Teaching Notes: September 2008 Archives

Learning and Surprise

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A Harrisburg colleague, Carol McQuiggan pointed out an interesting article on teaching from the New York Times "Geek Lessons" (Sep 21, 2008). One of the interesting points is that the author, Mark Edmundson argues that the role of the instructor is to introduce some surprise into the student's life.

An astronomer has to explain that the Earth is actually the furthest from the sun during summer in North America. A classics professor may explain that the classic Greek drama Oedipus Rex was partly a political response against contemporary Athenian-Spartan politics. And linguists get to explain that people "who ain't speaking right" aren't stupid, just speaking a different dialect.

Edmundson argues that the role of surprise isn't just to "open student eyes" but rather to keep them open and combat that assumption that "you're on top of things and in charge." In other words, Edmunson asks can you question what underlies conventional wisdom - even when conventional wisdom is converging on James Dean. Trickier than this looks.

This reminds me of another secret principle of mine which is that a research method isn't really valid unless the data can surprise you. I've been exposed to lots of valid methods (statistical, ethnographic, traditional lab techniques), but they all share one thing in common - the ability to pull up data you weren't expecting. The examples I cited above are based on research, some of which pulled up counterintuitive data.

I think that is one of the great rewards of learning - finding out new information you weren't expecting, then re-evaluating what you think you learn. Sometimes I do a mini-research project and find an answer I don't like (i.e. one that contradicts my initial assumption.). But it's acknowledging that sometimes what you don't like is probably true that hopefully makes me a better learner/researcher. I may even learn more about how the world really works - if I can "handle the truth."

Remebering Your Assumptions

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One of the most challenging questions I ever got in a class wasn't an advanced question, but rather a very elementary one on sentence structure. Almost all linguists assume that in a sentence The queen saw the corgi that you separate the subject from the rest of the sentence (the predicate) instead of grouping the subject and the verb together (see below).

Right: [S [NP The Queen] || [VP fed [NP the corgi]].
Wrong: [S [VP[NP The Queen] fed] || [NP the corgi].

Why is this? On the surface, it appears to be an arbitrary division, but there is a reason behind this. After a good 30 second pause, I remembered what it was which is that linguists assume that sentences constituents are meaningful units by themselves (yes we do work with fragments). Thus you can have a exchange like "What did the Queen do?" "Feed the corgi", but an answer "The queen fed" is not as natural. Hence the assumption that verbs and direct objects form a unit apart from the sentence.

The above is interesting, but the point isn't really about linguistics but whether an instructor can remember why their discipline makes the assumptions that it does. To me it makes the difference between teaching your course as a coherent set of related concepts versus a random list of rules and facts. I was both relieved and thrilled that I could answer her question - another student convinced that we knew what we were talking about.

Every now and again a student asks why I torture them with analyzing a set of random words with ridiculous sounds from languages they've never heard of. When I remind them that sometimes this is all data on a language that an archaeologist or anthropologist may ever get, they realize that the homework isn't just a torture device but a way to join a community of active researchers.