As a teacher of linguistics and composition, I aim to develop and teach courses that challenge students’ expectations, help develop their reasoning skills, and give them opportunities to view the world in new ways. These principles are infused in both my curricular design and teaching style, and demonstrate my commitment to creating a professional yet approachable classroom atmosphere.
Challenging Expectations – Linguistics is a topic that “makes strange” a world that students are already familiar with. I show students that like any science, linguistics uncovers hidden phenomena, but that in order to even begin, we must assume that there is something to be uncovered. My role in the classroom is to help students ask questions where they didn’t know questions could be asked, and help them see that such questioning is foundational to critical inquiry. I scaffold students’ inquiry by showing them how the base of what can become their conscious knowledge of linguistics is rooted in their unconscious pre-existing knowledge of language. Everyone who comes into class speaks some language natively, so I guide students to discover that they already have tools to investigate linguistic phenomena. For example, when teaching the voiceless stops of English, I split students into teams and hand out tissues. I challenge them to use the tissues to develop an informal model of the phonotactic constraints of these stops. They struggle at first, but eventually discover how a well-placed tissue reveals aspiration. I find that the tactile and team-based nature of the exercise helps students solidify difficult and hidden concepts like “phoneme” and “allophone”.
Developing Reasoning – Linguistics by its very nature challenges students to look at familiar things in novel ways, but to emphasize this fact, I often present students with tasks designed to push their own boundaries even further. For example, when teaching about sentence structure, I show students how the grammatical positions of subject and object correspond to the thematic roles of agent and theme in ordinary declarative sentences, and how such roles are reversed in passive sentences. A question on their recent midterm, however, asked them to imagine a language exactly like English except that agent appears in object position normally, and theme in subject position. The question then asked them to produce a passive sentence in the imagined language using a designated word bank. Students tell me that questions like this seem nearly impossible to answer at first until they slow down their reasoning process and write out every step, which is the goal of the exercise. The moments where students have real breakthroughs become personal and intellectual milestones for them. In this way, it is not only the linguistics majors who benefit from my class, but the large array of other students as well (many of whom are in literature, TESOL, and other English fields).
Viewing the World in New Ways – Diversity and difference is an integral part to any linguistics class, and I want students to leave at the end of any semester with an appreciation of the sheer amount of variation that languages can show. My semesters begin by taking a live survey of what students’ first and second languages are, and what languages they may be interested in learning or teaching. The results are sometimes overwhelming – it is not uncommon to have students whose first languages range from Navajo to Vietnamese. I then consider those different backgrounds and tailor my lessons and teaching style so as to heed that diversity. By focusing on languages they know or are studying as well as their own interests, students feel included and allowed to offer unique perspectives and knowledge in class. I often ask those students who speak lesser-known languages to provide examples that the class can analyze. Thus, all students are able to contribute to or benefit from the knowledge of their peers.
I see teaching as a balance between capitalizing on what students already know and encouraging them to question that knowledge, whether it be linguistics, composition, or professional writing. Being able to tell others about the disciplines I love is one of the highlights of my life, but being a facilitator to them while they discover the solutions to difficult problems on their own is amazing beyond words.