July 3, 2017

Diane Massam's retirement: messages from some former students

Diane Massam is retiring from the Department of Linguistics on July 1st, 2017. She's been a professor here since 1989, working on syntax, especially with Austronesian languages. Rather than a ceremonial write-up detailing her achievements and contributions, let's hear from some of Diane's former students on what she's meant to them.

Päivi Koskinen (MA 1992, PhD 1998, now at Kwantlen Polytechnic University) - website

The 1990’s was the best decade, UofT Linguistics was the best of the 90’s, syntax project was the best of UofT Linguistics, and there would not have been syntax project without Diane (and Elizabeth). Thank you, Diane, for that fabulous decade! Thank you for starting me on the path the right way for an MA about Finnish passives, and my first generals paper on the lexical semantics of those Finnish inchoative verbs. Thank you for being gracious when you returned from your sabbatical in France and Niue to find that in your absence your PhD student had defected. I was privileged to work with a prof with whom we would flip back and forth between functional projections, kids with chickenpox, Finnish participles, gender bending children, and everything under the sun. Cheers for Friday syntax project meetings, garden parties, and That Santa Claus Parade. May you always have cake and flowers on July 24, your Finnish-Finnish Name Day, and for good measure October 16, your Swedish-Finnish Name Day!

Will Oxford (PhD 2014, now at University of Manitoba) - website

Thanks, Diane, for showing me that Algonquian is more like Austronesian than I ever would have thought! Happy retirement!

Kyumin Kim (PhD 2011, now at Cheongju University) - website

I still remember the moment that I first met Diane when I started my PhD back in 2006. When I entered her office for the first time, she asked what city in Korea I am from. Then she took out a map and asked me to point out and talk about the city and how I grew up etc.. She wanted to know about me first rather than what I was interested in for my PhD. So, this is Diane, which I have loved! Best wishes for a very happy retirement, Diane! Thank you for everything you've done for me directly and indirectly. I have been so fortunate to have you in my (PhD) life. You'll be missed, but wish you all the best for the next phase of your life.

With Love!


Jila Ghomeshi (MA 1990, PhD 1996, now at University of Manitoba) - website

I defended my doctoral dissertation in 1995 and Diane Massam was my supervisor. She was a relatively new faculty member in the department and I was her first doctoral student. Under her supervision I felt challenged, in the positive sense, to write the best thesis I could. We became friends through the process and have stayed in touch personally and professionally through our collaborative research. While we continue to find areas of mutual interest in syntax to work on, I think what really keeps us working together is how much we laugh. I am happy to have been asked to write something on the occasion of her retirement from U of T though I have had trouble narrowing down what I want to say about her.

There is her unbridled curiosity for all things linguistic and for the details of daily life. There is her remarkable work ethic that has resulted in a steady flow of journal articles, book chapters, edited volumes, and presentations. There is her remarkable record of graduate supervision. And there is her commitment to service in the form of committee work, organizational roles and leadership at all levels. This commitment extends beyond the department at U of T to the Canadian Linguistic Association. All this can be read from her CV so I will write about two qualities that are less tangible but have made far more of an impression on me.

Diane has a gift for combining rigour and openness in her outlook towards everything. As a syntactician, she is a formalist to her core and yet does not let theory constrain the way she looks at data or the phenomena she works on. As a supervisor, she holds her students to an established framework but not so as to hamper their imagination. As a person, she is deeply ethical without being judgmental. In every realm I can think of, she achieves a balance between equally important but seemingly opposite poles. She has an unerring sense of the middle – the space between extremes that looks like common sense. This brings a steadiness to her and those around her.

Equally inspirational for me has been to see her work-life balance – a clichéd term that makes it sound like a skill to be acquired at a workshop or from a self-help book. It is evident to me that Diane’s balance comes out of the love and commitment that she feels towards both her job and her family. Of course, there is a sense of duty at work that has no necessary counterpart at home so they can never be truly equal. But work, for Diane, includes doing syntax and as I’ve watched her ‘do’ syntax over the years I have imagined it is like the way great writers write – because they have to to be happy. Those of us who find the vocation we love almost as much as we love our families experience ‘balance’ as the pain of tearing ourselves away from one for the other. I have watched her do this a million times.

Diane used to say to me that she wants to be ordinary. I found this shocking as she was (and is) a driven person who has achieved most of the conventional benchmarks of success. It is a radical statement in our pursuit-of-excellence culture. I don’t know if this is still what she wants so at the risk of disappointing her I must say she is the most extraordinary person I know. She is a role model for how to be the very best kind of linguist, professor, colleague, friend, and ordinary person.

Monica-Alexandrina Irimia (MA 2005, PhD 2011, now at University of Modena and Reggio Emilia) - ResearchGate

I have been so fortunate and honoured to have Diane as my M.A. and PhD supervisor. I am not sure I will ever be able to express my gratitude for everything Diane has done for me, from my academic formation to crucial advice on personal matters. Diane is the best mentor a student could ever hope for; her talent and insight as a great linguist are only matched by her kindness, understanding, humanity, never ending  support, encouragement, generosity, and dedication. It is more than fair to say that it would have been impossible for me to become a linguist without Diane’s contribution. Diane has also set a model of a true scholar which I will always value and emulate.


Julie Goncharov (PhD 2016, now at Hebrew University of Jerusalem) - website

“There are no former students”, right?

In my heart, there are a lot of words that I can say to Diane and about Diane from the time prior to my becoming her student and during her supervision. But what is more relevant (for me) now is this experience of being her former student.  The connection never breaks. And this is not only because of occasional (and so delightful) catching-ups, but also because I recognize how many of my choices are sculpted by Diane. Especially, those choices that pertain to moral judgments and scientific standards.  

Here’s one story about respecting others’ scientific territory. I remember Diane once prefixing her talk at the Syntax Group with an acknowledgment that the topic she was going to talk about she had been developing with one of her students. And she added that before taking on the topic again, she emailed the student and asked for permission. Now, when my scientific ship is out there in the ocean, I realize how important this is for a student and an early-career researcher. Surely, the larger your toolbox is and the more experienced you are with using those tools, the faster you can solve a new problem. But to create room for somebody else’s discovery and to respect somebody else’s scientific territory, you need to have wisdom and high standards which make Diane Diane.

Of course, this is only one story from a million! Thank you for everything, Diane!

Arsalan Kahnemuyipour (PhD 2004, now at UofT Mississauga) - research profile

Congratulations on your retirement, Diane!

It is really hard for me to imagine U of T syntax without you. You are the reason I am still doing Syntax today. You are and will always be a role model for me both as a syntactician but also for the balance you always struck between your academic and personal life. Since that phone call you made to Iran in summer 1998 to let me know I have been (kind of ☺) admitted to the grad program until today and forever, you will be my mentor. Yes, that means you cannot get away from me. You can run but you can’t hide!

I wish you a great retirement, Diane. I am sure you and Yves have everything planned and will have a fabulous chapter in your lives. You both deserve it. How do we do Syntax without Diane (and Elizabeth and Alana!) at U of T? Well, I will have to resort to you to find a positive way of approaching the problem. During my graduate years and especially when I was writing my thesis, whenever I came across what looked like an insurmountable block in my research and rushed to your office frantically, your reaction would be: That is a good problem. I guess I have another good problem to deal with!

Thank you so much for being who you are, Diane, and wishing you all the very best once again!

Niina Ning Zhang (PhD 1997, now at National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan) - website

Diane is a deep and sharp scholar, who is also a caring and considerate person, a modest and humble person, and a pleasant and humorous person to talk with. She is both guide and friend of her supervisees. I’m lucky to be one of them.

Patrick Murphy (MA 2014, now in UofT PhD) - website

I'm extremely grateful to Diane for being a wonderful mentor on my MA paper. That experience really solidified my desire to continue with research and do a PhD. My research path ended up going in a different direction after my MA (due to a course in speech perception reigniting an old interest), but ergativity is still very cool and hearing it mentioned never fails to capture my attention. I also appreciate the experiences she gave me as a research assistant (for the Oxford Handbook of Ergativity and her Niuean/English recipe null objects project), and I want to point out that she's in general just a fun person to talk to. Thanks for everything!

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