go get my meme about this.
The problem might be at least a little bit capitalism. A ~Learnéd Society~ operates primarily on free labor (we barely can afford our, like, three staff members, who are definitely working harder than we pay them for). The reason that could work in the past is in part because that free labor was coming from academics with tenure. One of the deals you make with tenure is that you do a certain amount of free labor to make your academic field keep existing. Tenured academic jobs, essentially, were subsidizing the compensation for the labor going into academic societies because it was in the universities’ interests for those academic societies to exist. It’s good for a university with a linguistics department if linguistics is a field with professional standards and conferences and journals and networking.
But, like, you know the thing with tenure track jobs? Where there are way way way fewer of those than there are people getting PhDs and trying to get tenure track jobs? (I don’t have a citation for this but I heard that) It’s like 1–3% of PhD grads who get TT jobs; if we call everyone with a linguistics PhD a linguist, and say those people are the target demographic for who might want to be a member of the LSA, then that’s 97%ish of them who have to get some other job, or some other means of paying fucking rent. A lot of my friends go work at amaz*n or they work at trader joes or they’re unemployed or they’re trying out “van life.” You know? And those linguists — there is absolutely no reason for them to do hundreds of hours of free work for an organization like LSA, which has absolutely nothing to offer them. My van life linguist friends aren’t going to the conferences or reading the journals, they don’t need to network with a bunch of professors, there is no utility.
So like, if the younger generation of us overwhelmingly understands that, if we’re not there already, that’s where we’re destined — like, I feel genuinely lucky to have a “cushy!!” visiting assistant professor job because it’s multi-year and I have health insurance, and I’m also working on the assumption that when the clock over my head runs out, that’s going to be it for me — what on earth sense would it make for me to do free work for an organization that can’t help me get a job?
This is NOT saying that LSA needs to be spending more time and resources trying to get me an academic job. It’s also not really saying that I would benefit from another fucking career panel where one of my lucky friends with the tech job (that I applied for and never heard back — many such cases!) talks about how great it is to work in industry. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is this: how can learned societies continue to exist when the capitalist situation in which they are embedded has decided that careers in academia are not going to exist in the future?
I hope we find a way to keep existing. I had some conversations about like, fundraisers and some fun committee meetings we could have about it. I would be interested in doing things that involve the organization giving money to grad students. I would be interested in the organization sitting down and talking with some more of those (techie, grocery store, funemployed, etc) linguists and asking what the society can do for them. And I know the organization is not and cannot really be a labor union, but I would be extremely interested in the LSA getting seriously involved in supporting grad students and precarious faculty who are fighting for better working conditions, living wages, and job security.
But in terms of the primary mission of the organization, which is to advance the scientific study of language, we need to think primarily about how exactly the scientific study of language can continue to advance if no one can afford rent while studying it.
OH MY GOD sorry I got so off track. I was supposed to be summarizing the MEETING. Anyways the meeting involved a lot of really great conversations with people in the LSA’s leadership, and a really wonderful sunshine symposium. I am extremely excited about our new executive director who just started, and our new membership coordinator who’s been at this for a little under a year. This meeting there was an undercurrent of anxiety from leadership, but I personally feel extremely optimistic about the medium-term future of the organization’s health. The new website’s going to fix everything, y’all, and we’re gonna have so many cool panels and whatever. It’s fine! Everything’s great! Thanks for asking.
Sorry for the slightly ridiculous brain dump, but it felt important to get my thoughts down here. I expect the audience for this post was much narrower, but if you made it all the way to the bottom, congrats!
In case you missed them, please also check out my (much more fun and interesting perhaps?) parts 1 and 2 of this blog post series. I think this part is the last one I will write, so thanks for reading!
You may also be interested in some of my other posts, like the one about why you should stop getting in twitter slapfights with rightwingers, or why I sometimes don’t correct people about my pronouns, or why cis people should get their gender marker changed. This work is supported by my ko-fi tips. You can also follow me on twitter.