Obituary: Mike Long

from ASR 83 (2021)

ASR editorial collective member Mike Long died in February. A major figure in language acquisition studies, Mike was also an active syndicalist, soccer fan, admirer of the Spanish Revolution, and lifelong foe of conformity. We first met 25 years ago at an IWW convention in Philadelphia, where Mike spoke on the Mondragon cooperatives. He quickly became a contributor to Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, and then joined the editorial collective. He wrote on several topics, including libertarian education, transportation and ecology, the electoral mirage, and, of course, Mondragon – which brought together his interests in cooperatives, language, and the Spanish Revolution.

Mike was active in the IWW for several years, organizing a branch at the University of Hawaii and supporting a long, ultimately unsuccessful, effort to launch an IWW Education Workers Industrial Union both to create solidarity within the education industry and as a practical model of how Wobblies could apply industrial unionism under current conditions. Below is a tribute by a Wobbly who worked with him at the University of Maryland and in the Washington, DC, area IWW branch:

remembering mike long, by Mike Fekula

What is it like to have an anarchist as a boss? I had eight years to experience that, working for Professor Mike Long, chairman of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the University of Maryland at College Park. Right off the bat, Mike would have hated any reference to him as a “boss” and on a number of occasions he told me “you don’t work for me, you work with me.” Sure.

I spent my entire tenure in the department as a staff employee responsible for all facilities matters. I immediately saw that Mike did more than pay lip service to concern about the workers. He always had our backs. For example, while I found most faculty members easy to work with, some could be impatient, cranky or temperamental and not above trying to pull rank on us. Mike wouldn’t stand for it. If he thought the staff person was right, he would back that person up with no concern for the rank of the tenured faculty.

Mike may not have wanted to see himself as a boss, but the structure and function of most university systems dictates somebody has to be in charge. Maryland was not Mondragon. And in the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures, known by its acronym SLLC, there was no doubt as to who was in charge.

That said, much of Mike’s authority was by way of his reputation for academic excellence and not simply by occupying a relatively high position in the university’s bureaucratic food chain. He was a Distinguished Professor of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) with a well-deserved international reputation in the fields of linguistics and applied linguistics, language education and second language acquisition research. Upon his arrival at Maryland in the summer of 2003, he jump-started the Second Language Acquisition program within the SLLC, transforming it into one of the top ten programs of its kind.

Dr. Kira Gor, current director of the Maryland SLA program, said in a tribute on the SLLC website that Mike Long “was the most influential scholar in the field of SLA in the surveyed decade of 1997-2007, and the most cited scholar in SLA in previous years, with 57,375 citations by last year. He delivered keynote and plenary addresses at 80 major national and international conferences.”   

Mike was often cited for his research, despite the fact that his duties as department chair constantly took him away from his own writing and research. On numerous occasions when I was sitting in his office, he would gesture toward a large pile of papers on a corner of his desk, saying, “That is supposed to be my next book. I’ve barely touched it in two years.” This was perhaps another reason why Mike never warmed up to the idea of being a boss; it took him away from what it always seemed he really wanted to do: teach, perform research, and write.

One thing that became clear to me shortly after being hired at Maryland was that Mike’s influence had everything to do with his vision for the SLLC and his ability to find the resources to make it happen. He moved heaven and earth to expand certain language programs, especially Arabic, Persian and Mandarin Chinese. Much of this was accomplished by Mike’s aggressive search for external grants, an absolute necessity at universities struggling to balance their budgets. The people who know how to play the external grants game become known as ‘rainmakers’ and Mike was one of those.

One thing that stands out was his ability to connect with just about anybody from any background, culture and tradition. One of his first friends in the department was Leonid Bak, the building maintenance worker, an older man originally from the Ukraine. Mike had also spent many years in South America, such that he could speak Spanish with our hard-working housekeepers, most of whom were women from El Salvador.

I counted Mike as one of my best friends anywhere, but his high standards for everyone around him meant he would not spare the rod if somebody screwed up.  There were a couple of times I got my ears pinned back by way of a blunt and rather colorful lecture from Mike for an on-the-job transgression. As nice a man as he was, you didn’t want to cross him. And the next day the whole matter was forgotten. Mike at times had a temper but he never held a grudge. It was against his nature, and he was too busy to get wrapped up in that. As long as transgressions were not repeated he would move on. Furthermore, if Mike’s high standards could make him appear to be a task master, the same tendency meant that a compliment from him could leave you floating on air.

More than anything else what I will always remember about Mike is his sense of humor. There was a steady flow of wry one-liners that were equal parts humor and commentary.  Mike could find the humor and irony in just about anything. It was also his way of taking people in and making them feel welcome.

I am left with an image from one of Lewis Carroll’s characters, the Cheshire Cat. When the cat disappeared, the smile remained. Mike Long left us with so much, but it is the twinkle in his eye and his smile that remains.

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