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Beyond Course-Integrated Instruction: An Example from Linguistics

I just finished teaching this term’s installment of one of my least usual classes. This is a class that takes the idea of course-integrated instruction to an even more integrated level. There are trade-offs, for sure, but it remains one of my favorite sessions to teach.

The General Idea

I show up for one class period of an intro to linguistics course. During the first half of the session, the professor covers an introduction to made-up languages, tells the students about their upcoming assignment (a short presentation on one of several made-up languages), and demonstrates the way a linguist might describe a language in hopes that the students will do something similar in their presentations.

Pretty straight forward stuff. Except that while he’s doing that, I’m also teaching. Here’s how it works. He chose Láadan as his made-up language to describe, so I then show how you might find things like consonant inventories and vocabulary and grammar rules. We start with Wikipedia, and I show them how to use it as a reference work (sifting through for important terms and using it to point them toward authoritative web sites). Meanwhile, the professor swoops in whenever I hit on a particularly linguistically relevant bit of information and uses them as the foundations for mini-lectures on linguistic characteristics.  All in all, I only talk for about 5 or 10 minutes, but, we cover basic search strategies and web evaluation, and we do it in the context of building actual linguistics skills.

For the last half of class, the professor and I launch into a little ad libbed song-and-dance that is ostensibly there to introduce students to one of the kinds of research they’ll have to do for their final paper and a basic gloss on what makes a good research question. But it also serves as a fascinating introduction to the neurological work involved in reading. The professor explains the history of the three writing systems in Japan, and then talks about a paper he found that used an fMRI to determine that Kanji and Kana are processed via different cortical pathways. This, he says, would make a really interesting basis for a research project, but the problem is that the study was published in 2000.

So I show how to use the Web of Science to do a cited reference search, and then how to do a search for (kanji OR kana OR hiragana OR katakana) and then combine that new search with the cited reference search to find the nearly 30 articles which both cite the original paper and have something to do with Japanese writing. All this gives me a chance to talk about how scholars index their own literature (via citations) and about exploding articles. Meanwhile, the professor jumps in whenever I hit on an interesting article. He usually mentions something (some theory, or a part of the brain), that I can Google in the background to find an example or an image, and then I can show how to evaluate the web site or image we find. Again, all in all I talk a for about 10 minutes, but together the professor and I demonstrate how research and evaluation are part of learning to be a linguist rather than a completely separate set of “library skills.”

Drawbacks

Clearly, there are strategies and tools that I can’t cover in this format. Many of the students’ topics end up requiring books, for example, and I never show them the catalog. My main goal is to teach two things: I can help you, and there are some pretty powerful tools out there that can help you, too. The upshot of this is that I spend much of the next few weeks in one-on-one consultation with these 20+ students, which takes a lot of time.

Benefits

The students see me (the single greatest influence on whether they’ll come to work with me in my office later), and the professor claims that the quality of the papers is measurably better now, even though I only teach for a couple of minutes, and even though only half to two-thirds of the students come see me later.

For me the most interesting part of the whole thing, though, is that it’s the only class I teach where I feel fully integrated into the disciplinary work that the students are doing. The skills I teach are part of the lecture, part of the work of learning about linguistic structures and brain activity rather than being separated out into an auxiliary library day.

So while there’s no way this would work if it’s the only kind of class I taught, I still get a kick out of every term when the professor calls me and says, “Ready to go again? Shall we use Láadan as an example this time? Can we still use the Sakurai article?”