Talk About Teaching and Learning
September 18, 2012,
Volume 59, No. 04
Obsession Is Infectious
Undergraduate linguistics majors (and graduate students, of course) are interested before they walk into my classroom; but how do you engage the interest of undergraduates in a large introductory course, many of whom are taking it to satisfy a breadth requirement? And once they’re interested, how do you get the technical material across?
In my experience the most effective way to make an unfamiliar technical subject interesting is to be obsessed with it yourself, and to have a burning desire to get the students to know what you know about it. I’ve found that intelligent and openminded students usually respond to that, even if they initially think it’s peculiar. Without that basic mindset, I doubt that any method will work well. Merely liking the students, or enjoying the process of teaching, won’t be enough. Dumbing the subject down may make it easier, but it will also make it boring. Trying to connect it with something the students already know is helpful when you can do it, though with some aspects of technical subjects it just isn’t feasible. Nothing in this paragraph is new: Maya Angelou described exactly this approach to teaching in chapter 28 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in a description of her favorite teacher’s class.
Communicating enthusiasm is partly a matter of delivery: people become animated when they talk about something they care about, and their enthusiasm is obvious to the listener. But an instructor who really loves the subject will also find new ways to make it more intelligible, and that communicates enthusiasm more subtly. For instance, it’s difficult to feel what’s happening inside your larynx (“voice box”) when you talk, so that students are often unsure whether a particular speech sound is voiced or voiceless. One way to discover what’s happening is to put your fingers firmly in both ears so that you hear yourself talking only through the bones of your head; you will then hear a loud buzz or grunt when you make a voiced sound, but voiceless sounds will be almost inaudible. Students find that both helpful and amusing; but they also realize that their instructor is willing to try any approach that might help—even if it involves standing in front of a class making mouth noises with his fingers in his ears.
Of course a passionate commitment to the material being taught won’t communicate itself to every student; students who automatically find technical material boring, or who consider any subject that can’t be turned into money a waste of time, can’t be reached by mere knowledge and enthusiasm, or even creativity. But they can’t be reached at all, so far as I can see, and it would be a fatal mistake to ruin a course for receptive students in a vain attempt to engage the closed-minded.
However, sparking interest is only half the battle. The hardest part is figuring out how to get what you know into the students’ heads when it has very little connection with what’s already there. What seems to get the best results in historical linguistics (and ought to work in almost any subject) is the following approach.
Start from first principles, but spell them out in great detail; illustrate every point with examples, and remember that anything in your experience might provide a useful example for something. Here is a condensed illustration, more or less replicating an extended lecture in Linguistics 110.
When most people think about language they think about words, but the really basic part of a language is its grammatical structure, which is categorical: either a particular construction is grammatical in a given language or it isn’t. Let’s start from that principle. It follows automatically that changes in language structure (as opposed to mere word-borrowing or changes in the meaning of words) always begin as errors, since a structure that’s not already acceptable isn’t grammatical. A case in point is American English “positive anymore”—as in “I used to think that show was boring, but anymore I kind of like it”—which is now widely used but was completely ungrammatical a century ago and is still ungrammatical for many native speakers (including me). At first it must have been an error, since it wasn’t grammatical in any dialect. But how could anyone make such an error? It can’t have been an adult native speaker, because of a second principle: adult native speakers don’t make grammatical errors that they are chronically unable to correct; that contradicts the definition of “native speaker.” (There’s another even more basic principle behind that: the consensus of adult native speakers determines what’s grammatical and what isn’t; “school grammar” is an artificial add-on which has nothing to do with real, spoken language.) It follows that changes in structure, because they are errors, must begin as the errors of learners—possibly foreigners, but much more likely small children acquiring the language natively. Now we’ve zeroed in on the source of language change! The errors that children make are distinctive and interesting because of how they acquire a language: not by imitation, but by constructing internal grammars of their own, at first very unlike adult grammars; they bring them into conformity with the adult norm gradually. I illustrate those points with multiple examples from my own children’s acquisition of English; that connects our discussion to the real world in an amusing but ultimately serious way. (It also boosts enthusiasm; if you’re a parent, I need say no more.) For instance, my younger daughter went through a period in which she said things like “It doesn’t have red or not green” for “There isn’t any red on it or green either.” So, starting from first principles, we’ve arrived at a surprising conclusion: a process which every parent has observed is actually the most important source of long-term language changes. Therefore we should examine every linguistic change in the historical record and ask what sort of native learner error might have produced it. We can begin immediately by looking for simple and straightforward historical changes which are parallel to native learner errors being observed now. That generates further interest and enthusiasm as we make unexpected connections between the immediate present and, say, the time of Shakespeare.
What’s summarized in the preceding paragraph is at least an hour’s lecture; it’s always popular because of the personal connection to children’s acquisition of language, and by the end of the lecture the students have learned something new and genuinely unforeseen.
Some other specific techniques seem to get good results. Explain how things work in the abstract first, to get the students puzzling over what you mean; then follow up with concrete examples that show what you mean. Always explain things in terms of structure, and try to come up with diagrams that make structures visible. Once you have the structures diagrammed on the blackboard, look at them from every viewpoint you can think of, one after another. (The students will occasionally come up with further, unforeseen viewpoints.)
Those strategies ought to work well in most disciplines. Other fruitful approaches seem at first more specific to linguistics, but the principles are widely applicable. Make as many logical and empirical connections as you can between different languages, language families, and historical stages of languages, both to illustrate your points and to link each point to something in a language that the student is familiar with. Above all, have the students work through sets of problems from a wide variety of languages that illustrate the principles of analysis over and over with different configurations of details; that’s the kind of practice that will drive the principles and methods of analysis in. Maybe not every discipline enjoys the luxury of several thousand very complex natural variations on a common theme (human language) to work with, but exemplifying a point under a wide range of different conditions and mandating ample practice is always useful.
By this point you can see another reason why the instructor has to be crazy about the subject: you have to devise a comprehensive set of pedagogical materials (unless there are exceptional introductory textbooks and workbooks in your subject); you have to work through them all, repeatedly, in front of the class or sections, and you have to enjoy it. If you’re teaching effectively you will do much more work than the students do. But that has further desirable consequences. If we want our students to be interested in what we do, we should avoid presenting it as work imposed by authority (“take out the garbage!”); it’s much more effective to lead by example and invite them to follow. Some will.
Besides, it’s fun—and it keeps being fun so long as teaching is integrally connected to my own learning and research, not just a gimmick to coax students to do the work and earn the grade.
Donald A. Ringe, Jr., is the Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Endowed Term Professor in Linguistics and
a recipient of the 2012 Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching
This essay continues the series by the Center for Teaching & Learning that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts & Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.
See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.