Talking to Nancy Hedberg


by Freya Olson - Cognitive Science Major

On a fateful evening in December 1988, Tom Perry, the Chair of Linguistics and Director of the newly-established Cognitive Science Program at SFU, sat in a bar waiting to meet with a PhD student from the University of Minnesota. This particular student had a wide variety of interests, a lively mind, and an advisor that was good friends with Tom. Due to her extensive work in the fields of linguistics and psychology, plus some experience with computer science, the student was the ideal candidate to fill a new position at SFU as a joint linguistics and cognitive science researcher and professor. After accepting the position, the student went on to become none other than our very own Nancy Hedberg, former Director of the Cognitive Science Program.

Nancy’s decision to come to SFU was not an easy one - at the time, she also had an attractive job offer at The Boeing Company as a computational linguist, and also had the option of accepting a one-year postdoctoral fellowship at Cornell University. “If I took the SFU job, I was allowed to take the post-doc and start a year later,” Nancy explains. “I wanted to work at a university, too. I thought there would be more variety in the job, with both research and teaching. The idea of getting tenure and having a permanent contract was very attractive as well, so I accepted the offer from SFU.”

Having the flexibility to follow her interest in research has led Nancy to have a productive and illustrious career as both a professor and researcher. She is primarily a linguist, but the focus of much of her research has to do with how mental states are encoded in language. Her linguistics subfields are pragmatics, semantics, and syntax. One of her current explorations has to do with prosody, especially question intonation. “In English, a wh-question usually goes down in intonation, but sometimes goes up; and a yes-no question usually goes up, but sometimes goes down I’m interested in what it means for a wh-question to go up and a yes-no question to go down. And why do wh- and yes-no questions tend to go in different directions to begin with?”

Nancy was no stranger to producing well-known research even before her time at SFU. During her doctoral studies at the University of Minnesota, she teamed up with fellow linguists Jeanette Gundel and Ron Zacharski to examine ‘referring expressions’ such as ‘this cat’, ‘that cat’, or ‘the cat’, in relation to the speaker’s and addressee’s cognitive state. Their work produced a paper called ‘Cognitive Status and the Form of Referring Expressions in Discourse’ that was published in 1993, and has been cited over 1700 times on Google Scholar. “It always makes me happy when someone cites it,” Nancy says proudly. “I still look up how often it’s getting cited. Using the citations on your work, you can see what other people are doing with it - it’s a good way to figure out what’s going on out there.”

Nancy never officially planned on becoming a well-known published researcher in the cognitive sciences - like many people, Nancy’s path into cognitive science was filled with interesting twists and turns. In high school, she was interested in archeology, and ancient human civilizations, but planned to go to university to study chemistry, following in the footsteps of her father. Though she was accepted into the University of Minnesota, Nancy found that the classes she expected to take were already full - so instead, she enrolled in a one-year program called Studies in the Arts, Language, and Mind that offered a combination of first-year courses in linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and humanities. “At the end of that year, I decided I was going to major in psychology. I was especially interested in cognitive psychology. In those days, they were talking about problem solving, which really interested me,” she remembers.

B.F. Skinner taught and researched at the University of Minnesota, though he left before Nancy arrived. As homage to the famous behaviourist, every psychology major in 1974 still had obligatory rat training, a task that Nancy thoroughly enjoyed. Nearing the end of her degree, she was reintroduced to linguistics in psychology classes taught by Jim Jenkins and David LaBerge. “They were talking a lot about the cognitive revolution, and about Chomsky’s linguistics,” she says. She then thought that she might want to switch to linguistics from psychology for graduate study.

She was enjoying her French classes and thought that she should try studying French in France to find out if language was important enough to warrant graduate study. However, the trip to the south of France inspired a desire to stay abroad and teach English. Once back in Minnesota, she then decided try to get a master’s degree in teaching English, and so she enrolled in prerequisite linguistics classes for that. However, she did so well in those courses that several of her professors advised her to pursue graduate studies in linguistics. She was accepted as a PhD student at Minnesota, and then took courses mostly in linguistics, but also in psychology and philosophy. “I decided that pragmatics, semantics, and syntax were my areas in linguistics,” she says, “and I wanted to work with cleft sentences, like ‘It was Don who left,’ for my dissertation.”

Her graduate work led her to collect almost 2000 examples of cleft sentences from newspaper articles, mystery novels, and popular history sources. Her aim was to study how cleft sentences were commonly used in everyday language. During this time, Nancy also accepted a fellowship at the Center for Research in Human Learning. “The name ‘Human Learning’ reflected the traditional behaviourist approach to psychology,” she tells me. “After I left, it became the Center for Cognitive Science, so I kind of was trained in cognitive science under that other name.”

When Nancy joined SFU, she was told that the Linguistics, Computer Science, Psychology, and Philosophy departments had each agreed to hire a new position that would be considered to be a hybrid between Cognitive Science and each respective department. It turned out that Linguistics was the only department to fulfill this agreement with Nancy’s recruitment - in some ways, this made her the very first cognitive scientist at SFU!

In 2000, Nancy became the director of the program, and played a major part in its growth after an external review in 2001 that resulted in SFU recruiting Dr. Jeff Pelletier as a Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Science. Hiring Shamina Senaratne to handle the administrative side of the growing program, and beginning the process to hire fellow faculty member Mark Blair in 2004 are both accomplishments that Nancy is particularly proud to have played a role in. “Soon after that, we introduced the Consciousness course, COGS 310, which was Mark’s idea,” she says, excitedly. “We had also re-introduced COGS 200 again, and so we were up to four COGS-specific courses!”

After 2003, Nancy took a break from her director duties, and focussed on her research and teaching. She became Director again in 2012 for one year, and since then has been the Undergraduate Program Chair and Chair of the Curriculum Committee for the Cognitive Science Program. She continues to enthusiastically explore matters of language and the mind, and is currently active in the Experimental Syntax Lab, the Language and Brain lab, and the Cognitive Science Lab. Teaching remains one of her passions, especially the courses she has been teaching recently. “I learned so much about cognitive science from teaching the COGS 300 class on music, language, and cognition that I found I was really ready to teach COGS 200 again, and I’m really loving that,” she tells me. “Finally having enough background knowledge is great, and that takes a lot in cognitive science because there’s so many fields involved.”

This sentiment is well known among students in Cognitive Science - there’s a lot to know, and even more to learn. A huge variety of interests and backgrounds can be found in the field, which is one of the reasons why it is such an interesting subject to study. As is evidenced from Nancy’s path in academia, it can be hard to predict where you will end up. Nancy is very encouraging, and her passion for what she does is infectious. “Stick with Cognitive Science,” she advises, “you never know where it will lead you!”


Links to look at:

Experimental Syntax Lab

Language and Brain Lab

Cognitive Science Lab

Nancy’s Publication List