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.

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