TROUSERS in the MICROWAVE

I’m a firm supporter of programming for linguists, because it’s such a powerful research tool, and especially since it’s a relatively rare skill in the field.  But I’d sort of forgotten that it’s a real kick to do it for the first time and  realize the feeling of power of having a computational Genii that does your work for you.

I ran across Dan Meyer’s blog because of his turn of phrase “… I created something from nothing.  And that something did something else, which is such a weird superhuman feeling…”.  He also writes good stuff about education, mostly math education, but the ideas are applicable more broadly.   “Pseudocontext“, for one.  Pseudocontext is window dressing that is put around an exercise to make it falsely appear to be a real-world problem.

In mathematics teaching, I suppose that one problem is that people might learn the pseudo-facts in the pseudocontext.  Then, in addition to a little bit of (correct) math, they pick up a distorted image of the world.  Or, maybe they realize the absurdity of the pseudocontext and decide the central math problem is absurd or fake or worthless.   Either way is bad, I suppose, but at least the math is exactly correct.

Logically, the idea of pseudocontext should also apply to theories.   The whole idea of pseudocontext is that you work backwards from the thing you want to teach, and make up surroundings where it ought to apply.  It ought to be easy enough to take some linguistic theory one would like to illustrate to students (or one’s peers, in a semimar) and make up an example that supports it.

My favourite example is “You put my TROUSERS in the MICROWAVE?”   I heard this example at a graduate seminar in linguistics around 2005 or so.  It was an example that (according to the speaker) would only be said in a certain intonation: surprise or disbelief.  (This was used in a paper by M. Zimmerman and doubtless many other places.  Zimmermann, M., 2007, “Contrastive focus”. In: Féry, C., Fanselow, G., and Krifka, M. (Eds.), The notions of information structure. Ms., University of Potsdam.)  And, while I don’t want to make fun of that paper, I do want to make fun of the example.

As it happened, I arrived at Oxford on a postdoc’s salary, and squeezed the family into a small (tiny by American standards) house that — notably — lacked an electric dryer.  And we had kids in primary school and thus a lot of laundry being produced and washed.  Without an electric dryer, the kids’ school uniforms would be drying in the conservatory on racks, and during the damp British winter, they’d take geological eternities to dry.  So, it wasn’t at all unusual to be eating one’s cereal and hear the cry “Dad!  I need some trousers!”

What does a reasonable person do, then?    Well, one needs to produce dry trousers in 5 minutes or there will be a crisis, and there’s this nice new microwave sitting on the kitchen counter, so, one naturally puts the damp trousers into the microwave.  Consequently, during the two winters we spent in that first house, it was completely ordinary to hear “[Did] You put my trousers in the microwave?” as a completely ordinary question, without any trace of disbelief or surprise.   Or, “Did you microwave my trousers yet?”, or “Don’t get excited.  Your trousers are in the microwave.”

As a result, I had a hard time taking that seminar seriously when it used the “trousers” example in support of some kind of grammar of intonation.  It was pseudocontext that the speaker had made up to support his theory.  Little did he know that perhaps one of the most frequent users of the phrase was in his audience, busily trying to think of a way to gently pop his bubble.  I don’t think I did, and I forget the speaker’s name — I don’t think it was Zimmerman.   So, some theoretical linguist out there, along with a few ex-graduate students, falsely believes that people are invariably surprised when they find trousers in the microwave.  I’d like to put it on the record that I am not.

For those of you who don’t have electric dryers, the trick is to avoid getting the trousers too hot.  20% or 40% power will do the trick fairly well, and without any obvious damage to polyester trousers.  I would normally try to speed up the drying by opening the microwave every 2 minutes, pull out the trousers, and shake them to let the hot water evaporate better.  (Otherwise it gets too steamy inside the microwave, and I suspect that they would not dry effectively.)