Susan Fischer received her AB degree in Linguistics and Romance Languages in 1967 from Radcliffe College, Harvard University, and her Ph.D. in Linguistics and Psychology in 1972 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   Although her original training was in developmental psycholinguistics, for over 40 years she has been active in research and teaching on the grammars of sign languages, especially American Sign Language (ASL) and the Japanese Sign Language family. She organized the 1986 conference onTheoretical Issues in Sign Language Research, which has continued to this day. Dr. Fischer is professor emerita from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, where she spent over 25 years.  She also taught at the University of Hawaii, San Diego State University, National Chung Cheng University in Taiwan, and the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. as well as at linguistic institutes at the University of Hawaii, the University of Maryland, the City University of New York, and Tilburg University in the Netherlands,   She is currently an adjunct professor in the Ph.D. Program in Linguistics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. 

The LSA Member Spotlight highlights the interests and accomplishments of a different LSA member each month. Click here to see previous Member Spotlights.

When did you first join the LSA? 

I first joined the LSA in 1973, when I was presenting my first paper at an LSA meeting.  But I attended my first LSA meeting in 1966, when I was still an undergraduate.

How have you been involved with the LSA since you joined? 

I've presented at a number of meetings, and taught at 3 summer Institutes: Hawaii, 1977, Maryland 1982, and New York 1986.  In addition I've served on numerous committees (COSWL, Language Review, Nominating, Language editor search committee, and maybe a few more). I served on the Executive Committee from 2012-15.

What are you currently researching/working on? 

I'm trying to get caught up on syntactic theory and psycholinguistics.  I have a drawer full of unfinished stuff, but I haven't started anything new in a while.

What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

Boy, that's a hard one. I really like typology;  I thought that  Johanna Nichols' article in Language many years ago about head-marking and dependent-marking languages was a major insight. She later expanded it into a book.  Another is Dan Slobin's "Language change in childhood and history", which as the title suggests makes the connection between language processing strategies and language change. But I have to say that what really hooked me, and many in my generation, was Chomsky's analysis of English auxiliaries in Syntactic Structures.   With one phrase structure rule and one transformation, he could account for 64 different forms; 128 if you add in the passive auxiliary. I thought it was one of the most elegant solutions I'd ever seen.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the field of linguistics today? 

I can think of a few things, both related to making connections: one is the fragmentation and compartmentalization of subfields.  A second issue is that most people don't read anything older than 5 or 10 years, so they keep rediscovering things that had been found in the past; just because the theory was different doesn't mean that the data aren't relevant.

How has the field of linguistics changed since you first started your work?

When I first got into linguistics, the amount of literature felt more manageable than it does now. My junior year tutor wanted to cure me of my infatuation with generative grammar, and in one semester had me read everything Chomsky had published to date. That would be impossible now. LSA meetings had no parallel sessions.  In my own area, there was no recognition of sign languages as languages (the first LSA meeting where sign languages were discussed was in 1973). Now they are seen as important to all levels of linguistic theory.

What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing a career in linguistics?

Don't specialize too soon.  Learn about lots of different kinds of languages.  Try to strike a balance between data and theory, so that each informs the other. And develop expertise in a variety of areas; one of my friends calls it having several strings to your bow.

What, in your opinion, is the most important service the LSA provides to its members? To the field? 

I think for both members and the field, the LSA provides exposure to a large spectrum of linguistic approaches and areas.  Things have gotten so fragmented and compartmentalized that the LSA (Language, meetings, Institutes) is the only place where you can learn about different areas that just might give you fresh perspectives on your own interests.  And who knows, you might find out that some of the areas you've ignored are really fascinating.  

Is there anything else you'd like to say to the LSA membership as a whole? 

Talk to each other!