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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: Anne Curzan

Along one wall in Anne Curzan’s office is a bookshelf containing hundreds and hundreds of books whose titles all seem to contain permutations of the words “English Language.” Opposite the wall of bursting bookshelves hang plaques and posters documenting marathons and triathlons that she has completed–one of them, a half-marathon, along the Great Wall of China. Between these walls, tellingly, waits a table, facing the door and completely empty but for a bluish green plant and a glass container filled with individually wrapped chocolates. This is where she talks with students.

Anne's passions and commitments seem to fall along the materialized scale of her office. She is a public intellectual, meaning that she engages with audiences outside of the academy in order to share her scholarship. To that end, she writes a regular English Language column in The Chronicle of Higher Education,“Lingua Franca.”

A serendipitous lunch also led Anne to fulfil a dream of hers: hosting a regular series on Michigan Public Radio to discuss the English language. She says: “It was hilarious because I’m a total NPR junkie, and I had always had this little dream: ‘Maybe someday I could do a little piece about language on Michigan Radio.’ So three years ago Steve Schram approaches me about doing a show, and I'm trying to be so cool, like, ‘I would be happy to discuss that,’ and in my head I’m jumping up and down!”

Her show is called “That’s What They Say,” and in it she discusses the history of and changes to the English language with co-host Rina Miller. Anne is also the faculty athletics representative for the University of Michigan, where she also co-directs the Joint Ph.D. Program in English and Education. And, of course, she is a professor at the University of Michigan–teaching courses, holding office hours, serving on graduate committees, and mentoring students.

“I wear a lot of hats here now, which I love. It was not something I necessarily anticipated when I was in grad school–how many hats one could wear!” she laughs. She teaches in all of her roles, in one capacity or another. When asked what she would be doing if she weren’t a professor, she struggles to answer: “I come from a family of teachers, and so I think teaching is just a big part of who I am. It’s actually hard for me to imagine a job in which I’m not teaching, because it’s kind of in my blood.”

“I have been lucky enough to have a job that I love and that I find endlessly interesting. I really am not sure that I can emphasize strongly enough how lucky I feel to have a job where every day is interesting to me and every day involves learning. I learn from students. I learn from teaching. When I’m getting to do this public intellectual work, I’m learning from the questions. Sometimes we have listeners writing in with questions and they say, ‘What’s going on with this?’ and I reply, ‘What a great question! I have no idea, but let me go find out.’”

It is a rare and refreshing thing to speak with someone who has invested years and years in a particular subject and still finds that subject as compelling as they did at the start. It was not immediately apparent to Anne that she was destined to become a linguist. In fact, it took a good year and several thousand miles of distance for her to recognize that the study of the English language was something that enthralled her:

“Taking the two years off after college was the best thing I did. I got to go abroad to China, learn about another culture and a new language, learn how to teach, and think about what was the right decision for grad school. And a year out I could look back and see that after I took the History of English Language course, every paper I wrote in every linguistics class was about the history of English. It didn’t matter what the class was about, every paper I wrote was about the history of the English language. So then I wrote back to faculty mentors who I knew, and I said, ‘This is what I want to study, where do I study that?’ People pointed me to a few universities, including Michigan.”

Beyond her endless interest in learning about language, Anne finds deeper meaning and satisfaction in learning and teaching about the English language. She recalls with great warmth the mentorship and career of the now deceased Dr. Richard W. Bailey, who was a professor of English at the University of Michigan when she was a graduate student. His example solidified her commitment to the field of linguistics: “There was a court case in 1979 often referred to as the Ann Arbor Black English Case, and he testified in that case. He was one of the expert witnesses talking about African American English and the fact that it’s a systematic dialect of English. I would talk with him about taking what we know about how language works and trying to have an impact on K-12 education and fundamental questions around social justice. The work we do as linguists can have these implications for social justice. He showed me that, and I think that solidified my sense that this is what I wanted to know. Knowing that I could strive for that had a really profound impact on me.”

When someone hears the words “public intellectual” or “social justice advocate,” the word “linguist” isn’t necessarily their first association. So what does it mean for Anne to be a linguist in the public sphere?

“I think advancing knowledge is one of the really important things we do in the academy. It’s important to a culture. And I get to do that as part of my scholarly life. Then I get to do scholarship that has a much broader impact on people outside the academy in terms of the way they think about language, the way the education system works, the way we're teaching students, and the way we're thinking about diversity in language and language change. I can do that work, and it’s a meaningful part of an academic career.”

Anne sees graduate students as an important part of the process in advancing knowledge, and she relishes the exchanges she shares with them: “One of the real joys of the job is getting to learn from graduate students, because they’re doing these fascinating projects, and it makes me smarter.” She believes that financial support for graduate students is “incredibly important,” but she also has a broader vision for how to more fully support and prepare graduate students: enhancing community. “Making sure that we'recreating support systems for people to feel like they can own this place and be a part of this place as much as everybody else,” she explains. “That kind of support and community feels extremely important, as is creating connections across units, so that students are not feeling isolated in their units. I think Michigan walks the walk around interdisciplinarity more than many universities; a lot of universities talk the talk, and the University of Michigan walks the walk.” She also believes that a Ph.D. can lead to great things outside of the tenure track: “I truly believe that there are so many exciting things that one can do with a Ph.D., and going into a tenure track academic job is just one of them.”

She says of teaching, “One of my fundamental goals is to inspire students to want to learn–to spark their intellectual curiosity.”So then it comes as no surprise that her table occupies a front and center space in her office. She wants to share what she knows–to use language as a way to help improve the quality of communication for students inside and outside university walls. “I have a fundamental faith in human intellectual curiosity, and I think that almost everybody is interested in language. It’s part of being human. We like to play with language. We’re curiousabout it. We’re curious about where it comes from, why it works the way it does. Not everybody will realize that linguistics can help you answer those questions, so I think as a scholar and a teacher, what I want is for people to see linguistics as a very human science.”