Get to Know Your Instructors: J Michael Terry

In this interview, J. Michael Terry (UNC) tells us about getting into Linguistics late in his academic career. It somewhat started with a question on semantics he posted in an online group which was followed by a candid answer he received that said, in effect “dummy, don’t you know where you are? I can see that you are posting from UMass. You can walk across campus and have your questions answered by real linguists.” And so he did; and now, he’s teaching the Intro to Semantics Course at the #lingstitute2019. Continue reading past this preview to get to know more about Professor Terry.

1. Can you please tell us about your linguistic background?

I came to linguistics rather late in my academic career, taking my first linguistics course – a syntax class for non-majors – while finishing up a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering at the University of Massachusetts. I had earlier come across a reference to a paper by Chomsky (I can’t remember which one) in another paper on the mechanical design process. That prompted me to start reading more about linguistics. Ray Jackendoff’s wonderful book “Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature” had recently come out, and it was among the first readings that really got me hooked on linguistics. Ever since then I’ve been recommending that book to people who want to get a taste of what linguistics is.

Knowing very little about the field, I posted a question about semantics to an online newsgroup, only to receive a rather terse reply that said in effect, “dummy don’t you know where you are? I can see that you are posting from UMass. You can walk across campus and have your questions answered by real linguists.” And that’s what I did. I contacted Barbara Partee, who gave me more to read and suggested that I take the syntax course that I mentioned earlier. I entered the Ph.D. program in linguistics at UMass the fall after the summer I finished my master’s in engineering and haven’t looked back.

I finished my UMass Ph.D in 2004, and have been teaching in the Linguistics Department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where I began as a post doc, that same year. My work has focused on tense and aspect marking in dialects of American English, with a focus on African American English.

2. When did you first join the LSA?

I first joined the LSA as a graduate student in 2003. I believed then as I do now that the Association is a valuable resource for linguists at every stage of their careers. The Summer Institute is a prime example of that value.

3. Can you tell us about the course you are teaching at the Institute?

I will be teaching Introduction to Semantics. This course will provide students with an introduction to the goals of formal semantics and the analytical tools used in their pursuit. I hope to cover topics which include patterns of inference (entailment, implicature, presupposition), compositionality, scope, and intentionality.

4. What research are you currently working on?

Building on work that I’ve done with my UNC colleague Randy Hendrick, my most current research project investigates the effects of dialectal differences on the results of mathematical reasoning tests in the early elementary grades. We have amassed evidence that particular morphosyntactic mismatches between the non-standard grammar that some 2nd graders use a home and the grammar used in the math word problems they are given in school can depress their scores. Working with Mako Hirotani of Carleton University, I have been investigating the neural correlates of processing these differences

5. What is your favorite hobby or pastime?

I enjoy reading (in and outside of the field) and bike riding. I also very much enjoy gardening. I don’t actually have a garden of my own, but between helping my mom with her gardens, and a cousin of mine – an aspiring flower farmer – with hers, I spend a lot of time involved with garden related projects. Perhaps because it allows me to spend time with family, gardening is probably my favorite hobby.

6. In a parallel universe in which you are not an academic/linguist, what would you be?

Linguistics is a discipline that advances through argumentation as much as experimentation. I think that in a parallel universe I might be a lawyer of some sort. Then again, as a child, I wanted to be an astronaut. There’s always that.

7. What are you most looking forward to about Davis?

This will be my first time visiting Davis, and I haven’t spent much time in California in general. I’m really looking forward to being in Davis, learning more about it, and I’m extremely excited about meeting all of the students and other linguists who will be convening there for the institute.

8. Ice cream or Cake? Cats or Dogs? Quarter system or Semester system?

If I absolutely must choose, ice cream, but absent that pressure, both. I have nothing against cats, but I’ve got to go with dogs. I’ve never taught on the quarter system. Still, I think quarters might feel too short to me. The 16 week semesters that we have at Carolina can feel long though. Perhaps something in between would be best.

9. What advice would you give to graduate students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Graduate school is a lot work. At times it can feel overwhelming. Perhaps the best advice I ever got when I was a graduate student was to remember that compared to your years in grad school, there will probably never be another time in your life when you have the opportunity to spend as much of your time thinking about things simply because you find them interesting. Remembering that should encourage graduate students to persevere and hold on to the joy of learning new things, something that with hope, never goes away.