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Kyle Johnson

Published onApr 19, 2019
Kyle Johnson

I arrived at MIT to do graduate work in linguistics knowing very little linguistics, and more importantly, nothing about linguists. I did know that Noam Chomsky was an important figure in the field because of his important critique of B. F. Skinner, whom I assumed was his contemporary. My father, who was an off-and-on again industrial designer, used Skinner’s operant conditioning in his work, and I had grown up with the unquestioned belief that Skinner’s ideas about learning and behavior were correct.

When I read Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior in college, it seemed awfully parochial, but its wild rebellious flavor was nonetheless exciting. I arrived at MIT in 1981, nine years before Skinner’s death, and I assumed my only contact with the similarly aged Chomsky would be by way of pictures of the great man in the resplendent MIT department library. When I looked for my professors’ offices the week before classes started, and discovered that Building 20 would be the venue for those pictures, I was somewhat crest-fallen. But I was not disappointed when I spotted the great man himself, being helped down the hallway by a younger woman that I deduced from their intimacy must be his wife. This was everything I’d expected: a worldly, formally dressed man, frail but with a fierce intensity in his eyes. I was a little surprised to discover that evening that this man was still teaching, and that I had been enrolled into his class. I worried that the class might be stuffy and slow, but I looked forward to learning from so venerable an historical figure.

This man, it turned out, was the 84-year-old Roman Jakobson.

My first class with Noam was exactly as surprising as you might imagine, but it was just the beginning. Every class seemed to be as surprising, and, eventually as I slowly began to understand something about language, magical as well. Learning about language was a revelation to me. But watching how Noam learned about language was something much more. It showcased for me what intellectual labor could involve: discipline, a certain kind of fearlessness, luck, and joy. Like most of us in linguistics, there are numerous particular things I’ve learned from Noam. But the most important for me has been his stance toward intellectual work; his drive to understand things. The shape my life has taken is directly connected to that one thing Noam taught me.

Studying at MIT was something of an accident, one whose good fortune I am daily thankful for. So much of what I value about myself was determined there, mostly by Noam. And his example, some 35 years later, still sets my goals. I am not surprised that he is still teaching. As capable as he is, he is incapable of teaching a stuffy or slow class. I look forward to continuing to learn from so venerable an historical figure.

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