Oral History Transcript — Dr. Katherine Harris
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Katherine Harris; June 27, 2001
ABSTRACT: In this interview Katherine Harris discusses topics such as: her childhood and family background; going to school at Radcliffe College; getting her doctorate at Harvard; her time at the City University of New York (CUNY) and Haskins Laboratories; speech production; her time with the Acoustical Society of America and her presidency; Ira Hirsh; J. C. R. Licklider; George Miller; Fred Skinner; Franklin Cooper.
Bell-Berti:Today is June 27, 2001. I am Freddy Bell-Berti and we are at the home of Kathy Harris in Brooklyn, New York. It is 2:00 p.m. and Iím about to interview Katherine Safford Harris for the Acoustical Society of Americaís Technical Committee on Speech Communication. Part B about the present status of Katherine Harris. What is your present address?
Harris:864 Carroll Street, Brooklyn, New York.
Bell-Berti:And your present telephone number?
Bell-Berti:Who is your present employer?
Harris:I have retired.
Bell-Berti: Do you have a job title?
Bell-Berti:Except arenít you distinguished Professor Emerita?
Bell-Berti:How long were you with the City University?
Harris:Since 1970, I guess.
Bell-Berti:Thatís where youíre Distinguished Professor Emerita, the Graduate Center of the City University of New York?
Bell-Berti:And before that Haskins Laboratories was your earlier affiliation?
Harris:Yes. And indeed it continued throughout.
Bell-Berti:And what did you do there, in both places, in either Haskins or the City University?
Harris:At Haskins I did research on speech, at the City University I taught classes on speech and did research on speech, and supervised Ph.D. theses.
Bell-Berti:Any particular aspect of speech?
Harris:Speech production mostly, though in earlier years I also did work in speech perception.
Bell-Berti:But not speech processing?
Bell-Berti:About your relations with the Acoustical Society of America, what year did you join the Acoustical Society?
Harris:I think in 1954, something like that — maybe not that early, but quite a long time ago.
Bell-Berti:What was your age and your profession when you joined the Acoustical Society?
Harris:I was in graduate school, and Iím not quite sure how old I was, and I was a graduate student.
Bell-Berti:And what area of acoustics were you interested in?
Harris:I had begun doing research on the physiology of sound in the auditory nervous system. I had had a lot of background in psychoacoustics and speech perception and I had done some work on animal learning.
Bell-Berti:What were your reasons for joining the Acoustical Society?
Harris:It seemed the place to go to hear about the work I was interested in.
Bell-Berti:Was there anyone who encouraged you to join the ASA?
Bell-Berti: And what ASA committees were or are you a member of?
Bell-Berti:What positions in the ASA did you hold or do you presently hold?
Harris:Iíve been chair of the Speech Technical Committee, Iíve been Vice President, Iíve been President (2000-2001), I think Iíve been on the Honors Committee Technical Council.
Bell-Berti:And Executive Council. Werenít you on the Executive Council?
Bell-Berti:Oh. You werenít separately elected to the Executive Council.
Bell-Berti: Is there any particular ASA meeting or meetings that stand out as being special, humorous or different?
Harris:Yes. The meeting at which I gave my first paper. I was pregnant and the question in my mind was whether I could button my dress down the front when I gave my paper. It was a very interesting paper, I thought. I was presenting a model of speech production and perception, and I thought it would be too bad if my dress would not make it.
Bell-Berti:What meeting was it?
Harris:It was a meeting in Boston in the Ď50s.
Bell-Berti:Are there any ASA members that you met who have specially influenced your future from the time when you started at ASA? Was there anyone in particular who was important in directing you?
Harris:Well, when I was in graduate school, Ira Hirsh. But also J. C. R. Licklider, George Miller, the people that were members of my department at that time.
Bell-Berti:And your department was at?
Harris:The Experimental Psychology Department. There were two psychology departments, then.
Bell-Berti:Is there anything you care to say about the ASA, past, present or future?
Harris:Well, I think it should maintain the International Standards Program. That is my chief preoccupation at this moment. I think its greatest strength has been that it has kept its commitment to student members. It has always been a very important aspect of our activity, and I think it has been successful in this.
Bell-Berti:Besides ASA, what other professional organizations do you belong to?
Harris:American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Bell-Berti:Now weíre going to get into past history. When and where were you born?
Harris:September 3, 1925.
Bell-Berti:Before entering college, where were some of the places you lived?
Bell-Berti:Where in Mississippi?
Harris:Jackson and Greenwood. I went to high school in Mississippi.
Bell-Berti:With anyone in particular?
Harris:Well, the only member that you would know is Jim Flanagan.
Bell-Berti:What were your parentsí occupations?
Harris:My father was a civil engineer. My mother was a lady of the period.
Bell-Berti:How would you describe yourself during those early years?
Harris:I was determined to be an archaeologist.
Bell-Berti:The next question is, ďAs a youngster, what did you want to be when you grew up?Ē so I think youíve answered that one too.
Bell-Berti: Before college, what were your hobbies or special interests, your heroes, heroines?
Harris:You know, I donít remember that I had special heros or heroines. I admired my history and my mathematics teacher in Mississippi. And I think, well, as a matter of fact Jim and I shared a mathematics teacher who was extraordinary. He was a Scot from Edinburgh.
Bell-Berti:Did you have any hobbies?
Bell-Berti:Okay. What subjects, events and activities did you enjoy most in high school? The history and math because of the teachers, perhaps?
Harris:Well, because they were interesting. I also was suffering from sort of culture shock in a lot of high school. I had started out in Lowell and I went to Mississippi before anybody much showed up there that came from outside, so I spent a great deal of my time trying to adjust to being in Mississippi.
Bell-Berti:Looking back, was there any person or persons during that time frame who had a strong influence on you and your future?
Harris:The people I have indicated, I think. That was the strongest influence, but I early on decided that I wanted to be an academic of some kind.
Bell-Berti:Under questions about your undergraduate career, where did you go to college and what was your major?
Harris:Radcliffe. Experimental psychology.
Bell-Berti:What made you choose that college and that major?
Harris:Well, I had started off in anthropology/archaeology and was told that since — I had a long interview with E. A. Hooten, the maven at that time of anthropologists, who felt that since my family was not wealthy, I would be making an error to join the field of archaeology because people in that field, by and large, were privately financed. He suggested that I choose another field where I would be more likely to find professional employment, so I gravitated to experimental psychology, which worked out very well for me.
Bell-Berti:But why that college?
Harris:Oh. My motherís family had all gone to Wellesley, and I chose Radcliffe in part because it wasnít Wellesley.
Bell-Berti:And youíve answered the third question, ďAs undergraduate did you ever change your college major, and if so, why?Ē Weíve had that explanation. As an undergraduate, did you belong to any special clubs or participate in any special school activities?
Harris:My school didnít have activities. We had an academic curriculum which people stuck pretty tight to.
Bell-Berti:In your undergraduate college days was there any particular person, teacher, professor or someone special who had a strong influence on you or your future? Besides Hooten?
Harris:Well, Hooten. I knew Ira Hirsh then.
Harris:Yes. My tutor was Jim Egan for a while, and that certainly was influential. A man named Postman taught me psychoacoustics and psychophysics techniques. And I also worked for a while for, as a research assistant, for Jerry Bruner. Jerry Bruner was interested in the Sociology of perception-that how people perceived things was influenced by their value structure. He set me to do an experiment to have people estimate the sizes of nickels and dimes. He believed that they would overestimate the size of dimes and underestimate the size of nickels. I had good psychophysical training. I did the experiment and found that people did very well estimating the sizes of nickels and dimes. At my 50th reunion, which was the first time they allowed Radcliffe alumnae to sit on the platform when the degrees were being given, I saw Jerry. He mentioned that experiment and then said ďI had someone else do it again.Ē But he didnít say how it turned out.
Bell-Berti:During that period of your life, who was your inspirational model? The possibilities suggested are scientist, religious leader, politician, business leader, and movie star, none of the above.
Harris:All my inspirations were academic figures, I may say.
Bell-Berti:Anyone in particular?
Harris:I think Iíve listed them by now.
Oh, but not one in particular that —
Harris:Well, I really liked nearly everybody in my department.
Bell-Berti:Did you ever participate in a rally, protest or cause? If so, what was the issue and were you successful? (This is at the undergraduate level.)
Harris:Oh yes. There was one night-club in Cambridge. We all picketed for free admission of people of color. All of us, and we were, all of us, knee-jerk liberal Democrats.
Bell-Berti:Were you successful?
Harris:Thatís, I guess, a question: the night-club went out of business.
Bell-Berti:Looking back, would you go to the same college and take the same major if you could start all over again?
Bell-Berti: At the graduate level, Masterís degree, or I suppose we could put the doctorate in here, since I know you donít have a Masterís degree.
Harris:No, I donít.
Bell-Berti:So we will go on to graduate school doctorate. We all know you continued on for a doctorate. Where?
Bell-Berti:Only someone who went to Radcliffe could say ďHarvardĒ and shrug as if to say, ďWhere else?Ē What led you to that choice of school and curriculum?
Harris:I was already in it. I knew most of my department members. I had been working with them since I was an undergraduate. It seemed as if there was a big secret about the Harvard-Radcliffe relationship. The first year I was there the big freshmen classes were separated. Then, at some point beyond that (I donít remember exactly when), all classes were integrated. While I was in graduate school, I took my exams separately at Radcliffe because they had different parochial rules — Harvard exams were proctored and Radcliffeís were not. In fact, the support for graduate students was separate and Radcliffe had less money available, so women students had great difficulty getting through. My daughter graduated in the first class that did not get a separate Radcliffe ring (that was in the 1980ís).
Bell-Berti:How were you supported?
Harris:I wasnít, very well. I cooked up what money I could from research assistantships, scholarships, and what have you.
Bell-Berti:Who did you work as a research assistant to?
Harris:Various people: Walter Rosenblith, Ira Hirsh, George Miller, and Fred Mosteller. Fred Mosteller taught me statistics and very well. He was interested in statistics in everyday life. He said that you could prove that the weather bureau has a bias toward disasters because people arenít interested in uneventful weather. You can prove it by making a bet with someone that the weather tomorrow will be the same as today and make this bet consistently. You will come out ahead.
One summer while I was in graduate school, George Miller and Fred Mosteller ran a sort of workshop on math in experimental psychology. Bill McGill and I were the assistants. (It produced a monograph.) After I finished graduate school I used what I learned in that course in developing the model for the relation between identification and discrimination.
Bell-Berti:You missed Skinner?
Harris:Oh yes — and Fred Skinner. But that was when I was in the doctoral program.
Bell-Berti:Okay. Were there any specific projects you worked on?
Harris:Well, for a while when I was Fred Skinnerís research assistant, I was engaged in the project. His argument was that you could teach any animal anything, if you broke it down properly. So I spent a great deal of my time and energy trying to teach pigeons to play ping-pong. At best they play very badly.
Bell-Berti:Were there any other projects that you worked on that you remember?
Harris:Well, I spent a lot of time with various people down in the basement of Memorial Hall putting electrodes on the surface of cat cortices. The cats did not survive this experience, in general, but it left me — in those days you didnít quit at any point, you just went on — so that you would emerge from 48 hours down in this basement, covered with blood and with recordings, which you then analyzed slowly and painfully off tape.
Bell-Berti:What was your doctoral thesis?
Harris:My doctoral thesis was on making recordings of the cortical response to clicks as a function of where you were in the catís EEG, so that we looked at whether there was an interaction between the amplitude of the response to clicks and the depth of the animalís anesthesia. I did a lot of correlation functions of the relations between these things. I spent a great deal of time with a hand calculator, and within six months of the completion of my thesis, I could have done it on the early computers in about three hours.
Bell-Berti:I have much the same feeling of my own.
Bell-Berti:Who at Harvard had the greatest influence on your future?
Bell-Berti:While you were a student did you ever conduct any classes for the college or university, and if you did, could you tell us about them?
Harris:Yes. While I was at Harvard. When I went, they segregated teaching assistantships by sex so that if you were a female you had only undergraduate females and if you were male you had only undergraduate males. They decided while I was there to have a little experiment, and they chose me and a young woman, whom Iíve not kept track of from fine arts, to have actually mixed sections.
Bell-Berti: Letís move on to your early professional career. After college, what was your first place of employment — I guess itís after your doctorate — your first title, and what did you do there?
Harris:I never had any job before going to Haskins, and I stayed at Haskins until I retired. When I came to New York to marry George there were three jobs I sort of interviewed for. One was with the Bureau of Ships doing research on submarines. The man I talked to felt they could not solve the toilet problem. I interviewed at Brooklyn College, where I was told that I was in the wrong field — they did not have women in Experimental Psychology. So then I went to Haskins Labs where Frank Cooper hired me and I never went anywhere else. In those days we had two unique pieces of equipment. We had a spectrograph that Frank had built following plans he got from Bell. It was photographic. The spectrograms looked like photographic negatives. And the other was the Pattern Playback. The Pattern Playback was built as a direct reverse of the spectrograph.
Bell-Berti:What job title did they give you when you first went there?
Harris:I donít know that I had any. Haskins was not very fussy about these things.
Bell-Berti:And what did you do there?
Harris:Well, we were at that point engaged in using a speech synthesizer to develop rules for cues for speech. And this work had been going on for a few years at the time that I arrived, and I continued it, particularly with respect to the fricatives, for a while. And at that point we decided that we needed to know something more about speech production than we could find out from looking at acoustic patterns, so I went on to do some research in that area.
Bell-Berti:That covers the second question about whether there were special accomplishments, developments or projects that you contributed to while there. But I will add, about the work on fricatives, which periodically someone does a study much like the paper that you reported on the fricatives, and invariably when that paper is given someone says, ďWell, have you read Harris?Ē ďOh,Ē is the response, and they are told to go back and read Harris and then think of something original to do. At Haskins was there anyone who had an influence on you or your future?
Harris:Franklin Cooper primarily, I would say, although I certainly worked with Al Liberman at some length.
Bell-Berti:And how long were you associated with Haskins?
Harris:A long, long time.
Bell-Berti:When did you begin at Haskins?
Bell-Berti:And the affiliation continues.
Bell-Berti:And so itís forty-nine years, now, and counting.
Bell-Berti:And so that takes care of the next question, ďWhen did you leave and why and what was your title?Ē You havenít. But now you have a title.
Harris:Yes. I am now a Vice President of Haskins.
Bell-Berti:And while you were still at Haskins, you joined the faculty at the City University Graduate School?
Harris:Yes, although I taught as an adjunct faculty member at Hunter College before that.
Bell-Berti:Which you said earlier was 1970. I should know that; and your positions there?
Harris:I went as a professor and eventually became a distinguished professor.
Bell-Berti:When did you become a distinguished professor?
Harris:I donít remember. I think 1982.
Bell-Berti:Did you ever write a book or have something published?
Bell-Berti:Would you like to tell us the names, the titles of some of your books or papers?
Harris:Well, the best known book that I have had anything to do with is Borden, Harris and Raphael, Speech Science Primer, which is now entering its fourth edition. It is a textbook for students just starting to study speech. I also edited, with Tom Baer and Clarence Sasaki, a volume of papers on laryngeal behavior in phonation and respiration.
Bell-Berti:And any individual research papers that you can recall that you are interested in mentioning?
Harris:Well, I think probably the ones that anybody knows anything about were the fricatives paper, which was very early, a paper that I wrote with Al Liberman and various collaborators on the relationship between speech sound identification and discrimination, but Iíve forgotten what the title of that paper is, and then various papers on aspects of speech production.
Bell-Berti:You published a paper with me in 1979 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society.
Harris:It was well known in the ha-ha sense better than any other way. It was a paper on co-articulation and it was written — it appeared with a title referring to Ďtongue lashingí from Baskin and Robbins laboratories. It was necessary to reissue the paper. At the time Freddie and I were very worried about being laughed at. I think now it seems funnier than it did then.
Bell-Berti:And it gives us something of an aura. People say, ďOh! You were —Ē
Bell-Berti:It has a wonderful response.
Harris: I should mention two important contacts from outside during my research grant years. In 1968, I went to Japan for a conference where I met otolaryngologists from the University of Tokyo. Through Osamu Fujimura. For more than 20 years, members of the department came to work with our group at Haskins. They were a series of remarkable men, who were both scientifically and technically skilled. Their collaboration changed all aspects of our work.
I should also pay tribute to Wilbur James Gould, now deceased. He was an eminent American otolaryngologist, sometimes known as ďThe Singerís Doctor,Ē who organized symposia, raised money for a foundation, and did a great deal in the medical community to raise awareness of voice research. Everyone who works in the field is indebted to him. As for my own group, they are others too varied in talent and too numerous to single them out individually.
Bell-Berti: About your family. What is your present marital status?
I am married to George Harris.
Bell-Berti:So thatís approaching fifty years, as well.
Bell-Berti:Its forty-nine years and counting. What is Georgeís occupation?
Harris:He is a lawyer, as he has been throughout our marriage.
Bell-Berti:When and where did you meet him?
Harris:I met him when I was in graduate school and he was in law school at Harvard.
Bell-Berti:When and where did you get married?
Harris:We got married in the Continental Hotel in downtown Cambridge.
Bell-Berti:Do you have any children?
Harris:We have two children.
Bell-Berti:Would you like to say something about them?
Harris:Yes. They are both female. The older is married and lives in Upstate New York.
Bell-Berti:And her name is?
Harris:Maude Harris White. She has two children, in turn, both male.
Bell-Berti:And their names?
Harris:Samuel and Jesse.
Bell-Berti:And your other daughter?
Harris:Is Louise Harris. She lives here in Brooklyn and is not married and therefore, thank God, has no children.
Bell-Berti:Okay. So now, Iíve got some questions about your personal interests. Whatís your favorite form of entertainment?
Bell-Berti:Do you have favorite authors or books?
Harris:No. My tastes are unfortunately, terribly eclectic with the result that I read a lot.
Bell-Berti:Do you have any favorite movies or movie stars?
Bell-Berti:Any favorite music, singers or songs?
Harris:Oh, well, I like almost all forms of music. But mostly I like vocal music. And Iíve done some research on voice production, and I like singing, generally.
Bell-Berti:What kind of songs do you like to listen to? Rock?
Harris:No. Vocal music, leider. Opera, I would say.
Bell-Berti:Not country and western?
Harris:No country and western. I know very little about popular music.
Bell-Berti:Weíve exhausted what I know about it, with the questions I just asked you. What are your favorite television programs?
Harris:Well, I am a great admirer of my friend Melanie Campbellís husbandís favorite program, which are the broadcasts of Senate and House Hearings on Channel 38.
Bell-Berti:Is that C-Span?
Harris:C-Span, yes. They are wonderful. Absolutely idiotic.
Bell-Berti:Would you like to make more comments or shall we go to the next favorites?
Harris:Well, I was going to add something.
Harris:I remembered my favorite movie. It is a movie called Bang the Drum Slowly. It is a baseball movie.
Bell-Berti:And your favorite sport and team?
Harris:Is, of course, baseball.
Harris:I vary, but really I would like to see the Boston Red Sox win the Pennant once. I am sick of waiting until next year.
Bell-Berti:Do you have a favorite artist or art form? I am assuming this means visual arts.
Harris:I am assuming so, too. Donít know.
Bell-Berti:Your hobbies today?
Harris:I seem to keep occupied one way and another, but I canít say that, well, I canít say that I really have hobbies, as such.
Bell-Berti:Well, I know that you read.
Bell-Berti:But you also garden.
Harris:Well, I do garden. I mean, who wouldnít?
Bell-Berti:Well, there are people who just pay someone else to do it.
Harris:No. I like to garden.
Bell-Berti:Whatís your favorite kind of garden?
Bell-Berti:What are your future plans?
Harris:Well, Iím having a fight with my family at the moment about going back to Israel in the fall, but — and I donít know whether I shall or not.
Bell-Berti:Is there anything else youíd like to add?
Harris:I donít really think of anything. I canít imagine what it is that I do with my time or how I possibly manage to get through a day when I was doing what Iím doing now, plus some other things.
Bell-Berti:Any closing comments about the Acoustical Society?
Harris:Let me say, I have been a member of the Acoustical Society for a very long time. Itís been a very satisfying relationship for me for a very, very long time. I only hope that it will survive the vicissitudes of academic organizations and continue more or less as it has, though that may not satisfy everyone.
This is the end of the taped interview with Katherine Harris.