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Scott Paauw, senior lecturer in linguistics, dies at 57

June 13, 2014
Scott Paauw

Scott Paauw, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Rochester whose enthusiasm for language and expertise in the linguistic diversity of Indonesia inspired leagues of students, died June 9 from cancer. He was 57.

“Scott was a fabulous teacher,” said Greg Carlson, professor of linguistics and brain and cognitive sciences. “Students really loved him. He made an effort to know something about every student in his classes, and virtually every time I walked by his door, he had a student in there.”

When Paauw was teaching at the University of Buffalo, his undergraduate fans even created a Facebook page in his honor, said Carlson. “At Rochester, the classes he taught grew and grew. He was a huge asset and played an important role in the growth of the department in recent years.”

Paauw joined the University in 2007 as an adjunct instructor while he was completing his doctorate in linguistics from the University of Buffalo. He gradually transitioned to full-time, serving as the department’s undergraduate advisor and teaching a variety of courses, including the introductory course to linguistic analysis.

“He had upwards of 100 students in each of his introductory classes and got to know each and every one of them,” said Zoe Weinstein, who took numerous courses with Paauw before graduating this spring with a double major in linguistics and Chinese studies. Weinstein said that Paauw was the reason that she and many of her fellow linguistics majors fell in love with the discipline. “He was welcoming, open, and passionate about the field. You could really tell he loved what he did,” she said.

Scott Paauw at head of classroom with student

Scott Paauw leads a senior seminar in 2013 on linguistics field methods in which students work with a native speaker to create a description of the grammar of the speaker’s language. Photo by J. Adam Fenster

During lectures, Paauw drew from a wealth of personal experiences. Raised in Indonesia, he grew up speaking multiple languages and became fascinated by the linguistic diversity of the country, home to more than 300 languages. For two decades, he ran an English school in Indonesia before getting his master’s in theoretical linguistics from York University in Toronto.

In his research, Paauw explored how different Malay dialects in Indonesia interacted and influenced each other when populations migrated or traded. “The whole idea of language contact, what happens when two languages meet, is a fascinating one to me,” he said in a 2006 interview. The study of that interaction is “by its very nature … interdisciplinary, because we have to look at historical factors, linguistic factors, sociological factors, and all of these interplay in a very interesting way,” he said.

A self-described historian at heart, Paauw thought that the beauty of language lies in “how cultures interact, how cultures define their language, and how contact between languages, cultures, and societies reshapes the language.”

In the classroom, he invited students to join his journey of discovery. If he knew a student spoke or was studying another language, for example, he would ask them for examples and insights. “He treated his students with such respect,” said Weinstein. “He knew that everybody he met had something to offer.”

“Scott lived to teach, there is no doubt about that,” said Cuyler Gauthier, a 2014 graduate who majored in linguistics and film and media studies. “He had that magical quality where all of his students thought that they were his favorite because he devoted so much of his energy to them to make them feel as though they were the only thing that matter to him—and this was true.”

“As Scott’s health began to fail towards the end of the school year, he told his friends on a number of occasions that students and their success were the reason he wakes up in the morning.He was the ultimate teacher and will be greatly missed and remembered by many,” Gauthier said.

Family and colleagues are in the process of setting up the Scott Paauw Fund for undergraduate student research. The University flag near Eastman Quadrangle on the River Campus will be lowered June 26 in his memory. Details on a fall memorial service will be posted here.

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