Julie Roberts is a professor and founding director of the Linguistics Program at the University of Vermont and Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society. She received her PhD in 1994 at the University of Pennsylvania following a first career as a speech-language pathologist. The overlapping of those two language-based professions inspired her to begin her linguistics research on the acquisition of first dialect (Philadelphian-ese) in children. She continues to champion the inclusion of young speakers in her research on the dialect spoken in Vermont. Her service work to her university, which included terms as president of the Faculty Senate and vice president of United Academics, the faculty union, awakened her passion for collaborating with and supporting faculty as well as students, and she is grateful to be able to combine her interests in linguistics and faculty-centered service in her work with the American Dialect Society.

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 honestly can’t remember when I joined LSA, nor can I remember not being a member, but I’m sure it’s not actually been forever. Since joining I’ve mostly served on committees: Linguistics in Higher Education and the Committee on the Status of Women in Linguistics. I’ve also been to lots of LSA meetings, always going back and forth between LSA and the American Dialect Society.

What are you currently researching/working on? 

After 20 years in Vermont, I’m still finding interesting things to study in its speech. I particularly like working on glottalization, and the longer I work on it, the more general and theoretical the questions become that I can explore with this small, non-meaningful segment. However, one of the reasons I like keeping my research so focused is that I also love the contrast between that and my broadening service work, whether at UVM or farther afield. My most recent post, Executive Secretary of the American Dialect Society, is a perfect example. Although the learning curve is steep, and the former director, Allan Metcalf, after 37 years has left enormous shoes to fill, the opportunity to become better acquainted with and support my dialectology colleagues and collaborate with LSA and other learned societies was irresistible.

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

My point of view is a bit narrow, as I have spent my academic career at an undergraduate-only institution, but, even so, I have witnessed a tremendous change during this time. I have been at UVM since 1994, but there was no linguistics major at all until 2010. The major has grown from 4 to 60, but that is not the biggest change. In 2010, and for a few years afterward, we enrolled no first-year students at all as majors. Those that we had transferred in later. Now, we meet high school students who come to college knowing what linguistics is (or having some idea) and wanting to major in it. I’m sure my program isn’t the only one so happily affected, and I credit the increased lay media exposure linguistics has had recently and continues to have, often due to the work of our LSA members. (The fact that in a blockbuster movie, Arrival, a linguist saved the world probably didn’t hurt either.)

Students now enter the university with more practical needs too. Not all of them want to become academics; in fact, few do. We have had to think hard about how to mentor our students who want to enter the work force, as well as those aspiring to graduate school, in both MA and PhD programs. Working with Anna Marie Trester, founder of careerlinguist, a blog and career resource and network for linguists, has been a tremendous help in this area. I’m delighted to that she has co-convened the special interest group, Linguists Beyond Academia, in collaboration with LSA.

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

From a personal perspective, LSA’s relationship with its sister societies, like the American Dialect Society is extremely important. The collegiality and support has been invaluable, and, of course, the collection of conferences in the same space and at the same time adds a tremendous richness to the annual meetings of all of the groups.

Secondly, as noted above, LSA’s expanding career and faculty support has been a tremendous help to me as a mentor to my students. As someone who began her career as the only linguist at my university, I can attest that the support of academic societies, and particularly the meetings, has been, and continues to be, critical.

Finally, and most importantly, our current national situation makes advocacy increasingly important. LSA’s work on non-sexist, inclusive language, endangered languages, diversity within and outside our field, and other issues is critical. These are complex issues and the expertise of linguists with knowledge and experience in these areas is crucial to supplement and counter the lay information that is omnipresent. LSA members’ ability and willingness to do this work is inspiring.