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?

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