Brent Woo is a Language Engineer at Amazon in Cambridge, MA. He is also finishing up his PhD in Linguistics at UW in Seattle. He specializes in syntax, currently focusing on coordination and related topics like Right Node Raising and idioms. He has a growing interest in experimental syntax, esp. judgments and transposition. Woo also enjoys building computational grammars in HPSG/LFG; so far he's worked on Rusyn and Burmese. Woo is most interested in Uralic and Slavic languages, having studied Russian for several years and, newly, Finnish. One of his missions is to bring the work of linguists more into public awareness. To that end, Woo once gave a TEDx talk on language technology. He's also the only person who has worked at both the Linguist List and the Linguistic Society of America.

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, and how have you been involved since then? 

I first joined in 2011 and have attended and presented at several annual meetings and panels. I worked as an intern the LSA office in Washington, DC, in Summer 2013. I was also elected to be a student member of the Program committee, and have served on CEDL, COSIAC, and the LGBTQ+ SIG. I’m also proud to have made the logos for the annual meeting since 2015.

What is your personal favorite linguistic article or study?

The “salad-salad” paper (Ghomeshi et al. 2004). Contrastive reduplication never fails to get the discussion going about language change, native speaker intuitions, social uses of language, lexical semantics (“but what IS a salad-salad?”), the requisite prosody, and morphology. It’s relatable, contemporary, and instantly thought-provoking. This is the type of thing that would’ve gotten me to change my major to linguistics in college (in fact it was a Turkish morphology problem that did that).

A close second would be “The ass camouflage construction: Masks as parasitic heads” (Levine 2010). Besides the titillating factor, I think it legitimizes formal analysis of informal constructions that might not otherwise be taken seriously, and it shows the potential for any bit of language, no matter how small or “non-mainstream”, to give deep insight into the workings of language

You presented at the 2018 Annual Meeting about your work teaching linguistics to prison inmates. What lessons did you learn from that experience that will be applicable in other professional contexts?

The importance of public scholarship and science communication. The experience challenged me to present completely analog for 2.5 hours. The audience was hard, but probably not in the expected way. The inmates sat rapt, listening to every word, and were not shy about catching my slips or asking hard questions. I got hard questions about sign languages, language evolution, the definition of a word, and migration patterns. I’d previously given talk at science fairs for children, I’d given a TEDx talk to a university community, and I’d TA’d and taught several undergraduate classes. This audience was different. Although all men, it was diverse in age range, ethnicity, and life experience, meaning I’d have to adjust the lecture and discussion content to resonate with that variation. I’ll say more of this below, but it becomes paramount in industry (in my position at least), to be able to communicate your work to all kinds of audiences and stakeholders, from trainees, to your peers, to your immediate boss, to a manager two or three levels up.

You’ve served on the LSA’s Program Committee, and also as an intern in the LSA office in DC. How did those experiences help to advance your academic or other career goals?

Serving on the Program Committee, as well as the other committees, gave me the opportunity to discuss, opine, and stand my ground on issues outside of linguistic academic content. On one conference call with the Committee on Ethnic Diversity in Linguistics (CEDL), I was the sole member that disagreed with the way a fund was being distributed. I think it was a valuable, if harrowing, experience to be one against the entire committee, and it told me to work on keeping my answers concise and effective in a high-pressure environment, which is a very common circumstance at work, it turns out.

Interning gave me valuable insight into the monumental backstage process of organizing the annual meeting. It was a great opportunity to network with linguists, develop professional correspondence skills with government organizations, and learn how to conduct meetings with government officials: simply put, how to talk to the government. There was also time for guided independence for me to pursue my own projects to benefit the organization.

What advice do you have for students interested in preparing for a career beyond academia?

Have projects. Projects could be anything from an extended syntactic research study to creating a searchable database of recordings. It’s a good idea to own or contribute to a long-term project that you’re interested in, talk through the process from idea to execution, from problem to solution, and have a measurable contribution.

Communicate. Get out there and communicate your work to wider audiences, not just other linguists at conferences. Develop skills in public scholarship. Give lightning talks. Talk without slides or notes. Read pop sci books. In academia we’re used to giving our results in terms that make sense to research peers, but once asked to explain research to family or prisoners or strange children we falter. I regularly have to communicate my work and results to people I’ve never met who are on teams I don’t know anything about. And you can’t assume that just because someone is a high-level manager they’ll know the fine details of your work. How would you explain ellipsis to a room that doesn’t know what a verb phrase is? Explain metrics without the concept of a syllable? You may have your own strategy—whatever it is, it’s important that you have one. You have to be able to quickly figure out the common ground and explain from there.

Be disturbed. Something I notice in some productive colleagues at work is that they’re constantly disturbed. And as a result, they are inventing new ways to do something, streamlining some process, and throwing around what-ifs constantly. If you’re paying attention to some process and notice something can be improved, that’s your opportunity for coming up with a solution, which could turn into a valuable project. Linguists are good at being professionally disturbed by language. What else disturbs you? The more there is, the more opportunities for innovation you have.

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

The book exhibit at the annual meeting with book discounts.