Category Archives: Author Interviews

Human Teaching in Hard Times: An Interview with Dr. Alan Sears by Dr. Tonya Davidson

In this guest post, Tonya Davidson (Carleton University), sociology professor and co-editor (with Ondine Park) of the forthcoming book Seasonal Sociology, talks with Alan Sears (Ryerson University) about teaching in higher education during these dark times. From the cost of tuition to the challenge of making liberal arts relevant, and the search for a pedagogy that forges not just practical but human relationships, this wide-ranging discussion tackles the contradictions of teaching and learning in a neoliberal age.

In October 2018, Dr. Alan Sears visited Carleton University to be featured in the Department of Sociology-Anthropology’s Colloquium Series. He gave an excellent talk titled, “Resistance in Right Populist Times.”

Alan is an accomplished scholar of sexualities, left politics, social movements, and education. His writing includes Retooling the Mind Factory: Education in a Lean StateThe Next New Left: A History of the Future (Fernwood) and (with James Cairns) The Democratic Imagination: Envisioning Popular Power in the Twenty-First Century, as well as the now-classic A Good Book in Theory. While celebrated for his scholarship, Alan is also a very dedicated and thoughtful teacher. When I was his colleague at Ryerson University for four years, he was one of my key teaching mentors so I jumped at the chance to ask Alan to also be our guest for the first “Teaching Talk” of the semester in the Sociology-Anthropology Department. Predicting that his thoughts on teaching could easily find a wider audience than the group of colleagues gathered in our departmental lounge, I transcribed that interview and present it for you here.

TD: You proposed the title for this talk, “Human Teaching in Hard Times.” Can you tell us what hard times you’re referring to?

AS: I guess the hard times I am thinking of probably have geo-political origins. The long impact of neoliberalism and cutbacks and austerity have had a huge effect on what it is like to be teaching at a post-secondary level. One of the aspects of this is the stress that students are under because of tuition fees, because of the employment they are doing to get by, because of what housing is like now, and because of their deep anxieties about the future. The questions that are always in their minds are: what are they going to do with their degrees and what’s next in their lives?

And then the character of instruction is increasingly supposed to be efficient in content delivery with a real emphasis on information transfer. I think that the shift in the idea of what learning and teaching is supposed to be is increasingly to think of students as materials we are mass producing and the final consumer of what we are producing is the employer. So that has an impact on us in terms of metrics, which in post-secondary education means measurable outcomes in terms of what students could do before and after. Look, I think we can learn a lot by focusing on the learning that is accomplished rather than the teaching that we do, but I also think there is a whole human growth element in education that is flattened by a lot of outcomes discussions.

The scale, at least at Ryerson where I teach, is that most classes are 70 students or more. I teach our capstone course and it’s 100 plus students. The nature of that makes human relations very difficult. I think the most transformative part of any educational relationship, which are always mutual relationships if they work properly, is a human relationship.

TD: Students have always had anxiety to a degree. Have you noticed a change in your thirty years of teaching?

AS: Absolutely.

TD: How do you deal with that within your own institutional constraints? How do you deal with student anxiety?

AS: I find it a real challenge. I saw a chart recently that someone had developed showing the history of tuition fee increases in Ontario and the pay rates for summer employment. I was an undergraduate student at Carleton University in 1973 which happened to be the year that tuition in Ontario was at its lowest in real dollars. That corresponded with, because of government funding, relative ease at getting summer jobs that paid quite well, so I could earn enough money in the summer to pretty much cover my year, including tuition. Now tuition fees are higher and there are fewer summer jobs with decent pay. Students are working more hours for less pay, building up higher debts, and they are worried about their future given the difficulty of obtaining secure employment.

I think that is a formula for generating anxiety, and it’s really noticeable in all kinds of ways. We’ve never been particularly good at raising a discussion about what comes after a degree, but I notice it particularly now in a very sharp anxiety about what the relationship is between an undergraduate education in sociology and what follows.

It’s not like Harvard or Oxford are getting the question, “why aren’t you teaching more forestry?”

I think that the model we have is an elite model that presumes that when people graduate, their class-based networks that are gendered and racialized and have a lot to do with migration status, will surf them between graduation and wherever they’re going next. So if they’re interested in a job in so and so, their mother will call their uncle who works in that area. And that works for some. In the film The Graduate, the summer after graduation was spent by the pool with parents’ friends advising you to get into plastics or whatever was hot at the time. Very few students have the luxury of a summer by the pool or parents’ friends who can give them advice about various sectors, or who can afford a free internship, or who have a way of knowing about occupations that are different from what they’ve been exposed to so far in their lives.

So I think the anxiety is real, and I think it’s incredibly sharp, and it sometimes plays itself out as hostility towards us. I’ve noticed a certain tension around grades, a kind of a more hostile bargaining because that seems to be something that you can deal with more directly. And textbooks, that’s another pain point: “why is this book so expensive?” Sadly, for a lot of other things, like tuition fees or class sizes, there’s little active opposition because there is a feeling that you can’t do anything about it. I think the anxiety plays out in many ways.

TD: Professors have different attitudes about whether there is a place in a sociology program for teaching school-to-work transition skills, or other career-focused projects. How do you approach that, especially in your capstone course?

AS: This is one of the contradictions I continually negotiate. Because I am a committed political critic of the system, I understand when people talk about concern that the neoliberalization of the post-secondary system means, for working class people, a much more occupational focus, and there’s no doubt this happens. And yet if you look at what’s happening in Britain and the US for example, there is a desire to preserve liberal arts education, but only for the elite. It’s not like Harvard or Oxford are getting the question, “why aren’t you teaching more forestry?” That message is something that is very specifically aimed at institutions with a working-class clientele. And I think the concern is that a liberal arts education creates inflated expectations for everyone without differentiating between students with varying life trajectories. Policy-makers are interested in changing that system, particularly in Canada where the university system tends to be more social democratic, to create a more hierarchical system where liberal arts play a smaller role. This is especially the case in institutions that have historically included a higher proportion of working class and first-generation students, like Ryerson or Windsor where I have taught. There’s a part of me that thinks, well let’s resist that push and let’s fight and honour a liberal arts education. I really do believe that that’s necessary and I think the greatest bulk of a student’s education in sociology or anthropology or whatever they are taking should absolutely be in a proud liberal arts tradition that’s challenging students to think critically and so on.

I also think there’s a serious equity issue around being honest about the fact that the transition to work is difficult and we have really failed on our end. We feel like we’ve done our job by pushing them off a cliff at graduation and waving goodbye and giving them a certificate. I think we owe them more. I don’t think career integration needs to consume a lot of the curriculum. I think little bits of it, strategically inserted, can go a long way. We shouldn’t distort the curriculum.

We’re doing a pilot course this year called “career integration” for fourth-year students where they’ll get to do a job shadow experience in a workplace that’s of interest. We’re also building in self-advocacy around worker rights and the like, but also stuff like resume preparation, sample interviews, and how to claim a sociology education in a job interview so you don’t just say “well it’s because I hated English.” At the very least, it gives students a way of describing what they got out of their degree, or, in some cases, just creating space for them to figure out if they got anything out of it. I believe seriously that there’s a class, racial, equity, and migration justice built into this experiment. If we want to simply claim that we do liberal arts in a pure way, we are ignoring the socio-economic relations that surround the institution and the histories that inform our ideas about what a liberal arts education is.

TD: Have you noticed in shifting hard times, different types of student engagement with questions of free speech, bias, and felt that through hostility?

AS: I think I’m fairly fortunate that Ryerson is a downtown Toronto campus with a very high first-generation student body; roughly 60% of the students in our program identify as racialized. The nature of who the student body is means that a lot of the pro-equity ideas are taken for granted, and few students will stand up and challenge fundamental notions of social justice. And I think there’s some self-selection there too because our program is quite equity-focused. I think the students who are most likely going to be upset about that transfer out of our program. I personally haven’t faced it that much.

One of the things that’s happened is that we’ve made our “Indigenous Perspectives on Canadian Society” course required, and it is taught with a very Indigenous-centric perspective that presumes settler colonialism, presumes Indigenous sovereignty, and presumes that universities are colonial institutions. I would guess that course will be one of the litmus tests in our department. I would guess that will be one of the places where even people who know that they’re not supposed to say something racist might express discomfort. That’s the way that settler colonialism operates, it creates a kind of entitlement that may lead to a different order of challenges from students. Certainly, I know people who teach in the US, and other places in Ontario who talk about how much their students have been emboldened to challenge even the most basic equity stuff in classes, but so far, I feel like I’m in a little bit of a bubble around that.

TD: Those two initiatives at Ryerson – the “Indigenous Perspectives on Canadian Society” course as a mandatory course and the “Career Integration” course both sound like great responses, or pedagogical forms of resistance to these hard times. One of the things that has always struck me about you, Alan, is how you are simultaneously very critical of post-secondary education, and broader political and social structures, but somehow seem stubbornly optimistic. So my final question is: what do you find hopeful about teaching sociology in “hard times”?

AS: I think that most students are very perceptive and critical about the injustice in the world today. They do not have illusions that this is the “best of all worlds” or a meritocracy. They know someone is making a killing off of the precariousness and suffering so many face.

The challenge is that they might think that this is the “best of all possible worlds” – and that they do not see a better world as possible, particularly through their own actions. So there is a real base among our students for a new radicalization, if they can begin to realize the power they have to change the world. But that radicalization will not happen through the classroom, which even at its best is a site of alienated labour. For me, human teaching is about trying to reduce the damage done in post-secondary education while working outside the institution to build the movements and counter-power that can challenge these injustices.

For more on millennials, education, and social movements we suggest: The Democratic Imagination and The Myth of the Age of Entitlement.


Digging Down: The Deep Roots of Canada’s Policy-Making Process

Written by guest blogger, Taylor Hollander.

It is no revelation that the union density rates in both Canada and the United States have experienced significant decreases since the 1960s. But why has the decline in the U.S. been so much sharper? The two countries share similar employers, unions, and decentralized industrial relations systems. For many years, they even had comparable union membership levels. Yet, in 2017, the percentage of unionized workers in Canada’s private sector was more than twice as high as the United States. No state in the U.S. had a greater union density rate than Alberta, the least unionized province in Canada. In light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME, which removed mandatory dues payments in public sector unions, it is not difficult to understand why some pundits argue that the historical moment for unionism in the United States has now passed.

To better understand this cross-national divergence in union density rates, Power, Politics, and Principles looks to the making of labour law in Canada for answers. In particular, against the backdrop of the U.S. experience, it focuses on PC 1003 of 1944, which for the first time required Canadian employers to recognize and negotiate with the representatives of their employees’ choosing. Several earlier studies have highlighted differences in the legal frameworks for industrial relations in Canada and the United States like, for example, the use of permanent replacements or “scabs.” What Power, Politics, and Principles does differently is dive into the history of the policy-making process to uncover how the topic of compulsory collective bargaining became a part of the national discourse in Canada and then became a legal reality. The main argument of the book is that, unlike in the United States, a more moderate approach to labour policy formulation in Canada made the legal protections for workers less vulnerable to conservative backlash in the long run.

There are several reasons why I believe that Power, Politics, and Principles will appeal to a wide audience:

  1. By comparing why and how collective bargaining regimes or the legal frameworks for industrial relations were created in Canada and the United States, it goes beyond vague discussions of cultural values to gain a more tangible and precise understanding of what distinguishes the two countries. As I mention in the book, the goal is not to consecrate the Canadian experience because industrial relations in the two countries are more alike than different. But a close study of what actually happened in the policy-making process does reveal important national variances.
  2. Power, Politics, and Principles underscores the messiness of the policy-making process. Throughout the book, the different perspectives and agendas of workers, labour leaders, business executives, civil servants, and politicians are examined to try and convince readers that the making of a collective bargaining regime in Canada involved many competing personalities. Rather than straightforward or certain, it was open-ended and contingent. For example, one of the arguments I make is that an ad hoc wartime agency of three people from outside the government – a conservative, a liberal, and a socialist – played a key role in convincing politicians that it was time for a compulsory collective bargaining policy.
  3. My book adds to the historiography on Mackenzie King. As Christopher Dummitt recently outlined in Unbuttoned, scholarly works on Canada’s longest serving prime minister have for a long time offered remarkably critical, if not bewildered, interpretations of his legacy. Most historians, political scientists, and journalists seem to agree that King took a Machiavellian approach to policy-making, never committing to anything unless it served his own purposes. In contrast, I encourage readers to consider the impact of his political principles. There is no doubt that King was a consummate politician who acted opportunistically, expediently, and obliquely. At least in the area of labour policy, however, it seems clear that his political principles also influenced his actions and inactions.
  4. Organized chronologically from 1935 to 1948, Power, Politics, and Principles conveys the complexities of the policy-making process in a compelling narrative, evoking a sense of time, place, and character without sacrificing analysis or argument. By emphasizing story line, avoiding jargon, and, in places, offering what one reviewer called “historical imaginings,” readers are transported back to two of the most turbulent decades in Canada’s history when real people battled both physically and verbally over the legal rights of workers.


Taylor Hollander is a Middle School History Teacher at Orchard House School in Richmond Virginia and the author of Power, Politics, and Principles.

Some Candid Thoughts by R. Peter Broughton, author of ‘Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett’

Guest post by R. Peter Broughton, author of Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett

As a retired high-school math teacher, I fall into no particular camp. I’m not a scientist, an astronomer, or a historian. But perhaps, with no particular axe to grind and at my advanced age, I am oddly suited to bring some new viewpoints to bear on writing a historical biography of an astronomer.

As far as astronomy goes, some of my professors, including the renowned Helen Hogg, actually knew Plaskett. The equipment he used as well as the techniques and methods that were familiar to him were still current. But it was only after a course in the history of mathematics that I took as part of a master’s degree a few years later that I began to see the unity of the humanities and the sciences. I began to feel that, by reading extensively, I could learn what interested me. Encouraged by Professor Kenneth O. May, I thought that eventually I might make my own contributions to knowledge.

Fortunately for me there was a means to do so. I had joined the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada as an undergraduate and over subsequent years held virtually every office in the Society, giving me a broader understanding of the great variety of attitudes, backgrounds, and challenges faced by this subset of Canadians. Though I found that the RASC Journal and monthly lectures by experts provided a means of keeping in touch with some of the recent developments in astronomy, I realized that it would be through the history of the subject that I would try to make my mark. Boldly I thought there were few significant developments in Canadian astronomy before the twentieth century, so it would not be a preposterous goal to attain familiarity with the entire history of astronomy in Canada. Of course science really knows no boundaries, so I was inevitably drawn to explore some topics on a broader scale.

Writing for the RASC Journal had its rewards. I was able to address topics that interested me and in the process found at least a few encouraging readers and sympathetic friends. This experience gave me the confidence to write for other journals as diverse as Annals of Science and Journal of Geophysical Research, and eventually to write two books, Looking Up: A History of the RASC and Northern Star: J.S. Plaskett.

My hope is that this biography of John Stanley Plaskett will appeal to a very wide audience. The astronomical community is already familiar with Plaskett as one of a fairly small group of astronomers to make major contributions to the science in the first half of the twentieth century. For such readers, this book will flesh out Plaskett’s personality and provide pertinent illustrations of how he managed to become so highly-regarded at home and abroad. Amateur astronomers, who often like to read (on cloudy nights) about the accomplishments of a former generation, will appreciate Plaskett’s rise from humble roots to international acclaim. He achieved fame for himself and his country by learning on the job, and without ever taking a formal course in astronomy. But I really hope this book will reach beyond those aficionados of astronomy to a broader audience.

I do think the Canadian public thirsts for stories of national heroes. For decades, professional historians have largely derided such figures as elitist, preferring to focus on down-trodden minorities or those whose experience or impact has been localized. So says one of the few notable exceptions, Jack Granatstein in Who Killed Canadian History? Moreover, he writes, these historians in academe often write in a turgid style admired only by their colleagues. Fortunately, there have been counter examples. One shining example is Michael Bliss’s biography of Sir Frederick Banting, published by the University of Toronto Press in 1984 with a second edition in 1992.

Though Plaskett cannot be credited with saving countless lives as did his contemporary, Banting, he did, along with Banting and a handful of others, put Canada on the international radar as a country making serious advances in scientific knowledge. Before the First World War, Canada was a backwater in the arts as well. It took pioneers like Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Group of Seven to bring awareness to the world that important advances were occurring in the vast land north of the 49th parallel.

Finally, and in my opinion, most importantly, I hope that this book will break down some barriers. I would be delighted if humanists realized that they can learn the ways of science from the biography of an astronomer. Scientists may appreciate the value of history when they see how personal, political, and economic forces shape their working lives. Perhaps professional historians may see the value in writing for a broad audience, and writers of creative non-fiction may understand that there is no need to embroider the facts.

I should not kid myself. Five years after Bliss’s second edition of Banting: a Biography came out, an Angus Reid poll found that only 11 percent of Canadians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four knew that Banting had won the Nobel Prize in medicine for his discovery of insulin. If that’s the best that an outstanding writer and historian could achieve, I will be amazed and delighted if 11 percent of Canadians of any age come to recognize the name of John Stanley Plaskett as Canada’s founding astronomer.

R. Peter Broughton was president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada from 1992 to 1994. His service and extensive writing on the history of astronomy led the International Astronomical Union to name a minor planet in his honour.

In Conversation with Roberta Johnson and Silvia Bermudez

Silvia Bermudez and Roberta Johnson are the editors of A New History of Iberian Feminisms

Interviewer: Tell us more about what inspired both of you to start this project?

Silvia and Roberta: Neither of us was encouraged to study literature by our families, as they were more practically minded. Fortunately, we persisted and eventually, after studying and publishing mostly on canonical male writers, we in our separate areas of specialization (Silvia in poetry; Roberta in the novel) came to write on female authors. We have known each other for many years and through our mutual participation in the University of California Iberian Studies Working Group hit upon the idea of co-editing a volume on feminism in the Iberian Peninsula that included Portugal and considered the major linguistic territories of Spain–Castile, the Basque Provinces, Catalonia, and Galicia.

I: When did you start work on it?

S&R: Thinking about the project began in 2012 when the first UC Iberian Working Group meeting took place at UC, Davis, and continued at the second meeting at UCSB in 2013. By the third meeting at UC, Davis, Silvia had agreed to co-edit, and we set about finding scholars to write on different periods and territories. We ended up with a fabulous team of dedicated and knowledgeable scholars from the US, England, Spain, Portugal, and New Zealand. These scholars were enthusiastic about the project and were instrumental in moving it forward. It was a real sisterhood of scholars that brought the book to fruition.

I: What do you find most interesting about your area of research?

S&R: We are fascinated by the stories of women who in other periods when independence for women was not taken for granted managed to live full creative lives despite the many obstacles they faced, especially in conservative, Catholic countries like Spain and Portugal. The differences in women’s experiences in Spain and Portugal was also a revelation. We have been able to travel through time and space and “converse” with extraordinary writers from other periods and places.

I: What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?

S&R: We think feminist scholars of other national entities–the US, Britain, France, Italy, or Germany–would find Spanish feminism significantly different from that of the countries they study, and we hope they will want to include Spain in their courses and research now that in this book they have the tools to do so. We are passionate about our subject and are anxious to share our work with students, fellow scholars, and the general public.

I: What’s the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?

S&R: We were struck by the importance of class issues inherent in the many ideological disagreements among Iberian feminist positions, and we were especially surprised to learn how well organized Basque feminists are and how cohesive and well developed their feminist research is.

I: What did you learn from writing your book?

S&R: We learned many details about feminism in other periods and all areas of the Iberian Peninsula that we did not know before, especially women writing feminist essays in the eighteenth century. Contrary to erroneous assumptions, women throughout the Spanish territories and Portugal were committed from early on to equal rights and advancing women’s participation in the public sphere.

I: What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

S&R: Silvia reads mystery/detective novels and biographies and is currently reading Leonardo Da Vinci and The Silent Wife. Roberta reads current fiction and non-fiction in Spanish and English. Right now she is reading Fire and Fury and Sapiens.

I: If you weren’t working in academia, what would you be doing instead?

S&R: Silvia would be a tour guide, and Roberta would run a horse stables or ranch.

Silvia Bermúdez is a professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Roberta Johnson is professor emerita of Spanish at the University of Kansas and adjunct professor of Spanish at the University of Kansas.

Hanni Woodbury on Documenting an Endangered Language

Guest post by Hanni Woodbury, author of A Reference Grammar of the Onondaga Language

Onondaga is one of many extremely endangered Native American languages that survive now mainly because of the dedicated efforts by younger men and women who have memories of learning their ancestors’ languages informally from their parents, grandparents, or elders in the community, and who, as English began to become the primary language spoken in their community, have dedicated themselves to keeping their language alive by developing extensive language programs for their communities.

Why should we document an endangered language? There are many reasons, but here are the main ones:
• because a language in many ways is a store of its speakers’ knowledge;
• because a language helps to express the cultural system of its speakers;
• because speakers can use their language to express their identities;
• and, finally, because teachers and students in language programs – in the absence, increasingly, of the older speakers – must depend on the secondhand record that thorough documentation provides to keep their language alive.

The data used to document a language should, wherever possible, be a corpus of natural and spontaneous speech that is created by fluent speakers of the language. Because at this time, all speakers of Onondaga are also fluent speakers of English, it is especially important to use textual materials – stories, conversations, performances of speeches, etc. – for the purpose of documentation and to minimize the use of elicited data for fear that there might be interference from speakers’ familiarity with English. The goal is to describe the language from data that represent the flow of language uninterrupted by suggestions from English.

The Iroquoian family of languages divides into two branches, a northern and a southern one. The six surviving northern languages are Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora. The single language representing the southern branch is Cherokee. Today’s two dialects of Onondaga exist in two locations: at Six Nations of the Grand River First Nations Reserve, near Brantford Ontario, Canada and at Onondaga Nation, which is located just south of Syracuse, NY, in the United States.

I have been involved in the task of documenting the Onondaga language ever since the early 1970s. Writing the reference grammar has been the final step in this effort. Earlier work consists of a dictionary (also published by the University of Toronto Press), and numerous published and unpublished texts with their translations.

Linguists have various methods of creating a record that will help to describe a language fully. The classic method is the one I have used: it involves a great deal of fieldwork with as many speakers of the language as possible, recording and transcribing the field sessions, asking speakers to tell stories, speeches, and recording conversations among speakers, in addition to gathering detailed information that zeros in on those aspects that are especially distinctive of the language. Beyond fieldwork, it involves scouring libraries for all sorts of published and archived materials. Eventually these records are analyzed linguistically and organized in three major ways, as a group of texts with translations, as a dictionary and as a grammar.

Numerous special features distinguish the Iroquoian languages from languages that are more familiar to speakers of English, and they impact the process of documentation. Perhaps the most noticeable feature is that the Iroquoian verb is astonishingly expandable with optional prefixes and suffixes that can be added singly or in combination to the verb root, affixes that are ordered in relation to one another. For example, the simple Onondaga verb héhsaks, given as 1 below, consists of three essential elements (morphemes) that are the minimal requirements of every well formed Onondaga verb: a pronominal prefix that references the agent (the performer of the action) and – if present – the patient (the under-goer of the action), an element that names the action itself (a verb root), and a final element that marks whether the activity is static or whether it changes through time (an inflectional element marking aspect). [Note that in the examples below morphemes are separated by hyphens]. As can be seen, this minimal verb form translates into an English sentence ‘he is looking for it,’ a sentence with a subject and an object:

1. héhsaks
he is looking for it

The second and third examples illustrate two of a multitude of possible ways to expanded this verb by adding prefixes and/or suffixes. In example 2 a noun root -nahd- ‘comb’ is inserted. It specifies the nature of the object referenced in the pronominal prefix that the agent of the verb is searching for:

2. hanahdíhsaks
he’s looking for a comb

The verb with an inserted noun root shows a special feature of the Iroquoian languages, a robust process called noun incorporation.

In example 3 a suffix -h-, a so-called dislocative, marks the fact that the actor is on his way to perform the action expressed by the verb:

3. hehsákheʔ
he’s on his way to look for a comb

Other prefixes and suffixes can be added to a verb root to mark directionality of the action (whether the action takes place towards the speaker or away from the speaker); the speaker’s certainty as to the reliability of his assertion (it’s what he heard someone say, it’s what he saw with his own eyes, etc.); whether or not the statement should be understood in the negative; whether the action is to be repetitive or not; whether the statement should be taken as a command; whether the meaning of the word entails a change of state or involves two people or objects; whether the action coincides temporally with another action; whether the action is on the self (reflexive); whether one of the parties to the action is benefitted by the action; and many more. All of this and more can be signaled within the boundaries of a single word.

Another feature of the Iroquoian languages is their free word order. Unlike the affixes that expand verbs and nouns which must occur in rigid order in relation to one another, the words in an Onondaga sentence can be moved around fairly freely, depending on what it is the speaker wishes to emphasize. As a comparison, think English: the dog bites the man vs. the man bites the dog – English being a language in which word order changes the meaning of sentences. In Onondaga, who bites whom is made clear by the pronominal prefix within the verb, and the differences in the two cited sentences signal that the first option is a sentence about a dog, and the second is a sentence about a man; but in each it is the dog that bites the man. These features have a direct impact on how information is organized between dictionary and grammar.

Another distinctively Iroquoian feature is the system of pronominal prefixes that form a part of every verb – recall that they keep straight who is the agent carrying out the action of the verb and who the patient in every sentence. English has sixteen pronouns, Onondaga has fifty-eight! The details of the system are two complex to describe here, but the pronominal include three series, one to reference agents, one to reference patients, and one to reference agent and patient pairs (for verbs with two animate participants, e.g., he’s thinking about her). The distribution is in part the result of verbal semantics and in part grammatical. In each of the series pronominal prefixes distinguish person (1st, 2nd, and 3rd as well as inclusion, i.e., whether or not the addressee is included in the reference), number (singular, dual, plural), and gender of animate entities (one masculine gender and two (!) feminine genders).

An English dictionary and grammar divide up fairly neatly into two functions. The dictionary lists the store of words and is heavy with meanings, and the grammar describes the rules that combine sounds into words and words into phrases and sentences. An Iroquoian dictionary as can be seen from the descriptions above, is heavy on grammar, i.e., information that deals with the construction of words – recall those multiply expandable verbs – in addition to word meanings.

The many years of studying the Onondaga language in depth have been rich with the pleasure of gaining insights and making discoveries. My hope is that this book will convey to the reader the excitement, surprises, and joys that lie ahead with the study of a language as full of intricacies and puzzles as is Onondaga.

Hanni Woodbury, Ph.D., is an independent scholar who has been researching the Onondaga language since 1971.