More Than Word Play for New Linguistics Chair


Over the summer, Dr. Laurel Smith Stvan, Associate Professor of Linguistics, moved into the role of chair of the Department of Linguistics and TESOL. She replaced Dr. Colleen Fitzgerald, Professor and chair for four years, who is focusing more of her time and research on endangered Native American languages.

Stvan, who has served as an assistant chair and a graduate advisor for the department, said she is excited about the opportunity to continue the work she’s been involved with since she came to UT Arlington in 2001: growing the department and expanding the number of degrees offered to students. COLA Communications Coordinator James Dunning sat down with Stvan to talk about her own research and where she wants to lead the Department of Linguistics and TESOL in the near future.

Q: Linguistics is such a fascinating field of study – from what we say and how we say it. Where does your primary research fall within the discipline?

A: I work on word meaning through semantic classes — research that looks at the meanings that words have when everybody uses them. And then there’s the flip side: the study of the way we use words to mean something beyond what the dictionary means. Primarily, I’m looking at health discourse — how we understand the words we use in regular discussions about health, like when we give each other advice about food and exercises or the things we think will be healthy for us.

Q: Health seems to be a popular topic these days, especially given the large number of aging Baby Boomers and the national conversations on health care reform. How is your approach unique?

A: It’s nice to take a linguistic point of view into health discourse instead of a medical point of view. Public healthy policy has a lot of applications into the semantics and interpreting of public communication. Some of my students have looked into doctor-patient conversations, but I’m mostly interested in the layperson-to-layperson conversation.

Q: What does your research tell you about our daily conversations about health issues?

A: It’s a big part of everybody’s conversation. We don’t say to ourselves, “Today I’m going to talk about health.” But we all talk about eating. We talk about having too much to drink or walking more or being tired. It’s a big part of social conversation, and it’s based on what we think is good for each other and ourselves.

Q: So what are you looking at specifically?

A: I suspect there are particular words that are causing miscommunication, and looking at word meanings is going to help us understand the conversations we have. I can’t necessarily look at all of social communication, but I can look at certain aspects that might be making it trickier or reinforcing the miscommunication. It would be a nice way to explain things to people, and help them understand what they’re already doing.

Q: You spent a number of years teaching at Chicago-area universities before moving to Texas. Is this the same type of work you did there or has your research interest evolved?

A: I originally worked a lot on articles and nouns in English, and I still work on that, but it was much more abstract. I think the current work with the adjectives and nouns in health discussions is more applied. A different set of people will be interested in the outcomes. For me, they’re very similar, they are all about effects of word meanings, but what you can do with them is very different if you’re not a linguist. I’ve been shifting more into applied areas.

Q: Speaking of applied areas, the Department of Linguistics and TESOL at UT Arlington has been at the forefront of service learning for a number of years. How does linguistics make an impact beyond campus?

A: There are several ways linguistics can be applied to people outside of academia. One area is the program we have on teaching English as a second language. There’s a lot of language learning programs that are applied in community work. Some of that happens through company-sponsored programs for refugees. There’s a lot of work, like what Colleen [Fitzgerald] does, in documented languages and endangered languages. That’s another sort of application with real speakers. Then there’s health policy communication and social groups that you can bring knowledge of linguistic structure to. It’s interesting, I think, for all of us to find new ways to bring the research, which is exciting on its own, to people who can use it in everyday situations. People don’t really think about linguistic knowledge, but they know they need to communicate, they know they need to transmit information to each other and their culture. We’re all starting to think about what we know and how do we bring that to other people and allow them to use it.

Q: It would appear, through the existing programs in your department, there’s a priority in equipping students with more than simply textbook knowledge. Is there a push for practical application?

A: Yes, that’s one of our goals. Teacher training is already a kind of service work. But even if you’re not envisioning yourself in teaching in the future, you still need to understand why communication works. There are tools of analysis we give to students – scientific tools as well as interpersonal tools. The goal is to have them try out the tools they will need for the future.

Q: What are some of the changes you’ve seen to your department and the programs since you arrived 11 years ago?

A: Physically, we’ve moved around in the building [Hammond Hall]. We’ve consolidated in some areas, grown in others. Our faculty and faculty interests have changed over the past decade. We have a steadily producing Ph.D. program, but that’s really been a constant. We have a growing M.A. TESOL program, and I think there will be more of a need for that. Separating the TESOL program from Linguistics has happened since I’ve been here. Adding the B.A. is an exciting point. We’re now in the third-year of the major, so we’re starting to graduate people from that program. It’s very exciting for us to see people starting at an earlier stage and thinking about what the department offers and what they can do. We offer a B.A., two different M.A.s, a Ph.D. and a certificate – lots of different tracks people can explore. That diversity shows up in our classrooms when you have graduate students sitting alongside undergraduate students. They learn a lot from each other.

Q: How do you feel moving into the role of chair of the department?

A: We’ve had a long series of very dynamic department chairs. I’ve seen three of them since I began here at UT Arlington. There are some really good tracks to follow and I would like to continue along those strengths. Depending on enrollment and money, we’ll see what kinds of new things we can bring into the department and programs. Right now, I want to corral all of these exciting programs that move in various directions and keep us focused on graduation and grants – those things we’re all after.

Q: It seems like there’s a lot of give-and-take with the department faculty, a lot of teamwork. Is that a fair assessment?

A: Certainly. We’re a very co-operative department. Even though we’re small, we all do very different things, and we have to work together to plan for the future. I feel like my job is to channel the enthusiasms that everyone has and make sure that all those ideas can come to fruition,

Q: Final question: As you get settled into your new role, where do you see the biggest need or opportunities for growth for your department?

A: There are a couple of different directions we can grow. There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on in experimental linguistics. Cindy [Kilpatrick] and Jeff [Witzel]’s labs are evidence of that. There’s a lot of collaborative work with other departments, so we could easily see adding on some other kind of experimental work people in Modern Languages, Philosophy or other disciplines. Our labs are very attractive to our students. Keeping up with technology is something that all departments need. The more labs you add, the more you have to coordinate and keep running. We’d also like to see the M.A. TESOL program grow into some new directions. It was a new program when I got here, and it’s ready for growth and refreshment to keep up with what employers are looking for. We’re also hoping to hire a new syntactician; that’s a core component of the program. There are a lot of things to consider. Ask me in another year and we’ll see how it’s turned out!


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