Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Planning a Linguistics Syllabus

Hi there! My name is Elizabeth, and I'm your new resident, veteran teacher of introductory linguistics. Though I'm not currently teaching linguistics, I will try to share all the good ideas that I culled over my three years of teaching, as well as all the good ideas I continue to have that I wish I had come up with during those three years! If you have any questions, please feel free to ask me in the comments section. In the meantime, I'll start with a post about how to plan a linguistics syllabus.

Teaching undergraduate linguistics often means that you have to come up with a syllabus, and sometimes select course materials, on your own. If you're used to teaching other courses where a supervisor does most of this work for you, this can be a big challenge the first time you do it. Here are some steps to follow if you are putting together your first syllabus for a linguistics course:

1. Define your end goals and work backwards.

The most important thing for your students is that they walk out of your class at the end of the semester with a well-rounded exposure to anything that they might be expected to know in any future class that requires yours as a prerequisite, and to anything that might be helpful to them in their particular field of study. You can't know what will be most useful for every student, but you can get a sense of who will be taking your class. Ask around the department: Is this class required for majors in a specific subject? (If so, how can you tailor the course to their needs?) What classes require your course as a prerequisite? (If there are any, try to find out what material gets covered in those courses, including what theoretical frameworks professors generally work in). Finally, what do other professors who teach linguistics expect introductory students to know?

Answering these questions will help you get a sense of what you absolutely have to cover, and whether certain topics are appealing to you or not, if the students need to know them, you need to spend time on them. It's an easy temptation to focus the bulk of your course on topics that you understand better or like more, but what's easiest or most fun for you is not necessarily going to be the best for your students. If you are primarily teaching education majors, first language acquisition should not be crowded out by too much focus on theoretical topics; likewise, if you are primarily teaching foreign language majors, you need to make sure second language acquisition gets covered. And regardless of who your audience is, you need to hit the "core" theoretical topics: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, historical linguistics, and sociolinguistics.

2. Once you know your goals, begin reviewing textbooks.
If you have the option of selecting your own textbook, it will be easier to make a decision if you have an idea of what you want to cover before you start reviewing your choices. That way, you may be able to rule out texts that are substantially lacking in areas you feel a strong need to cover. Even if you are required to teach from a certain textbook, however, it is still a good idea to refer to others to look for additional information for your lectures or ideas for class activities and homework.

In selecting a textbook, ask yourself the following questions:
--Does this text cover all the topics I want to cover in my course? If not, how will I make up for the discrepancy when I teach on the missing topic(s)?
--How complex is the text? Is the level of complexity appropriate to the background level of the students I expect to be teaching?
--What theoretical assumptions are made in the text? Does it focus on the earliest theoretical advances (Sound Pattern of English, S-trees), or does it incorporate more up-to-date theories (Optimality, X-bar theory)? Are the theories covered appropriate given what I expect my students to do in future courses required for their major?
--What languages are covered in the text? Does it primarily focus on English or European languages? Are sign languages covered, and if so, are they treated in their own chapter or discussed within the context of other chapters? Are the choices made by the authors with regards to representing different languages appropriate for what I want my students to learn?
--How broad a range of homework and testing options are provided in the text? Are there a sufficient number of problems of the type I hope to assign? Do the problems range in complexity, or are they mostly similar in difficulty? Does the text provide example problems to show students how to formulate an answer? Are answer keys or a teacher's edition of the book provided? If not, do I feel confident that I can answer the questions myself and explain the answer to students? Is there a test bank with the text, or are there enough homework questions within the text that I have a wide range to select from in creating my own tests without having to repeat problems I have assigned as homework?
--Are there a large number of misprints or misconceptions printed in the text?

Some commonly assigned texts that you might consider are:
Bergmann, A., Hall, K. C., & Ross, S. M. (Eds.). (2007). Language Files: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics (10th ed.). Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.
Curzan, A., & Adams, M. P. (2008). How English Works: A Linguistic Introduction (2nd ed.). New York: Pearson Longman.
Denham, K., & Lobeck, A. (2010). Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction. Boston: Wadsworth.
Fromkin, V., Rodman, R., & Hyams, N. (2010). An Introduction to Language (9th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth.
O'Grady, W., Archibald, J., Aronoff, M., & Rees-Miller, J. (2010). Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction (6th ed.). Boston: Bedford St. Martin's.
Yule, G. (2010). The Study of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

You may also consider combining chapters from various texts to make a course packet if one single text does not fit your needs exactly.

3. Once you have a textbook, consult the academic calendar and plan your schedule.

Once you have selected a book, you can refine what you expect to teach, and it will be easier to decide how many days you are going to devote to each subject, and what order you want to cover subjects in. Your first step should be to make up a blank calendar that shows all the days your course will meet; block out the holidays right away so that you can work around them. Now you have to do several things: figure out how many lectures you want to give on each subject and in what order; figure out how many assignments you are going to give and when they will be due; and figure out how many tests you are going to give and when they will be.

Make a list of the subjects you absolutely have to teach first, and then a list of the ones you would like to cover if you have time. Count how many subjects are on your list and then look at the number of days available on your calendar. Subtract about five days for exams and review and divide by the number of subjects on your list; how many days can you spend on each subject? Is that reasonable? Are there any subjects you need to remove from your list due to time constraints? Then, go through your list and try to decide if any of those subjects may need an extra day due to their difficulty or if any of those subjects can be taught in less time. (Phonetics, phonology, syntax, and historical linguistics usually require more in-class explanation than other subjects for students to understand; plan accordingly). Revise your list of subjects until you are able to fit everything you need to cover, and as much as possible of what you want to cover, in your allotted time.

Next, you can think about how you would ideally assess these subjects. How many homework assignments or projects would you give? How many tests? How far in advance would you need to teach something before you would have an assignment due or a test on it? Will you have homework due before or after you've taught on it? How would you group subjects together if you are going to cover more than one subject on the same test?

Once you know these things, you can begin to decide what order you will teach subjects in and plug them into your calendar. You may have to adjust the number of days assigned to a subject or the order of subjects as you go to account for things like not wanting to assign something over a holiday or give a test right after one. You don't have to teach subjects in the same order that the textbook presents them, and you should figure out what makes most sense to you. There seem to be three common strategies for progressing through a course: starting with smallest units (phonetics, phonology) and building up to largest ones (syntax) before covering non-theoretical topics; starting with largest units and moving towards smaller ones (the former tactic in reverse); and starting with usage (sociolinguistics, pragmatics) and then moving into theoretical topics. Decide what makes most sense for you based on your goals for your students and the background knowledge you expect them to have. In the end, you will come out with a much more effective teaching plan if you let your overall goals for your students drive what you teach rather than letting the textbook or the calendar dictate how you make your planning decisions.

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