What are some of the strategies that you use in your courses to engage students?
For students to become engaged, they have to be active in the learning process. They need to struggle a little bit to get the satisfaction of learning and get used to not knowing the answer—even at the introductory level. They may think, “Why not just teach us the right thing?” But I think the process of sifting through possible answers is in itself important to learning, as is the fact that answers aren’t always neatly packaged.
How do you evaluate your students’ learning? What kind of assessment strategies do you use?
Methods of evaluation vary substantially depending on the level of the course. In the introductory course, a percentage of the grade depends simply on being able to reproduce what was done in class. The style of analyzing language is new to most of the students, and it takes getting used to. ‘C’ students should be able to do this. For a higher grade, they have to show that they can apply this knowledge to new material. I leave a very small percentage of the grade for truly original thought: a new problem that stimulates the student devise a new abstract tool.
In the higher levels, the percentage shifts. Students are expected to be more critical and more creative. In my upper-level syntax class, I have them do all the parts of a paper, but backward. First they have to find a solution to a problem I lay out, then write about it in paper form as if they have discovered it. Eventually they also have to learn to find their own problems, so the last requirement of the course is to outline an interesting problem. This way, they leave the course with something they could continue with in future work.
What is the most important thing students in your discipline learn when taking a course with you? How about students from outside your discipline?
While students in Linguistics do need to learn the basics, they can always look those up. It’s more important that they learn the process of finding, defining, and generalizing a problem in data, then how to attach that problem to theoretical issues. They also need to know how to refine or change theory, and what the consequences of doing so might be.
I would like students outside the field to know that Linguistics is a science. I also hope they learn how complex and systematic language is, and how similar languages are at an abstract level. Lastly, I hope they will never think about language in the same way again.
How do you help your students understand what research and/or scholarship is in your discipline (including findings, methodologies, etc.)?
I try to help my students learn about the field of Linguistics’ methodology and about the process of going from something that doesn’t work, a possible sentence structure for instance, to something that does. This can frustrate students until they understand the point of the process—that is, to show how a theory gets built. Poking holes in theories is an important skill, especially given how new this field is, but it is also the doorway to showing students how Linguistics research goes, how the methodology goes. What’s nice is that you can do it from the first day of teaching syntax.
What are your recommendations to new faculty members to help them develop in their teaching role?
My main recommendation is to remember what excited you in the first place, and try to transmit that excitement to your students. Also, don’t be afraid to present a problem where you’re not sure of the answer, as long as it’s laid out clearly and the goal is student feedback. You don’t have to know it all. Also, remember the weaker students, and let them go away with something. A ‘C’ student has learned something, they have passed—and that’s still an accomplishment.
What advice do you have for undergraduate students about how to get the most out of your courses?
My advice for undergraduates is to concentrate on the process and not the result. They should come out not just knowing, but also knowing how. I want them to be curious, and I want them to be willing to have the earth move under them a little bit. I sometimes say in the Intro class that it is like skiing: you can’t go down with your knees stiff. You have to be ready for the bumps, to have fun along the way, and to trust your teacher to bring you to a steady state at one point. Part of this is that they have to be willing to be wrong, so that I can convince them of the right answer. And sometimes students will make a good point and I’ll be wrong. We all have been wrong at one point, we probably are still wrong—the theory isn’t finished yet.
Why do you teach?
It started off with wanting to do linguistics research, and I taught because that’s what supported me. But my attitude changed after going to an academic research center in Taiwan. At first I thought it was heaven because it was like a college campus without students. But I quickly realized that I missed the students. At McGill, my students push me in a way that other professors don’t. Maybe it’s because they are writing theses that are relevant to my own research, and that I have to be prepared to guide them, to have some answers for them. When you do your research you are isolated, but when you teach, you go back to the basics, and you share in the discovery process.
Photo by Owen Egan