elevator pitch

Though my midwestern upbringing does have its perks — Apple pie, anyone? — there’s one aspect of my natural demeanor that sometimes proves problematic. My wordiness is a real challenge. I have to actively fight the instinct to frame every sentence with polite formalities and constantly downplay my work. I could be Steven Pinker himself and I’d still say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done some work along those lines…” as if discussing similarities between two knitting patterns instead of my paper in Science. This wordiness problem can be catastrophic when I’m nervous. It’s like a slow-motion train-wreck of words all tumbling against each other in disjointed phrases with stuttered citations thrown in like live grenades.

Get to the point. Right.

The point of this is that I need to have an elevator pitch: a brief summary that anyone can understand. During interviews, I need to be able to succinctly and clearly answer questions. So, here’s what I’ve got for two hypothetical questions:

Interviewer: What are you working on most recently?

Currently Jesse and I are working on a paper on how children process affirmatives and negatives like, “DW ate / didn’t eat one of the apples.” Processing negatives seems to require pragmatic support, maybe because negatives are more unpredictable. There are a limited number of true affirmative statements we can make within a context, whereas the number of negatives is infinite. For example, I can say, “Hey! You’re not Beyonce!” and that’s infelicitous here because the affirmative alternative wasn’t under consideration. I didn’t walk in here with a backstage pass and a confused look on my face. So, in our eye-tracking studies, we try to make both forms felicitous with discourse context. DW eats one apple, and is going to eat the other, but is interrupted. Then we test children with sentences like, “Show me the one DW ate / didn’t eat.” We found 3-year-olds are accurate for both forms, but 2-year-olds only succeed when we use a blocked design, with 4 affirmatives followed by 4 negatives. Overall, results indicate that pragmatic support is important for negation comprehension, but the findings with 2-year-olds suggest that there are other processing demands at play too. At this point, I’m working on articulating this all better in the paper.

Interviewer: What are you interested in working on in the future?

I’m interested in diversity in language development. First, I want to explore what “typical development” means. Research often relies on convenience samples. We usually test children from white, monolingual English-speaking, well-educated, middle-class families. This is troublesome when you consider modern American demographics. About 1 in 5 children are living in poverty, and a similar proportion are growing up in homes where English isn’t the primary language. I think it’s important to include underrepresented populations when we’re trying to understand “typical” development. Second, I want to know how diverse learning environments might shape the processing system to privilege bottom-up or top-down information. For example, the Fernald lab found that lower-SES infants were slower to process words, but to me, it’s unclear how to interpret those findings. It might be that those children have learned to rely more heavily on top-down cues, and those cues are essentially removed from the paradigm. Finally, as a career-long goal, I want to study both spoken and written language development. These ideas are all fairly broad, but hopefully this gives a sense of the work I’d like to do.

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