Helen Cairns nurtured leaders in the field of psycholinguistics
While a graduate student waiting for a bus with one of her Queens College professors, Ann Jablon remembers being asked, “What do you see yourself doing?” She launched into describing her ideal career: compassionate teacher, passionate researcher. “Oh, you want to be Helen Smith Carns!” the professor exclaimed. She did.
Jablon (’73, ’76 MA, ’86 CUNY PhD) calls Cairns, a QC professor emerita, “our academic mother.” She notes, “It’s a wonderful phrase. It transcends the sense of mentor, the sense of nurture.”Cairns, who guided Jablon through all three of her degrees, “mothered” generations of QC students who have become highly productive in psycholinguistics and related fields. At Marymount Manhattan College, for example, Jablon is a professor of speech-language pathology and audiology and program chair of communication sciences and disorders.
In the mid-1960s, when Cairns was a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, a team of psycholinguists joined the faculty. “Absolutely blown away” by this brand-new field, she stayed for her PhD. Psycholinguistics, she explains, encompasses “the information-processing operations involved when one produces and understands sentences, first language acquisition by children, and second language acquisition by children and adults.”
Cairns began by researching adult language processing. Then she changed her focus to the acquisition of syntax by children, and more recently to how young children develop the ability to think about language, to perceive sentences as ambiguous, to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical ones.
Much of her work took place at Bayside Nursery School. “The director, Lenore Rappaport (’74, ’81 MSEd), was an extremely progressive, savvy educator who was delighted to have Queens College people doing research at her nursery school,” Cairns says. “Many dissertations have come out of Bayside.” Coaxing preschoolers to stay the course on longitudinal studies was sometimes difficult. “Here would be this kid, bouncing off the walls, and I would try to get him to sit down to answer my questions,” Cairns laughs.
Helen Cairns came to QC in 1971, when the department of communication arts and sciences (CAS) hired her at the same time her husband, Charles Cairns, joined QC’s new linguistics department. (His father, Stewart Cairns, a pioneering topologist, was one of QC’s original faculty members.)
Nearly a decade later, she agreed to be dean of graduate studies and research (1980-1989). Elected department chair three times, she presided over the reorganization of CAS into the departments of media studies and linguistics and communications disorders, chairing the latter department from 1997 to 2003. She and her husband retired together in 2004.
Cairns has written or co-authored four books on psycholinguistics, most recently Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics, with coauthor Eva Fernandez (Linguistics), which is used as a textbook in QC’s LCD Department. She co-edited three more, and published over 50 papers and reports, often with her students. “My doctoral students are my pride and joy,” she enthuses. “People like Ann [Jablon] have made major contributions to the world.”
Undergraduates marvel at the attention Cairns devoted to them. Amy Rakowsky Neeman ’79 signed up for independent study with Cairns, which led to a PhD at Brown University. Cairns “was so careful about making sure we understood things and that things are connected and that you could always see the bigger picture,” says Neeman, who teaches literature, communications skills, ESL, and writing at Johnson & Wales University.
Susan Behrens ’80 was grateful that Cairns customized a CAS/linguistics major for her and served as her advisor. Behrens met Jablon when both were helping Cairns with research. In 1995, Jablon hired Behrens at Marymount Manhattan. “Every day when I’m sitting with a student,” says Behrens, a professor of communication sciences and disorders, “I think, ‘This is what Helen was doing. She always had time for students.’”
Behrens’s recent book, Language in the Real World: An Introduction to Linguistics (co-edited with Judith A. Parker), features many Helenites. Behrens begins her introductory course with Cairns’ chapter on how children acquire language (co-authored with former PhD student Janine Graziano-King).
As grandmother and “academic mother,” Cairns rejoices in her expanding families. The Cairns, who live in New Hyde Park, NY, have four children and seven grandchildren. At age 72, she is active in the QC Retirees Association and stays involved with CUNY’s doctoral programs in linguistics and in speech, language, and hearing sciences. “My best friends,” reports Cairns, “are my former students.”
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