Office Treasures: A Linguist's Train of Thought

Their CVs tell one story, but the things professors surround themselves with tell another
Ray Jackendoff and his trains
Ray Jackendoff and the Medford Belt Line in his office. Photo: Alonso Nichols
June 8, 2011

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In the first of a series, we visit the office of Ray Jackendoff, Seth Merrin Professor of Philosophy in the School of Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies.

When he was a small child in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Ray Jackendoff spent many hours happily staring out his living room window and watching trains travel the tracks at the end of his street. Nowadays his favorite train-spotting happens in his office. Whenever Jackendoff wearies of work or is stuck on a problem, he can flick a switch on his desk and set into motion the Medford Belt Line, his model 10-car freight train that chugs along his bookshelves and filing cabinets on a 12-foot, wooden horseshoe-shaped track platform.

Jackendoff builds two or three cars a year, each one consisting of hundreds of wood and metal parts assembled with epoxy, superglue and solder. “It’s very focused work,” he says, “but a different kind of focus than when I work on a paper.” He decorates his trains with decals: one’s the “Oscar Mayer” car, another one advertises “Drink Old Heidelberg Beer.” One car is filled with coal while the engine holds the tiny figures of an engineer and fireman.

In addition to his expertise in linguistics and cognitive science, Jackendoff is a repository of train lore. As an undergraduate at Swarthmore, he and his friends would go to the train yards in nearby Philadelphia just to scan the goings on. Nowadays he ventures to places like Steamtown, a national historic site in Scranton, Pa., which boasts that visitors will “hear the chuff-chuff-chuff of the smokestack” as they travel on old steam engines preserved at the park.

He has thought a lot about steam engines and the skill it took to operate them. “They give you a sense they are alive, breathing and gasping with all their moving parts,” he says. “If you read what engineers used to say about running steam engines, you realize there’s an art to it; you had to know the engine and what it could do.”

Jackendoff builds his models at home, on a Saturday afternoon or a weeknight. Right now he’s working on a 27-foot layout in his basement, and is adding scenery, buildings and landscaping to his trains and tracks. And what does his family think? He smiles. “My wife tolerates it, and sometimes she even encourages it.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.