Graduate level laughter


Of all the subjects that I took as part of my French language and literature studies, the course in General Linguistics was one that I was least comfortable with. Using books — however well written and logical they may be — that assume you should be interested in defining a phoneme as your doorway into linguistics, rather than first helping you to reflect on and begin to think systematically about your own feelings about and experiences of language, is a bit like the introduction to science that I experienced, aged eleven, at Hampton Grammar School.

Like any child I was full of curiosity about nature and how things work.  But the tasks that I remember in the science classes quickly caused me to associate science more with stress than with an exciting sense of exploration driven by innate curiosity and related to the perspective I already had on the subject at hand.  It was fun playing with bubbles in the bath, or mixing warm water with cold and sensing how the two interacted and blended with each other, but physics did not help me to retain this sense of fun.  I ended up failing physics O Level twice.

As far as I remember, nothing that we did at later stages was in essence different from one of the very first — if not the first — science lessons.  I remember having to draw a picture, as neatly as possible, of a bunsen burner and the flame coming out of it.  To get a good mark (grade) I had a sense that my writing should be tidy and even, and that the drawing itself should also be pleasing to the eye.  Of course I knew that the different parts of the flame and of the burner itself also had to be correctly labeled, but I always carried an uneasy feeling of not being quite sure what exactly was expected of me.  bunsen-burner

And always at the back of my mind (or perhaps even near the front)  was the knowledge that the marks I got would cumulatively determine my fate at the end of the school year.  Would these powerful people called “masters” (only a year before at primary school they were called “teachers”) conclude that I was worthy to be allowed into 2 Latin A or at least 2 Latin B, or would I end up in the  faceless and unenvied ranks of  2 Alpha or 2 Beta, each sharing equal but third rate status?

General Linguistics, the scientific study of language,  hit me in the same way.  The late Roy Harris, later to become the first Professor of Linguistics at Oxford, taught the small class I took with about ten other modern linguists from Worcester College.  I remember asking him a question indirectly related to the oneness of all human language, that he dismissed with the comment, “It would be very difficult to prove.” He didn’t seem interested in me as a person, and in this course I was yet again jumping through the hoops set before me by “authority.” I was not feeling empowered, through study, by a better understanding of my own experience and by the new possibilities that come from such an understanding.

I am intrigued to see now, having discovered only a couple of years ago some of Harris’ beautifully written books, that his whole approach to linguistics evolved towards something that he calls “integrationism.”   Put simply in my words, you have to take a holistic approach to language in order to understand it, always looking at language use relative to an infinitely extendable context. And I am even more intrigued to see that this holistic approach to linguistics led him to the conclusion that education itself needs to be holistic and integrated with personal experience, since his pedagogical mindset when I was a student was quite the opposite: atomistic and analytical. He cites in particular the holistic educational approach of the Bengali writer and thinker Rabindranath Tagore as a model for  education of the future.

After graduating from Oxford, I spent a year as a residential social worker in an Oxfordshire County Council  children’s home.  The decision to work with kids with deep emotional problems and in need of love was half-consciously made to counterbalance the cerebral academic experience I had been through at Oxford.  But after less than a year of discovering what residential social work was like in the 70s in Britain, I knew that I couldn’t continue. The level of support and training was scandalous, and the career prospects were hardly exciting.  I switched to language teaching and found it was both stimulating intellectually and  emotionally satisfying.  It didn’t take me long to realize, though,  that if I wanted to have a chance at the relatively few “good” jobs in this profession (which was, by the way, self-consciously struggling to establish itself and to  be seriously regarded as a profession) I would need to be better qualified.  Applied linguistics seemed to be the best way to go.

So, motivated by the need to create a more secure future for myself and my very young family,  I got myself into a postgraduate degree course in linguistics at Manchester University.  But the motivation to succeed in this subject, the one that had been the most difficult for me as an undergraduate, did not absolve me from having to confront the profound disconnect that had been riven, in the course of my whole education, between my heart and my mind. I was still responding to the call to “try to be a good student” (or to be thought to be one) rather than to the more authentic and deeper vocation to “enjoy being me as I am now and — if I choose to study — enjoy it to the utmost”.

As a slight detour in this narrative, I should mention here that while studying in Manchester I became friends with a Japanese engineering student, Hiroshi Yamaguchi, and found myself helping him with every page of his engineering dissertation, which was about a technological innovation based on the physics of heat transfer.  He was delighted with the result, as the examiners asked for only ten minor adjustments to be made before they could accept it — something that was unusual, apparently.  So here I was, studying physics, understanding it (I had to in order to ensure that Hiroshi was expressing himself correctly and fully), and even getting the conventions right, but having totally failed in my experience with physics in the past.  The difference here was that I was approaching physics in my own way, with self-respect, enjoyment  and without fear of whether or not I would get good marks.

Now, going back to the study of linguistics at Manchester, suffice it to say that I tried too hard and found the experience very stressful; just a couple of anecdotes can capture what was really important during that time .

Overly conscientious and anxious in my approach to study,  I had a cassette recorder prepared for the first semantics lecture.  I was planning to listen to it again at home.  When Donald Cruse — who has since written a widely  read and quoted book on semantics — came into the room I got up from my seat near the front to politely ask him if he minded if I recorded his lecture.  His blunt reply was, “Yes, I do.”  No explanation, no apology, no attempt to acknowledge either the effort or anxiety that he either didn’t see or didn’t know how to respond to.

Knowing how to and feeling free to respond to people as individuals first, students of a particular field second, seems to me to be the essence of a holistic approach to education at any level.

A couple of months into the course, during a seminar class, I experienced a breakthrough of sorts, but it was not a breakthrough in the “Aha! Now I understand” sort.  Rather it was a breakthrough for that voice within me that is always saying, “Don’t be afraid to be natural.”

The lecturer was talking about something mildly amusing to do with the linguistic complexity created by the practice of certain Amazonian tribes  to require that people marry someone who comes from a village far away enough that they can’t understand their spouse’s language. But more than the topic itself, there was something indefinable in the manner of delivery of the lecture that caught my amusement. I suspect that it had something to do with his not knowing that he was being (innocuously) pretentious or inauthentic in some way, but I can’t speculate beyond that. I don’t want to embarrass him by giving his name, because he was a kind and likable chap.

Gradually, as I listened to the lecture, an urge to laugh welled  up inside me.   Powerful though it was — or rather because it was powerful — I was afraid to let it out.  Unconsciously acquired and embraced rules dictated that  I had to struggle to keep it within me.  Seeing this struggle, the lecturer at first felt encouraged, thinking that his half-funny story was making a hit.  Of course the longer he continued with this self-deception, the funnier the whole scene became for me. And my struggle was now becoming the source of mirth for all of my dozen or so classmates, who found themselves struggling — though nowhere near to the extent that  I was — to suppress their own laughter.  This wild storm of accelerating unexpressed laughter went on for a full hour, with the final layer of absurdity being that the lecturer did not stop what he was doing to ask why everyone — especially me of course — was laughing. He finished the class without addressing the issue.  Poor man.

After the class  I went to the linguistics library, a small place where I found myself alone.  I laughed uncontrollably for one hour, just about the exact equivalent of the time I had been suppressing my laughter.  Could this be a new law of physics that I, the physics failure, have stumbled upon?

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