Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Been too long

As you may have noticed there's been a long lag in posts here.  Things started to get busy and it just fell out of my routine.  I'll try to pick things up again.

A lot has changed since my last post.  I, sadly, departed the University of Oklahoma and am now at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania.  I'm definitely keeping myself pretty busy out here.

Some exciting developments: The October 2013 issue of Lingua contains a paper of mine.  Scott Jackson and I have a paper coming out in the next issue of Linguistic Analysis. I'll be headed up to NELS as an attendee, giving a talk at Wheaton college, and then presenting at the LSA in January. I'll also try to be more active here.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A quote too good not to share

The last part of instructions for an assignment (from a friend):

This is the assignment. There's a lot of room to walk around in it. If you think you might be lost, walk back to me and check in. The path will still be there.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Independent undergraduate research

I posted my reaction to Lasnik's article on teaching syntax a few days ago.  This is another teaching related post, but on a slightly different topic.

Linguistics at OU is both massive and tiny.  We are the second largest program in our department in terms of undergraduate majors, but we are the smallest in terms of faculty.  In the fall, it was just Marcia and I (Dylan was on sabbatical).  Now, it is just Dylan and I (with Marcia on sabbatical).  This means that the students get a LOT of contact with us.  I have several students who have taken 4 courses with me this year.  And a majority of my students have taken at least 3 with me. Of course, that means that they get to know each other really well too. That means that we get to know each other pretty well, and we get pretty comfortable with each other.  I think that's great.  It gives the classes a lot of energy.

Our small number also means that students with interest in topics in linguistics not explicitly covered in our courses, only have a handful of folks to turn to.  I have an open door policy and, apparently, a pretty interesting bookshelf.  So students are coming by all the time to chat about something they learned in psychology/Chinese/French/Cherokee/German/whatever or ask to borrow a book (typically, "just for fun").  After encouraging them to find at least *a* hobby outside of linguistics, I try to point them to ways to apply whatever they learned to some course concept or linguistics in general.  I always encourage them to start to pursue the topic independently.

And that's what I'd like to focus on today, building independent research with undergraduates.

I get questions fairly frequently on a broad range of linguistics topics. Sometimes, it is on something I know a lot about. Other times, I don't know much at all. I know I frustrate some students because I don't know EVERYTHING about linguistics. I always try to give some answer. At the very least, I always know enough to know where to look. Recently, this method has evolved to me giving the student an accessible paper that outlines the basics of the topic and scheduling a meeting for them in a week or so.

At this meeting, I try to help them interpret the paper, if they need it.  But I emphasize that they are now the expert on campus on this topic.  We cover a little bit on how to find more papers and how to use the papers we have to follow up on topics.  But I really want them to walk away with the idea that they don't need me to pursue their interests -- I'm there for them for sure -- but, they've got the skills to tackle a lot of these questions themselves.

I'm lucky to get to work with such an engaged and thoughtful group of students. Is there a better feeling than when your students get to teach you?

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Teaching Syntax/Teaching Linguistics

This post is a reaction/response to Lasnik's new article "Teaching introductory graduate syntax".  Mostly, it is a full-throated endorsement of everything Lasnik has to say with some discussion about how the basic ideas Lasnik presents can and should be extended to teaching linguistics more broadly and some of reflections on my own.  I highly recommend Lasnik's article.  It is a very thoughtful piece and I'm sure that there are things to be drawn from it regardless of your particular area. I know that reading this article will improve my teaching.

Lasnik presents emphasizes three major points:  1) Tracing the development and history of the framework-- not just teaching the latest architecture; 2) timely and thoughtful responses to written work, coupled with the opportunity for students to redo assignments; 3) the importance of an interactive classroom.

I will discuss each of these in some detail.  I will reflect back on my own graduate education, how I feel that  these insights apply more broadly, and how these points relate to my own experience teaching an undergraduate Syntax II class at OU.

1)  Tracing the development and history of the framework

To me, this is one of the most essential points that Lasnik makes in this article.  In many ways, the latest innovations in syntactic theory only make sense if you are grounded in what preceded them. More fundamentally, there are a number of early generative and pre-generative discussions and analyses that have direct application to the work being done today.  It simply makes no sense to ignore the work of our intellectual ancestors. I have spoken to advanced graduate students who have been completely unaware of major historical works that bear directly on their analyses-- that shouldn't be.  Training students in the development of the field is not only essential for their understanding of the modern frameworks, but also for allowing them to understand and discuss the particulars of previous analyses in slightly different frameworks.

Thinking back on my graduate education, I was quite blessed to work with Andrew Carnie* for the bulk of my early syntax education.  Andrew believes not only in teaching the history of the field but looking at other related frameworks.  I truly believe this made me a better researcher and scholar.  In my own research, I seek out the relevant pre-generative and early generative work.  In every case, this has improved the scholarship.  While I certainly have my own particular failings, Andrew Carnie's early guidance certainly made me a better scholar.

The course I am presently teaching, Syntax II, is an interesting course for a number of reasons.  It is not a typical offering at OU.  This may well be the only time it is offered for a decade.  It is an undergraduate course, which changes some of the emphasis and dynamics of the course.  Graduate courses are designed to train students to be professionals in the field.  Undergraduate courses are designed to train students in ways of thinking about and analyzing problems from a linguistically informed perspective-- but with a more general goal in mind.  Most undergraduate linguistics majors will not go on to pursue a career in linguistics (given the job market, that is a very good thing). So, the goals are different.

Students enrolled in my Syntax II course, are required to have completed Syntax.  Unlike Lasnik, I have a very good sense of the background that my students came in with.  All of them learned syntax out of Andrew Carnie's textbook-- a book that I essentially have memorized.  However, there still are notable difference in students' retention and understanding of the previous material. Many students completed the course in the Fall; for others, it has been a couple of years. At the end of the day, I was faced with a similar problem.

In the Fall term, while planning this course I asked several students who were interested in the course what particular topics they would be most interested in covering.  There were a number of different approaches I was considering for the class.  We could treat the class as a simple continuation of Syntax, complete the sections of Carnie that were not discussed in the previous versions of the course, and add in more topics.  Or, we could introduce the Minimalist Program.  Or, a mix of the two.  Overwhelmingly, the students wanted to learn MP.  But there was a vocal minority that preferred the advanced topics.

After a lot of consideration, I decided to approach the class in a unique way.  Since I knew the basic background all the students would come in with, I wanted to play off of that a bit.  Rather than just teaching pure MP, I decided to let them make the decision.  The class has become a comparison of Carnie-style X'-based, P&P syntax and Adger-style BPS MP syntax.  We cover advanced topics and we cover MP.  However, the particular analysis adopted is up to the students. At times, the class has struggled with the idea that I am not teaching them the "right" answer-- but, overall they have embraced it.  Most assignments involve problems that must be done in one approach or the other and problems where the students must choose an approach and explain why.  At this point I have a 1/3 of the class that has a clear preference for MP-style analyses, 1/3 that prefer X'-style analyses, and 1/3 that is still trying to decide.  That is the best outcome I could hope for.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that I opened the class with a two-week discussion of the historical development of syntax.  The only way to understand why the GB to MP shift happened is to understand what came before it.  This foundation has greatly helped the students evaluate the claims we discuss in the class.

2) Timely and thoughtful responses to written work, coupled with the opportunity for students to redo assignments

I think the first point is obvious, and I would encourage you to read what Lasnik says about it.  I will not rehash his points exactly.  I have a strict 7-day return policy in all of my courses.  Preferably, I will get work back to my students by the next course period; but with 3 courses that is not always possible.  But all written work is returned within a week.

I really liked Lasnik's discussion of redoes. This is something that I will be adopting in all of my future advanced-level courses.  I've had a forced redo policy for some time.  If an assignment shows a very poor understanding, I will have the student redo it after discussion and grade the final version.  Students are typically capped at a B under this policy.  However, I much prefer Lasnik's system.

Lasnik allows all students to redo their assignments.  The redone assignment's grade replaces the original.  The critical thing that Lasnik does is that he requires students to write-up a discussion of the changes that they made.  They must explain why they made the changes and what they know or understand now that they didn't when they first completed the assignment.  This is brilliant.

The most important aspect of any class is that students understand the material.  Whether or not they get it on the very first pass, shouldn't be relevant.  It also prepares them (in a subtle way) for dealing with comments and revisions which is something that drives an academic career.  Yes, it produces more work for the instructor, but the results would definitely be worth it.

I would also hope that it would allow students to take more risks in suggesting new ideas and to reflect and revisit problems-- both extremely positive things.

3) The importance of an interactive classroom

Much like the homework discussion, I don't have much to add other than Lasnik got it exactly right.  The classroom needs to be place where students feel comfortable asking for clarification, presenting troubling data and challenging the analyses being presented.  Many of my best classes (across multiple subjects) have been the ones that start with an early question from a student and build from there.  Every question need not be answered on the spot, but it is critical that students feel involved in their own learning.

Embrace the unexpected.  Pursue whatever analysis your students come up with.  It makes the class more fun, for you and for the students, and it really helps sharpen the tools of analysis and hypothesis building.   It can lead to really great discussions-- and honestly, help develop your own research.

I really love building our discussions collaboratively in class. It does make classes harder to prep.  But so much more fun in real life.  Sometimes, the students will astound you.

An anecdote 

A few weeks ago, I presented my students with some very tricky verb particle data.  I expected to spend most of the hour pursuing dead-ends.  After discussing the basics of the problem, I asked the students if they had any initial hypotheses about how to deal with the data.

A student raised her hand.  I had already preplanned the 5 or so potential answers I was expecting to get and some basic talking points to build from each.  I call on her.

Student: "Maybe... {the solution I as hoping to get us to today}"

Once I got done picking my jaw up off the floor, I said, "Yes.  Exactly. That's great.  Now, how did we get there?"

And the class then proceeded more or less as planned.  We still discussed all the analyses that wouldn't work.  We went through all the arguments and built the analysis as planned.  But, I also got to praise a student for some truly outstanding insights.

Lasnik's article has a lot more discussion of all of these points.  I highly recommend it to everyone.  It really isn't about teaching syntax-- or even teaching linguistics-- it is about teaching.

I'm really looking forward to the rest of this e-series from Language. I'd also love to hear your thoughts in the comments.


Lasnik, Howard. 2013. Teaching introductory graduate syntax. Language 89.1: e11-e17 (online)

* I do not mean to suggest that the other Arizona faculty do not take such an approach.  I just happened to take my foundational courses from Andrew.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

busy time of year

I've been much too quiet here lately.  I have a couple of new posts that are in the works, but I'm not satisfied enough with them for public consumption yet.  One in discussion of Lasnik's new article about teaching syntax and the other will have to be a mystery for now.

Though, I haven't been active here, I've had a very productive March.  Scott Jackson and I completed and submitted a paper on compounding and I completed are resubmitted revisions on a paper on the syntactic derivation of morphological regularity.  I'll have more on those as well as they weave their way through peer-review.

Hopefully, I can snag some time and get those backlogged posts up soon.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Sooner Ally Training

I want to briefly talk about the Sooner Ally training I completed earlier this week.  Note:  this post was original supposed to come up a few days ago.  But several computer issues caused delays.

For those of you who are not at OU (or at OU and not aware), the Faculty Ally program is a training program jointly run by the Women's Outreach Center and the Learning and Teaching Program.  It's primary goal is to train staff and faculty (broadly defined) to help foster an open and inclusive academic environment. It is particularly focused on issues related to the LGBT community, but these concepts can obviously be applied more broadly.  Here's a link:

The training consisted of two sessions, each 1.5 hours.  The first day focused largely on a discussion of issues that the LGBT community faces in a broader context, as well as some discussion of potential resources. The second session was more practically focused on actual scenarios we might face in the academic world related to these issues.

At the end of the program, faculty can choose to sign up to be Allies.  Allies' names are listed on the website (though, faculty could opt out of that...) and we also got door signs, d2l widgets, t-shirts and other goodies.  At the end of the day, simply having these signs on the doors probably is the part of the program that has the greatest impact.  The training is otherwise not in depth enough.  Frankly, it probably couldn't be more involved... they are already asking for 3 hours of academics' time-- starting at 8 am no less.  More follow up sessions will occur and I plan to take part in those as well.  I did find the scenario training quite instructive, and that will form most of what I say at the end.

I learned a couple of different things from the program-- some of which were not the intended message.  For one, I learned that even folks who self-identify as allies can have views about the LGBT community that I find borderline offensive.  I still haven't resolved a couple of comments-- but this is not the forum.

Then again, I am also imperfect.  One of the things mentioned was that some Faculty Allies have expressed concern about putting up the ally sign on their door (see below)-- they didn't want people mis-identifying them as gay.  I'll admit, that was a fleeting thought that I had.  (For the record, the sign is on my door.) But there are definitely some underlying issues there-- again, this isn't the place.

                                                                    The Door Sign

This potentially leads to the question of what I think my role is.  Frankly, I don't think anything changes other than the visibility that I give to my views on the issue. I like to think that I have a very open relationship with my students.  I am an advocate for them in many different venues.  I hope that a student would feel comfortable enough without the official label, but if having it likely makes it more obvious.

The 2nd session focused on scenario training.  This session was excellent.  The facilitators were very clear that no single, simple answer existed for any scenario.  Context matters.  Circumstances matter.

To start the session we were split into smaller groups and given scenarios.  My group was given a scenario where a heated in-class discussion lead to a student shouting a vitriolic gay-slur (I won't type it here).  Our response was basically this:

1)  By allowing the discussion to get that heated, the instructor was setting the stage for the outburst.  Early control and tone-setting should help avoid these problems.

2)  Three out of the four members of the group agreed that the proper course of action to someone using directed hate speech was to immediately remove that person from the classroom (and possibly end class).  Personally, I would not allow the student to return to class without considerable consideration.  I would also report the incident to the Dean of Students/Student Affairs and my department head (along with anyone else who would be appropriate).  Only if I was satisfied that the offending student was truly repentant and that the victim (yes, that word is appropriate here) was willing to share a classroom with the student would I allow the student back.  That seems pretty unlikely.

One of the things that came up in the wider discussion was the lack of awareness that many of the instructors had about the level of control they had over their classrooms.  Removing disruptive students falls well within the purview of a teacher-- I hope that should it ever come up, we are willing to take that necessary step.

Our group was also challenged with a less egregious case. Rather than directed hate speech, a student uses the term gay as a pejorative, but not one directed at an individual or group (i.e., X is so gay). We were all a little stuck here.  I've reflected on it more since the training.  I would definitely say something in class-- I knew that even then, but I wasn't sure what I would say.

To me, I would treat it as an education problem, not a tolerance problem. I would simply describe the history of the term, its use a pejorative and matter-of-factly explain why it cannot be used in my class (and shouldn't be used elsewhere).  If the student continued to use it-- then my tactics would have to change.

Many of the scenarios posed many other unique challenges.  I won't go into them here.

Overall, while focused on the issues related to the LGBT community, most everything had much broader applications.  It was great teacher/academic citizen training. I do believe that more LGBT issues could have been discussed more directly and in more depth, but with the limited time we had, it was a great program. I definitely recommend it to all of my OU colleagues.

If anyone would like to share some challenges they've faced in their classrooms and the actions they took, I would love to hear/discuss.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Is Cartography anti-minimalist?

In my Syntax II course yesterday, I discussed the motivations for the move to Minimalism.  Namely, why would we want to abandon an effective framework like GB for a model with initially less empirical coverage. The obvious answer is that why GB is great for explaining the data, we have a greater challenge connecting it to the biological realities associated with linguistics.  This got me thinking about Minimalism 400-lb gorilla-- Cartography.

As some of you well know, I have serious reservations about the Cartographic program.

My problems with Cartography are as such:

  • In a minimalist approach we must assume that the language specific mental faculties (and by extension the genetic endowment) must be, well, minimal.

  • Cartography needs to assume a richly specified and language specific mental faculty (at least in my opinion).

However, the results of a lot of Cartographic work have been highly effective. More troubling, I'm not certain what the possible alternatives could be. (See the excellent volume edited by van Craenenbroeck Alternatives to Cartography which ends with the foreboding paper by Williams "There is no alternative to Cartography".

Though that title is somewhat misleading, and Williams paper does allow room for alternatives, I worry that that title might yet be right.

In my dissertation, I sketched a difference between what I termed "strong Cartography" and "weak Cartography".  However, I've never been particularly statisfied with that idea.  Namely, if we allow a "weak" version, then there would not seem to be much of a logical reason of excluding a strong version.

Even analyses that argue against aspects of the Cartographic project need to at least partial Cartography.  This is certainly true for me.  And also illustrated by the Ritter and Wiltschko (2009, from the aforementioned van Craenenbroeck volume) "...we assume that UG provides a template of fixed functional positions".

So how do we proceed?

My hope that is at least in part Cartographic facts can be explained outside of the narrow syntax.  Let's take the C over v over V case.  I think this is one of the clearest cases of an empirically robust Cartographic fact. My speculation (and hope) that this organization could be tied to a more general system not specific to language (i.e., our conceptual organization).  I am certainly not alone here. If this were anything but a blog post, I'd include a more compelling literature review.

I know some of you work specifically withing Cartographic perspectives.  What are your thoughts on this?

Monday, January 28, 2013

Sorry folks

I know I've been slacking a bit on writing here.  Things have been a little busy lately and are only getting busier.  Luckily, it is all the good kinds of busy.

I've got a couple big projects in the works that I am very excited about.  I'm putting the finishing touches on revisions on my regularity paper.  I think that should be ready for resubmission within the next couple of weeks.  Mike Putnam and I and cranking out some stuff on argument-sharing in verb particles (among other issues).  And Scott Jackson are working on a phase-based analysis of category-sensitive phrasal tone marking.

This semester at OU has started off really well.  I'm digging my classes so far and I think my students are too. It is amazing how much easier it is to prep and teach once you have a real sense of the place.