Joanna Morris Florack’s still-developing story is all about rebounds and restarts as she made her way from her native Trinidad and Tobago to Dartmouth College, to a Rhodes Scholarship, to a doctorate in cognitive psychology and a career in psycholinguistics.
It began 36 years ago in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where the APS member was born Joanna Morris, the second daughter of Jeanette and James Morris, themselves academicians. Her mother was a lecturer at the University of the West Indies, in St. Augustine, Trinidad, where she now heads the School of Education. Her father was a chemistry researcher on the same campus for the Caribbean Agricultural Research and Development Institute. He later moved to the Trinidad and Tobago Bureau of Standards and has since retired.
“I grew up around the university,” Florack says. “I was definitely a bookworm. Most people who end up in cognitive psychology start out in social or clinical psychology and find their way through those to cognitive psychology. That wasn’t true for me. I was fascinated by language. I’ve always been fascinated by foreign languages, that people could speak different languages.”
She says she can’t remember when that wasn’t the case. “I was so jealous when my sister went to secondary school and started learning French.”
A former British colony, Trinidad and Tobago still adheres to the British model of education. After two years of secondary schooling, students take O-Level (short for “ordinary”) exams at age 16, after which only those destined for a college education continue for another two years of intensive study in selected fields, preparing for A (“advanced”) Level exams.
For her A Levels, Joanna concentrated on French, Spanish, and history. In addition to her studies, extracurricular activities rapidly filled her life – memberships in the Alliance Française and the Trinidad Opera Society, and piano and ballet lessons, to name but a few.
On her exams she scored among the top four in the nation, qualifying for one of Trinidad and Tobago’s national scholarships. The highest score won a scholarship to any college he or she chose in or out of the country. The second, third, and fourth highest scores received scholarships to the University of the West Indies. She did not come in first.
Her concentration on languages “meant I clearly was heading for a career in literature,” she says, but that didn’t interest her. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to major in.” She looked down a list of possible majors, saw “psychology” and thought, “That would be interesting.”
The bad news was that the University of the West Indies did not offer a degree in psychology. The good news was that because her major wasn’t offered in Trinidad, she could use her scholarship wherever it was. She chose Dartmouth College.
At Dartmouth she met APS Member Jamshed Bharucha, her cognitive psychology professor, now the senior vice president and provost at Tufts University in Boston. It was in his class that she discovered the link between psychology and her fascination with languages.
“I realized it was a perfect fit,” she says. “It wasn’t literature that I was interested in, not so much the content of language, as the process of language. That was what fascinated me. I just didn’t know it until I came across cognitive psychology as a field.”
She wanted to explore “the process that allows us to make a sentence, to understand a sentence and to use a sentence. What I was interested in was how people were able to learn a foreign language, how they were able to speak it fluently, why some learn it quickly and others not so quickly. How do kids learn their native language so quickly, when older people have to struggle?”
Her grades were stellar. “In your senior year, they get together all the students with top grade point averages in the college and send you to an information seminar about the Rhodes Scholarship program. They tell you, ‘You guys should apply for one.'” She thought that sounded like a good idea.
Eighty scholarships are awarded each year, allotted by nation or region. The U.S. receives 32. The Caribbean Commonwealth of English-speaking islands and bordering countries gets one. (Jamaica is allotted one of its own as well.)
She applied for the Caribbean scholarship. That meant writing a personal essay and securing the recommendations of six respected academicians. Based on these, she won a spot on the short list of those invited to Barbados in December for interviews with the Caribbean Selection Committee.
“The night before, you all meet for dinner with the Committee,” she recounts. “I guess they wanted to see our social skills, to see if we could avoid coughing up our wine.” In the morning, all six candidates went to the Barbados governor general’s house and “sat around having tea and biscuits with the Selection Committee.”
Then the interviews began. “My interview lasted at least an hour, probably more. And then you wait. It takes all day. At the end, they announce then and there who won.” She didn’t win. A Guyanese student at Yale University did.
She applied to and was accepted into graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. In August 1989, having graduated from Dartmouth summa cum laude and preparing to start her graduate work, she was phoned by one of the Dartmouth professors who had recommended her for the Rhodes Scholarship. He’d been called by a friend, he said, a member of the Caribbean Commonwealth Selection Committee, who had asked him to persuade her to reapply.
“I said I didn’t really feel like it,” she says. “I’d already been accepted at Penn and I didn’t want to take a year off. But he said, ‘If they think you should reapply, it means you have a good chance of getting it.'”
A stream of others from Dartmouth began calling to urge that she reapply. She succumbed, “but I didn’t want to go through the whole process again, so I just wrote a letter telling them (the Selection Committee), ‘If you want to reopen my file, go ahead.’ I didn’t write a new essay or get new recommendations. I was going to Penn.” Which is precisely what she did that September.
Three months later, in December, she was notified that again she was invited for an interview. When she arrived in Barbados, she found that most of the other applicants were also repeats from the previous year. They learned they’d all been asked to reapply.
They didn’t know why until later. The previous year’s winner had taken two bites at the apple. As a Guyanese, he had qualified for the Caribbean scholarship, and as a permanent U.S. resident, he’d qualified for an American scholarship. He could apply for either, but not both. He’d applied for both and been invited for an interview by both selection committees.
He was found out when his American interviewers recognized his name on the list of winners. If he hadn’t been interviewed in Connecticut, his name might never have been recognized. To compensate for the lost scholarship, the Caribbean committee selected two in December 1989, and Joanna Morris was one of them.
She interrupted her graduate studies in Philadelphia and headed for Oxford University in September 1990.
“At the time, people tended to see a Rhodes Scholarship as a stepping stone into politics,” she recalls. “A lot of students would go to Oxford to study for a second bachelor’s, in PPE – Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. But when I was there it was already starting to change. More scholars – especially those from India, New Zealand, Africa, Europe – would take a graduate degree instead of a second bachelor’s, and a research-oriented graduate degree at that.”
With already more than a year of graduate school under her belt, she wasn’t inclined to return to an undergraduate environment. She chose to seek a masters’ in linguistics at Wolfson College.
Unfortunately, a couple of months into her studies, her health declined and she had to return to Trinidad for a few months’ recuperation. Recovered, she went back to Philadelphia to finish out the scholastic year working for her faculty advisor, and in September 1991, returned to Oxford and started over. “I just pretended the last year hadn’t existed.”
“I loved Oxford,” she says of the experience. “I had some great professors, I learned a lot, I wrote a very rewarding thesis (on vowel normalization), and I was really, really happy. I especially liked the Oxford model of doing things – the college system, the tutorial system. It would be useful if everyone could experience a different model [of higher education], to see the complementary side of things.”
She loved campus life. “I had this communal living experience.” In England, she says, it’s “more social” than in America. For example, undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty each have a common room, a gathering space for all their members. “There’s a bar, comfortable chairs, it’s a very social space to gather and talk. Oxford was built around social spaces and the idea that you could have these special spaces where people would meet to chat.”
Wolfson College was ideally suited to her. “It was the most informal of all the colleges. You have to wear gowns a lot at Oxford. People wear them to take exams, at high table, in the library. But Wolfson was a very egalitarian college. In some colleges you had to wear gowns when you went to the dining hall. At Wolfson, you’d see people going into the dining hall in sweats, after working out. And there was no difference in the common rooms. And in the dining hall, we didn’t have a ‘high table,’ where the faculty sit. The faculty ate at the regular tables with the graduate students.”
Master’s in hand, she resumed postgraduate work at Pennsylvania in 1993, received her PhD in 1998, and secured a faculty position at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. Now, five years later, she is on sabbatical working at Tufts University, back on the same campus as Bharucha, the Dartmouth professor who first turned her on to cognitive psychology. She is doing laboratory research examining language processing in the brain.
One reason for the sabbatical: On January 4, Joanna Morris returned to Port of Spain, Trinidad and, in the church of St. Francis where her own parents married in 1964, she wed Francis Florack, of France, an electronics and computer engineer with degrees from the University of Rouen.