Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Elizabeth Ritter, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Calgary. She’s fabulous, and so is her advice.
What put you on the path of academia? What made you want to become a professor and linguist?
When I was a kid I lost things a lot, and I was constantly being told that I was an absent-minded professor, so that was the first bit.
In high school I had to choose between the linguistics stream and literature stream in English. I picked linguistics and LOVED it. But when I went to university my school didn’t have a linguistics program, so I didn’t pursue it immediately. I didn’t come back to until after I finished my B.Comm, decided NOT to become an accountant and spent 6 months in Israel, in an immersion program in Hebrew trying to figure out what to do next. In class I spent a lot of time wondering why some students struggled with language learning, and why different bits of the grammar where difficult for students with different first languages, and realized that this was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. So I went back to university to re-train… and that was that.
What are some things you love about your job and your work?
I love it when my first year students fall in love with linguistics, when my graduate students figure out what they want to do their theses on, and when in my own research I discover something new.
What do you think is the most difficult part about your work? Grading poor work, struggling with an analysis, writing anything up.
What has changed about the world of academia since you started out as a student (or a professor)?
The skill sets of my students – they used to know some basic grammar when they entered first year. Now they are PowerPoint whizzes. They used to know how to take notes, now they expect to download my slides. Everything moves faster now, and almost everything that has been written recently is available online.
Is there anything you’re working on right now that you want to share?
I am writing a couple of papers that I am hoping to publish.
This interview series is about working women. Have there ever been times when being a woman has affected how you do your job (for better or worse)?
I remember when a female linguist was giving a colloquium talk, and the room was PACKED. In the middle of her talk, she walked to the front of the room where there were a couple of chairs and took one over to somebody who arrived late, and was standing in the back. She didn’t stop talking. That was so cool – I remember thinking that I wanted to be like that – brilliant linguist and caring maternal, human being… I’m pretty sure a male speaker would never have done that.
Any advice for aspiring academics, or those about to enter university?
Follow your passions, be who you are. There are a lot of ways to be a great academic.
Bonus question: What are you currently reading/do you want to recommend a book to the world?
Recreationally, I am currently reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Do Not Say We Have Nothing and am re-reading a short story collection from 1989 edited by Margaret Atwood. I recommend reading books that challenge your thinking, that push your boundaries… whatever that means to you.