Ted Briscoe interviews Gerald Gazdar
Education Teaching Pragmatics Generalized Phrase Structure Grammar
Natural Language Processing Lexical Knowledge Representation Linguistics Conclusion
Left Up Right


EJB So you arrived at Sussex and you had to start teaching?

GG  Yes.

EJB Was there anybody else at Sussex doing linguistics at the time?

GG  There was no linguist by title. In the Arts faculty, there were a couple of people who taught first year introductions to language and linguistics and they knew a fair bit of linguistics. One was a psychologist, the other a lecturer in French. On the Science side, there was massive expertise in psycholinguistics and speech and language processing: Chris Darwin , Steve Isard , Phil Johnson-Laird , Christopher Longuet-Higgins, Richard Power , Mark Steedman and, a bit later, Anne Cutler and Donia Scott .

EJB Was your appointment a conscious decision on the part of Sussex to try to build a department? Or was it simply ``we've got to have somebody to teach this kind of stuff who really wants to''?

GG  I think they made a conscious decision to build a department and they used John Lyons as their advisor so he was on the committee that interviewed me. I was the first appointment.

EJB When was the next appointment?

GG  John arrived as Chair the following year, and Richard Coates was appointed as the second lecturer the year after that.

EJB That sounds like a rather happy series of events because it would have been unfortunate to be the token linguist in Sussex especially as a first appointment. For John Lyons to arrive there must essentially have made it a done deal that there was going to be quite a good department there.

GG  Well, that would be true in many other universities. Sussex was rather strange in that I was appointed to the Cognitive Studies Programme as it was then. The plan was that the Programme would have a significant linguistic component and that I would teach it. But the Programme didn't really need more than one linguist so the other linguists had to find other activities. There was an academic home ready for me when I arrived and I remained very much in that home, I never strayed far outside it so I wasn't ever really a central figure in the Linguistics Subject Group because so much of what I did was tied up with the Cognitive Studies Programme. For example, I did other teaching for the Programme that was not linguistics teaching: I taught logic, I taught programming - I taught POP-11 for a couple of years, I even taught AI vision.

EJB This was quite early on?

GG  Yes, I taught a wide range of things which were all things which the Cognitive Studies Programme did and I rather enjoyed teaching those things. I didn't want to teach linguistics and nothing but linguistics.

EJB Why was that?

GG  I think partly because I wasn't very confident about some areas of linguistics. With good reason - I couldn't have taught phonetics to save my life, and couldn't now. There were areas such as morphology and phonology which I could have boned up on, but I didn't really know very much so it would have been more work. Whereas teaching logic, I could do quite easily. And, since I wanted to program anyway, teaching programming was a good way of learning. As for teaching vision, well, I wasn't particularly interested in vision but I co-taught a course that was half vision and half language with Max Clowes and it was just convenient to be able to cover his teaching in the same way that he could cover mine so that if he dropped out of a lecture or wasn't available for half a term I could just do it. So I taught line labelling, for example, and I think stereopsis too - God!

EJB But that's all a long time ago? You haven't done that kind of thing in recent years at all?

GG  I suppose I've taught logic more recently - not very distinguishable from semantics at the early stages.

EJB So you said earlier on that you didn't think about syntax until you had to start teaching it and presumably when you went to Sussex that would have been the thing that they primarily wanted you to do - to teach syntax because that would have been the thing that was most associated with linguistics at that time.

GG  Yes. I had to teach a two term linguistics course to the Cognitive Studies students and at least half of it was devoted to syntax. That was my primary task but there was other teaching as well.

EJB What was the background of the students? Most linguistics departments then and now are full of people who have done humanities A levels. The challenge in teaching syntax is usually to cure a fear of notation and maybe teach a little of what it means to be formal about things. Were the Cognitive Studies students similar in that respect or were they better trained in Science and maths?

GG  I don't know what their individual background were but they were students who had come to Sussex to do an AI flavoured degree. They might be majoring in philosophy or psychology, say, but they had chosen to do a degree that included great slabs of AI and they had to program from day one. I got them in the second or third year so they all knew how to program.

EJB So the whole flavour of that course was really quite different from elsewhere. The kinds of things that one thought about in teaching it and one's critical attitude to syntactic theory would thus also be rather different, I suspect.

When you taught syntax to cognitive science students who had more of a mathematical and formal background than the average linguistic student, you were presumably teaching at least some kind of flavour of the generative grammar that was around at the time - generative semantics?

GG  I taught them TG out of textbooks as there were a huge number of TG textbooks.

EJB Which one did you use?

GG  I can remember using Grinder & Elgin (1973) but I think I used a variety over the years. I think that the one I liked best in the end was the one that Keyser & Postal (1976) wrote - I think that was my favourite. But that wasn't around when I started teaching. Actually my teaching was critical - I hadn't really had illusions about TG but, to the extent that I had any, I discovered through teaching that it was worse than I thought.

EJB Presumably the students were also more critical because they had more of a background to actually question the real formality, precision and clarity of the TG of that era.

GG  That's exactly what happened. We had rather good students at that time because the programme we were offering was very new - there wasn't anything else like it in the UK. And, as is the way with these things, good students self-select for things like that. So we mostly had very bright students who were also keen. I was teaching syntax for the first time. I had done a bit of tutorial work in Cambridge but nothing that had stressed me and not with any great concentration on syntax, as I remember. So I was faced with teaching a whole term of syntax and syntax wasn't my field. Although I knew about it, I was also learning it - at least for pedagogical purposes - learning it on the job. The students would ask me questions about things when I gave lectures and quite often I wasn't able to answer them, and this was acutely embarrassing as I was meant to know the stuff. For example, they would ask me something about attachment conventions: you've got this transformation and it is notated this way and you've just shown on the blackboard that the constituent structure of the output of the transformation is this shape. Why is it that shape and not this other shape given the nature of the attachment conventions? I would have to say ``don't know - tell you next lecture''. And, at the next lecture, I would have to respond. In fact, to a number of these questions, there simply weren't answers. It basically wasn't a formal system. It was being sold as a formal system, being marketed as a formal system but it wasn't, and that struck me as a kind of con trick. Also deeply unsatisfactory - I no longer knew what it was.

EJB And, in particular, this was still supposed to be the great contribution of this field. The selling point of the whole thing. If it was flawed, this was unfortunate. So presumably one of the motivations for the work on GPSG was to try to get the details right, whatever flavour of syntax you came up with.

GG  Yes, that was part of it.

EJB I think that I wanted to talk about the point up to which you became established. I think I have done that now. What I would like to do now is to move on to talk about Pragmatics - shall we do that?

GG  Sure.

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Copyright © Ted Briscoe & Gerald Gazdar, Wednesday 2 May 2001