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Director weekly highlights 17 June

Anne Cutler, Jane Simpson, Nicholas Evans, Outreach

Date: 17 June 2022

This week Nick and Jane are dedicating the director's introduction to Anne Cutler. 

A fine tribute to Anne's life in research has been written by Pim Levelt. Levelt was the founding director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, where Anne spent 20 highly productive years, first as director and then as managing director. MPI colleagues are sharing their memories of Anne here

Anne's official history is also recorded elsewhere; for example, Wikipedia and her 2020 CV are rich with detail. At a later time CoEDL will celebrate Anne’s life. Here, we talk more personally on what made Anne so special in our lives, and in the establishment and running of COEDL.  

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Nick... 

I first got to know Anne in Nijmegen, in 2002, during my time on the Fachbeirat (Scientific Advisory Board) for the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. The Max Planck system has a very different system of quality evaluation than we’re used to here in Australia or for Centres of Excellence. Every two years there’s a two and a half day series of presentations, all immaculately rehearsed and timed. It is about the most intense exposure to the field imaginable, and equally a period of sustained tension for all the researchers at the institute. The Max Planck Society places great, and lifelong, trust in the directors it chooses, but it then expects them and their teams to deliver at an unabating rhythm. At the end of two days of pressure-cooker presentations, the Fachbeirat would be locked in a room for an afternoon to write their report, emerge to deliver its main findings, then — to the relief of all — would go out for dinner with the Directors.  

I think it was the second time in this charged ritual that Anne had taken on the role of Managing Director. Her introductory address — where she was uncharacteristically suited up for the occasion — was followed by two days of intense pyrotechnics where it was clear she had personally checked out every presentation on a second dry run. At the end, having invited us round to her place after our final dinner, she kicked off her shoes, stretched out on a comfortable lounge, and said: ‘Oh fahck, I’m glad that’s over. I need a whiskey, Bill’.  

That juxtaposition of the down-to-earth Tasmanian and the scientist ever on the search for the elegant experiment to nail a key question, satisfied with nothing but the highest standards of research, stamped my initial impression of Anne and remained to the end.  

Once when we were talking about the Patji-Dawes award, Anne told me how lucky she had been with her high school language teachers in Tasmania, many of whom were of the generation of Jewish refugees from Vienna and other parts of the German-speaking world. She said how amazing it had been to have German teachers with doctorates in philosophy who would tackle the great questions of life, in the language classroom, with depth and precision. It was only natural that she should go on to study German at undergraduate level, in Melbourne, twinning it with psychology to form the two pillars — language and cognition — of her psycholinguistic career. 

I think it was experiences like those formative high school days that made Anne so fiercely committed to fostering younger researchers. One of her biggest contributions to CoEDL was to thrash out the details of our Transdisciplinary and Innovation (TI) funding scheme. The TI scheme was conceived on the premise that if anyone in CoEDL were to knit together its various limbs, it would be younger researchers for whom the integration of disparate approaches would appear natural in the right environment. Anne was adamant that CoEDL should use the trust placed in us by the Australian Research Council to encourage the sort of daring boundary-crossing collaborations by early researchers that often get shot down by the regular review processes. Having had such a strong hand in designing it, she then chaired the TI committee right through to its last round — with an uncompromising eye for winnowing the daring-but-possibly-achievable from the daring-but-half-baked. 

At the end of her classic book ‘Native Listening’, whose publication neatly dovetailed with the start of CoEDL, Anne pointed out how everything reported on in the book was based on experiments from just a privileged handful of the world’s well-studied languages, and how many of the field’s beliefs about the human ability to listen must remain provisional until we widen out our database. Widening out that experimental base to take in a broader range of languages, especially from Australia and the Asia-Pacific, was one of Anne’s deepest hopes for CoEDL. Despite her frustration that many key experiments had been delayed or disrupted during the COVID phase, I know this was balanced by an excitement that she expressed at what has already begun to emerge – and, Anne being Anne, an especial pride in the generation of younger researchers she never tired of inspiring, challenging, and supporting to the hilt.  

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Jane... 

I got to know Anne a bit in 1998 in Nijmegen. She and Bill held a party at their house to celebrate ANZAC Day with vast numbers of her Dutch, German and American students and colleagues. It began with an entrance exam on Australian slang... Along with getting me to make ANZAC biscuits, it was the first of many times I saw Anne convincing people to do things they'd never dreamt of — often with her help (e.g., her personal stash of golden syrup).  

Then there was her involvement with HCSNet, a kind of forerunner to CoEDL, bringing together people from different disciplines. HCSNet sponsored Anne to give a wonderful course at the 2008 Australian Linguistics Institute in Sydney: "Listening to Speech: Universal Processing Shaped by Language-Specific Structure," which gave Australian linguists from all subfields an insight into what was then terra incognita. It showed us that Australia had in Anne a scholar who not only carried out astonishingly original and insightful research but could communicate it brilliantly. Who could forget her playing the sounds picked up by a foetal heart monitor? 

In November 2012, after a Language and Identity symposium at the University of Sydney, Jill Wigglesworth, Anne and I got together for dinner. We were mulling over the future of linguistics students, and Anne was — as always — thinking big. I wrote a note after the dinner: "AC wants to go for a centre of excellence in Aboriginal languages plus phonology and speech…"  

She often recalled that meal with great satisfaction. Deserved satisfaction, because much of what CoEDL has become is due to her support for things she loved: high standards of research, support for younger colleagues, interdisciplinary research, value for money, and fostering new ideas. And good catering. 

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Farewell Anne, much loved and much missed. 

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University