You're at a party, music blaring, people dancing, and suddenly, across the room, you spot the most beautiful girl you've ever seen in your life.
She's the one. You know it. So you work up your courage, walk up to her, and blurt out:
"Will we dance?"
I was saddened yesterday morning to open up the San Francisco Chronicle and find an obituary for my favorite professor at UC Berkeley, Julian Boyd.
Professor Boyd was, among other things, the world's leading expert on the difference between the words "shall" and "will". You may think that this is an incredibly mundane topic to be an expert on, but nothing about language or philosophy was mundane when Julian Boyd explained it. Profane, maybe, but never mundane.
When you went to a Julian Boyd lecture, you never had any idea what was going to happen. The lecture would always start off in one place, and then go off on all kinds of seemingly stream-of-consciousness tangents, every one of them incredibly fascinating and funny and entertaining at the same time. Try to imagine Robin Williams as a linguistics professor, and that's kind of what we're talking about.
Other lecturers are entertaining, but the thing that separated Professor Boyd was that he genuinely cared and paid attention to his students. I remember one time, he was in the middle of a lecture, and he suddenly stopped, and turned to my girlfriend (now my wife), and asked, "Is something wrong?"
She was confused. "No. Why do you ask?"
Professor Boyd said, "Usually, when I'm lecturing, you nod in agreement when I make a point. You didn't nod. I find it rather comforting when you nod, and when you don't, I worry I might be doing something wrong."
That just blew me away that he would not only notice such a small behavioral quirk of someone in the classroom, but also notice, in the middle of a lecture, that she wasn't doing it. That just shows how much he genuinely paid attention to his students, and why he was so universally beloved:
"...Julian's students unanimously adored him. Their write-ups had an unabating religious fervor. Nearly all of them said the same thing: that taking a course from Julian was a life-changing event and the apex of their Berkeley experience."
Steven Rubio has a wonderful tribute that does a great job of capturing the spirit of Julian Boyd. I love this description of his colorful language:
As perhaps befits a linguist, Julian had a way with words. And some of his favorite words were curse words. And so his lectures were the academic equivalent of an episode of Deadwood, and once in awhile he'd apologize and say he was going to do better in the future, but even his apologies usually contained a "fuck" or two. I was never sure if he just couldn't help himself, like a savant with Tourette's, or if he thoughtfully, consciously placed every word he spoke exactly where and when he wanted, like a good linguist. In any event, the result was marvelous. And, since his lectures were so famously dense, the fucks and shits also served to keep his audience alert ...
For all of those wonderful things about Professor Boyd, I haven't yet mentioned the most important thing of all: Julian Boyd had a genuine joy of language: a love, a wonder, a curiosity and a sense of fun about words that was positively infectious.
It infected me, and happily, I've never been cured. That, for me, is his legacy. This blog, and all the things that have happened to me because of it, would never have happened if not for Julian Boyd.
So thanks, Professor Boyd, and may could might should you rest in peace.