What It’s Like to Be Noam Chomsky’s Assistant

Beverly S. Stohl in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

ScreenHunter_1577 Dec. 22 21.34The first time I didn’t meet Noam Chomsky was in 1992, when a TV news channel asked him to interview me about my ability to talk backward fluently. He said no. I’d like to believe he was actually away, or sick, or that he didn’t get the message at all, but most likely he brushed off the request, sticking to more serious issues. Another linguist, Steven Pinker, took the assignment and determined that my skill, rather than being a sign of linguistic brilliance, was just a trick, like “juggling lit torches from a unicycle” (which I have to admit is on my bucket list).

The second time I didn’t meet Noam Chomsky was a year later, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when I was interviewed in his office in Building 20, a decrepit army research building, by his longtime colleague and friend Morris Halle, for the position of Chomsky’s assistant. Morris met with several star-struck people whose priority was to become part of Chomsky’s inner world, but my skill set and lack of familiarity with his politics made me his choice for the position. When Morris learned that psychology was my field of study, he issued me a few caveats: “This will not be a warm and fuzzy position. You have not been hired to be Professor Chomsky’s friend.”

On my second day of work, a man in his mid-60s with longish graying hair and a chiseled face I recognized from photos arrived in my office looking preoccupied. He wore a gray crew neck sweater over a blue denim shirt and blue jeans rolled up to expose sensible white socks. He held two briefcases, one of heavy blue canvas and the other worn brown leather, with the letters “NC” stamped in faded gold at the top.

More here.