Basically, I am a teacher and scholar. These days I work as a kind of consulting engineer — conducting technical interviews of programmers and trying to examine their personalities as coders through conversation, pair-programming, and the examination of their past coding work. My path to date must seem roundabout, but the dominant issues have been language, sound, and the ideas entailed in challenging hypotheses rigorously with evidence.
First career: My first career was in Chinese philology — the study of the nature and history of Chinese language. I ran a university Chinese language and literature program and was active in a number of scholarly societies; the subjects I taught included Mandarin at all levels, translation, and Classical Chinese, as well as literature and civilization courses in English and technical courses in Chinese linguistics. I held the full range of administrative responsibilities typical of the head of a university department: hiring and firing, curriculum development, student advising, career-mentoring for junior faculty, and of course all the “service” (meetings and paperwork) usual in a Research–1 state university. I have also dealt extensively with local Chinese officials, both during my research and in my role as a professor. Teaching and learning are related activities in my experience, and even though I’m no longer in the Chinese classroom, teaching programming is basic to my continued learning of programming.
Second career: A few years after achieving tenure, I left academia for a good opportunity in New York’s computer industry, where I have remained active since then. Initially I ran a department involving Chinese language at a machine translation company, but eventually I decided to get a Computer Science education so that I could work in more purely technical roles. I completed the minor coursework in the subject (though without a full second baccalaureate degree) at the City College of New York in 2012, taking courses part-time while teaching Classical Chinese part-time at Columbia University, editing, and tutoring Chinese executives in English pronunciation. After that, I attended two “batches” at the Recurse Center in New York (2013–14).
I have continued to do research on Chinese (most recently holding the position of Member at the Institute for Advanced Study), but it is likely that Chinese philology will be in the nature of a hobby for me in future — I now work in industry proper, in a technical role. Much of my linguistic research has revolved around the idea of “fingerprinting” — deciding the identity or position of something based on its most essential characteristics. I’ve done that with the historical taxonomy of a variety of regional languages (chiefly Mǐn 閩 and Hakka 客家 varieties), identifying non-standard Mandarin accents, pinning down the part of speech of words in written Chinese (Chinese parts of speech are notoriously fluid), and other subjects. In 2014-15 I worked in an industry where an everyday task is “fingerprinting” entities encountered on the Internet.
For several months I taught at a high-pressure coding “bootcamp”, where the teaching philosophy was that “people learn best at the edge of panic.” I don’t believe that’s normally true, and I’d like to find a venue where I can teach programming on a different basis.
Where I stand on various things: Collaboration. Most of my scholarly work has been single-author, as is usual in the Humanities. I did not learn to collaborate until after leaving academia, and it has been a salutary change for me. My 2011 book was edited jointly with another scholar; my lexicographic work has almost all been done jointly with a native speaker of Chinese, and most of my prosodic study since 2012 has been done jointly with a mathematician. In industry, of course, collaboration and collective authorship are normal parts of life.
Interests. It’s hard to list all the things I have been interested in, but here is a short list, limiting myself to those I’ve studied in the classroom: In high school I studied computer programming and Latin. In college I threw those things entirely aside and gave myself over to Chinese and articulatory phonetics. After false starts in plant evolutionary biology and Chinese medicine I went to graduate school in Chinese. As mentioned above, more recently I have studied undergraduate computer science (2010–12). Among things I have not studied in the classroom, music, words, and interesting things to eat are high on my list of interests. Linguistic fieldwork and more broadly the first-hand documentation of detail discovered through exploration have a very strong hold on me.
I keep a full academic vita online; it explains the meaning of what I think of as the main topics I have worked on.
Teachers: My principal college teacher was the phonetician Robert Austerlitz (1923–1994); my graduate advisor was Jerry Norman (1936–2012). Although Norman was a student of Yuen Ren Chao* , I think both he and Austerlitz owe more to the tradition of Li Fang Kuei and his Americanist teachers than to Chao.
To reach me: I use a handle of
dpb at the
brannerchinese and my ancient log-in at columbia.edu is my three initials followed by the ninth prime number.
* I am proud of having gotten Chao duly registered at the Mathematics Genealogy project.