Teaching Notes: April 2008 Archives

Beware Scrambled Notation Syndrome

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I've recently returned to the world of course development and am now working on some more mathematically oriented courses...which is nice because I can contemplate the minor teaching sins I and others commit in teaching "formalisms" (sometimes math, sometimes phonetics).

One I'm noticing is what I will Scrambled Notation Syndrome. Although mathematical formalism is a precise system, let's just say it comes in several dialects. In physics land, the acceleration measurement of "meters per second per second" can be indicated as either m/sec2 or m•s-2...depending on which textbook you're using or which methodology you are working with that day.

In linguistics, you also see variant symbols such as the "y" in yellow being transcribed as /y/ (U.S.) or /j/ (IPA) or even "consonantal i" in historical linguistics (this is i with arc below). There are rational reasons why these variants were selected, and at some point students may encounter them all if they stay in that major. Once you hit "expert" level, it's very easy to switch back and forth (it's almost transparent). Experts know which factor is the most important (the 2 exponent in the case of acceleration) and can ignore some of the rest as noise (or at least interpolate quickly).

The problem for students is that they are still working through the basics (usually with just the first textbook). Considerate instructors try to stick to one notation system, but it's surprisingly easy to slip. It's worse if you happen to be using more than one textbook in the same semester. In an online course, you should be able to circumvent it ahead of time, but I'm noticing that variations are creeping into graphics and video where it's harder to edit the inconsistencies out. Eek.

Speaking for myself I do introduce the common variations for different phonetic symbols. Not only because I know I'm likely to slip up once in the semester, but because it is a fact that students will have to adjust to working with variant symbols sooner or later. Still I have to brace myself for students who ask what that near equivalent is. For them it's still opaque.