I just finished my first semester teaching Linguistics to undergrads. My university (like many others) has no permanent Linguistics faculty, and my name apparently came up as someone semi-qualified who seemed like a good fit to teach Intro to Linguistics this fall in addition to my regular ESL duties. The class will apparently rotate among 3 of the ESL faculty including me from now on.
Some of you may balk at a non-PhD teaching this course, but I think having ESL faculty do it actually has some advantages, mostly in their classroom experience and a degree in pedagogy itself (as opposed to Phatic Communication among Adolescents in Balinese Coffee Farming Communities) which makes up for any shortcomings they (meaning “I”) may have in Linguistics knowledge. I found that generally, I knew enough to talk freely about the topics in our OER (https://essentialsoflinguistics.pressbooks.com/front-matter/introduction/) with a few accommodations towards different jargon, and was never at a total loss when asked a question in class (except on Neurolinguistics, which I can only talk about in very general terms with token “Broca’s area”s thrown in to up my credibility). I did sometimes come up short when asked about specific languages that I don’t speak (how Greek gender corresponds to that of Romance languages, for example) or about which languages in the world have a particular feature that had come up (“which languages have infixes?” – besides Arabic and Tagalog, my only answer is “Google it”). I hope someday to have the gravitas to be able to pass on questions like these with my teacherly authority intact. I suppose “professorial gravitas” must only be part of PhD coursework, since it wasn’t treated at all in my MA.
I was forced to review quite a bit of material that I hadn’t used (either in the classroom or in posts) since my MA, though, and I definitely have a more well-rounded grasp of basic Linguistics now than I did at the start of the semester, especially in areas that aren’t directly of use for ESL like the aforementioned Neurolinguistics, case marking in Old English, Speech Acts, or languages that American undergrads are more likely to know than ESL students are (mainly German and Spanish). I wouldn’t put my knowledge up against a Professor of Linguistics at a university with an actual Linguistics department, but I figure the curse of knowledge might actually make it harder for PhDs to meet undergrads where they’re at, and after all, I have a degree with a pedagogical focus.
The rest of this post is divided into “stuff that worked” and “stuff that didn’t work”. Enjoy.
Stuff that worked
Each week had one module that covered 1 topic – week 5 was Phonology, week 8 was Syntax, etc. – and in each module, there were 3 main recurring assignment types:
- Quizzes (on Canvas, can be taken twice, no Proctorio or anything like that)
- Inquiry Activities (worksheets that combined closed-ended comprehension checks with open-ended applications)
- Discussions (mostly of the open-ended scavenger hunt variety)
I put my grades from this class into my usual spreadsheet for analysis, and it turns out that of these three, Discussions have the highest correlations with final course grades on average, and differences in grades on Discussions produce a statistically significant difference in final grades. I find this interesting since the Discussions are the least direct assessment of knowledge of the three, and also include points for responding to classmates, which are perhaps more indicators of personal involvement in the course than knowledge per se. All three had roughly the same amount of points, so it wasn’t weighting that made Discussions more predictive than other assignments.
As an example of what they tended to be like, here are the directions for our Phonology discussion:
Go to https://accent.gmu.edu/index.php. (Links to an external site.) Click on “browse” from the top menu and choose “English” from the list. You will see a list of samples of native English speakers reading from the same prepared text.
In one post, give one or more links to samples from this site that show allophones used in complimentary distribution. Point out where they are and do your best to describe the rule of their distribution. You don’t need to use the notation for derivations from the OER for this. (6 points)
Leave a thoughtful reply to a classmate for 2 more points.
I found this guy from Pittsburgh using [p] and [ph] in complimentary distribution. https://accent.gmu.edu/browse_language.php?function=detail&speakerid=61 (Links to an external site.)
He starts by saying “Please”, and the /p/ is pronounced [ph]. Later, when he says “six spoons”, the “p” in “spoons” is [p] instead of [ph]. I think the rule is that when “p” is the first sound in a word (or maybe a syllable – there are no words where “p” starts a syllable other than the first syllable in the word), it is [ph], and otherwise, it is [p].
Discussions were held on Canvas (i.e. all text) and on Flipgrid. For the next go-round, I may increase the amount of points given to discussions and reduce the amount given to the solo inquiry assignments.
Just twice during the semester, we had Discussion Circles, once for extra credit and once as a requirement in place of an asynchronous discussion. I consider these a limited success since, although they didn’t correlate strongly with final grades, I got to hear my students actually talking about the course material with each other, which is a window into their approach to and comprehension of it that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. As I often find with this kind of assignment, I also hear from people who are much quieter during lectures or who hadn’t attended a lecture in some time. I think it’s worth doing these a few times per course, even if they don’t have much validity as graded assignments.
The final project, a 1000-word research report with accompanying presentation on a linguistic phenomenon of their choosing, was the last 40% of their final grade not taken up by assignments like the above. This was certainly worth having, as I saw enthusiasm and depth of understanding in the reports that weren’t really part of the regular assignments. Quite a few of the final reports displayed research skills that were impressive for undergraduates and, although no one ended up going through the IRB for the permission to undertake a project like this, insightful ideas for surveys and human subjects research.
Stuff that didn’t work
Phonetics and Phonology
As I mentioned earlier, the topics each had 1 module (=1 week) dedicated to them. This was fine for most topics, but the Phonetics module and the Phonology module could have been stretched – if I were teaching the class next semester, the first change I’d make is to allot at least 3 weeks for these topics combined. As it turns out, people are really not used to thinking of speech sounds in a systematic way, and the week after they’ve learned all this bizarre-sounding metalanguage like “biliabial fricative” and seen all those upside-down and backwards letters with odd diacritics in the Phonetics module, they have another conceptually difficult and almost as jargon-heavy module in Phonology. It would make sense to give them a little more time to digest these two, especially since many of their projects will need some phonetic transcription. Without enough time spent on these two topics, you might trick yourself into thinking students have got a handle on them only to see them writing things like “the is pronounced /the/” a few weeks later.
Nuts and Bolts
In addition to the topics that typically populate an introductory Linguistics course, students need the basic vocabulary to talk about language beyond what Linguists might assume undergrads have just as a result of graduating from high school. For example, in listening to my students’ discussions, I noticed quite a bit of confusion over what exactly constituted a noun – and I don’t mean whether a gerund should be considered a verb acting like a noun or just a noun like any other – I mean “is dog a noun or an adverb?”. This “basic metalanguage” module could be near the beginning of the course, and could anticipate other modules a bit with word classes (AKA parts of speech), syllable structure (i.e. “what is a syllable”), and the difference between a word, an idiom, and a phrase – but they’ll be using basic terms like these all semester, not just in the modules focused on those topics.
The Final Projects are definitely worth doing for their self-directedness, research, and opportunity to show deeper understanding. On the other hand, this understanding tended to be focused narrowly on whatever their report was about – aphasia, the history of a particular accent, sound changes in loanwords, etc., and therefore wasn’t a reliable sign of competence in most of the topics that make up the course. Because so many projects were focused on pronunciation in particular dialects, it might behoove the next instructor (or me, next fall) to give a mini-project that is just about pronunciation sometime during the first half of the course (after Phonetics, Phonology and Sociolinguistics, and perhaps aimed at how particular features aid in characterization in a movie or TV show) and reserve the self-directed research project on a topic other than phonetics or phonology for the second half. That second project could proceed like the ones we did in my class did, with a project proposal and many scaffolded steps before the final report is due, but should probably also include a revised project proposal – many projects really needed more attention at this stage rather than the revision stage. As you might expect, students in their first-ever Linguistics course (and at the time of that the proposal is due, less than 1/3 done with the course) have little idea of what a good research topic in Linguistics is, and many need whittling down from something like “How does language affect culture?” to “What factors predict the adoption of a piece of slang in a sociolect into a standard variety?” Students also need more support in choosing sources, including a chance to submit a revised Research Matrix – quite a few resources that I saw in them, many of which ended up in their final written reports, were more of the listicle than academic variety.
Language and Woman’s Place
I had a few weeks where instead of one module that everyone needed to do, there were two modules of which they had to choose one (the full list of modules is below). One that I will probably strike from future versions of the course is Lakoff’s “Language and Woman’s Place”, a very specialized module in which students just needed to read the classic article (not the book, although they say very similar things) and do the usual quiz, discussion, and inquiry activity on it. It was interesting enough, particularly when students came up with their own examples of words whose male and female versions are quite different in connotation if not denotation (“bartender” and “barmaid” sparked a memorable discussion thread). Unfortunately, I also heard a lot about the article being out of date (not one of my students thought “She’s a professional” implied what Lakoff thought it did), and I don’t think it earned its keep. I had hoped that after the fairly abstract Language Variation, Phonetics, Phonology, and Morphology modules, this one might convince the students that Linguistics was also the study of problems in contemporary culture, and generate a bit more buy-in and immediacy for the Syntax and Semantics modules to come. I think something by Tannen might serve this purpose better next time, and without as much 1970s cultural baggage.
Unevenness in Modules
A list of the modules is below with their correlations with final course grades and mean scores. As you can see, some were much more predictive of final grades than others. Again, each module was worth roughly the same amount in points (even the optional modules), so an especially high correlation with final grades means more than that module’s score predicted better how that a given student would do on every other module and the final project, not just that it was a larger part of the final grade itself.
The following modules were required:
- Semantics: 0.84 (87.1%)
- Language Acquisition: 0.76 (78.0%)
- Syntax: 0.72 (86.4%)
- Sociolinguistics: 0.66 (78.8%)
- Phonology: 0.60 (80.4%)
- History of English: 0.53 (86.4%)
- Language Variation and Change: 0.50 (85.0%)
- Morphology: 0.47 (88.8%)
- Phonetics: 0.30 (92.5%)
And these modules were optional – presented in pairs of which the students needed to choose one:
- Language Policy and Preservation: 0.96 (81.4%)
- Neurolinguistics: 0.92 (72.5%)
- Graphemics: 0.86 (86.6%)
- Corpus Linguistics: 0.76 (88.0%)
- Language and Woman’s Place: 0.64 (89.0%)
- Speech Acts: 0.45 (81.1%)
I’m not exactly sure how to go about doing this, but I’d like to have all of the modules be roughly equally predictive of final grades. I don’t like the feeling of having a few modules that have such little connection in terms of assessed skills to the rest of the course that someone could do very well on one and not on the rest of the course, or vice versa. Incidentally, I wonder if courses like Biology have this problem – if the module on Speciation for some reason predicts final grades much less than the one on Mitochondria, for example.
Classes are 1 hour (remote synchronous, but not counted for points) and the course is 3 units, so almost all of the work that makes of grades takes place outside of class time. It is hard to make the class meetings relevant under these circumstances. I tended to make them supplemental, for review games and discussions or a deeper dive into the material than the OER and other pre-made materials gave, but it turns out that making your class meetings interesting but clearly extraneous isn’t a good way to drive up attendance. Spending time on things not covered in the official course materials or assessed by graded assignments only cements in some Ss’ minds that the class meetings are not necessary.
Because I didn’t give points for attendance, I don’t have an entry in the gradebook to correlate with final grades to see if students who showed up actually did better on average. I have an inkling that they did, but probably for the same reasons that extra credit and tutoring often have positive correlations with final grades (as opposed to what you might expect if students who were behind were using them to catch up) – students who are likely to have good grades are more likely to do every kind of classwork, even extra credit or work that isn’t graded at all. I.e., a positive correlation between attendance and final grades wouldn’t prove that attendance caused high grades – just that students who tended to do well in class tended to be “good” students in general.
Failure by disengagement
As in many other courses, low grades for the course are primarily correlated with numbers of missing assignments, not graded assignments that got low scores. There seemed to be roughly three tiers in the class grade-wise:
- Students who did almost every assignment well and got As
- Students who did almost every assignment but not as well and got Bs or Cs
- Students who missed many assignments and got Ds or Fs
No one who completed >90% of their assignments failed (regardless of whether they did a good job), and no one who did <90% of their assignments passed, making just turning things in the biggest hinge on which passing or failing turned. This bothers me because I want my grades to have construct validity: to measure competence in Linguistics. When a student turns in something that shows no understanding of the material, I can say more or less for sure “this student doesn’t understand Linguistics”. When a student doesn’t turn in an assignment at all, it might be because they don’t have notifications on for Canvas, they lost their phone, they got COVID, or their Internet went out in a winter storm (I reached out to students who were missing a lot of assignments, but part of the frustration of remote teaching is that the technology you use to reach students who are falling behind is often the very technology they’re having difficulty with). In any case, I prefer that students do well or poorly precisely in proportion to their competence in the fields assessed for the course, not for some hidden X factor.
Anyway, a lot to think about for next year, and I’m pleased with what my students and I accomplished together.