Thursday, March 15, 2018

Teaching Statement (December 2017) (abridged)

Here is an abridged version of my teaching statement. The only section that has been modified is the advising section, where I removed the names and work of particular students.

Teaching Statement
Chris Collins
December 2017

1.         Thinking Syntactically
            My goal in teaching syntax is to get students to think scientifically about the syntactic facts of their languages. In introductory courses, this involves a huge shift in perspective. Everybody speaks a language fluently, and people are continually faced with samples of language in their daily lives (almost at every moment). But in spite of fluency and constant contact, people know little or nothing about how their language works. So the first challenge in teaching is just to get students to take a step back and look at their language objectively, and to realize that it is an interesting domain of study.
            In introductory syntax courses, a large part of thinking syntactically is to get students to think about ungrammatical sentences, and to realize that they are just as important as grammatical sentences. This involves teaching practical skills such as how to recognize various levels of acceptability (e.g., ?, ??, *, etc.), how to recognize the difference between descriptive and prescriptive rules, how to distinguish syntactic unacceptability from other kinds of unacceptability (e.g., register clashes, various kinds of semantic anomaly), how to set up contexts to be able to evaluate the syntactic acceptability of a sentence (e.g., a particular word order may only be natural in a particular context of use), and how to appreciate differences between dialects. One way I teach students about acceptability judgments is to do mini-surveys in class. I write down: *, ?, OK, and then have students raise their hands depending on their judgments. They see right away that there is variation in judgments, but also overall trends. We then talk about why their judgments might differ (e.g., different idiolects, different interpretations of the task, etc.). One lesson I teach is that nobody’s judgments should be ignored. Variations in judgments may be significant theoretically.
            Syntax is both a skill and a body of knowledge. There are certain skills that students only learn in trying to work through syntactic data. Some basic skills that I try to teach are: construction of minimal pairs, construction of paradigms, arguments based on syntactic distribution, detecting syntactic ambiguities, drawing trees and drawing conclusions from ungrammaticality judgments. For example, from long experience I know that after lecturing about embedded clauses more than half of the students in any given introductory class will fail to draw the tree diagram for the following sentence accurately:

(1)       That John left bothers me.

            In other words, the student will know how to draw a complement clause such as [that John left]. The student will also know how to draw the tree for [that bothers me]. But more than half of the students will fail to put those two skills together to draw the tree for (1). The most common mistake is that the student will create a uniformly right branching tree that places [bothers me] inside the clause [that John left]. The students really need to draw the tree, and see how it works on their own. Then once they do that, we can discuss the common errors, and how to avoid them. More often than not, such an exercise will give rise to other interesting questions from the students (e.g., why can’t that be omitted in (1)).
            In addition to these skills, I teach students (both undergraduate and graduate) the fundamental content areas of syntax. These include the following (amongst others): diagnosing syntactic categories (e.g., nouns versus verbs), constituent structure tests (movement test, anaphora test, ellipsis test, coordination test), arguments vs. adjuncts, properties of anaphora (pronouns, reflexives, r-expressions), movement (passive, wh-questions, relative clauses), locality of movement and islands (CPNC, wh-island, CSC, CED, LBC, etc.), tests for control versus raising (idiom chunks, expletives, etc.), raising to subject versus raising to object, functional projections (DP, TP, CP, etc.). After taking my introduction to syntax, students should know these fundamentals backwards and forwards. I am often surprised at how advanced graduate students and professors make errors in these fundamental areas. I can think of a number of occasions where a syntactician has come to NYU to give a talk, and they have made a claim that there is a control relation without having checked basic facts about the distribution of idiom chunks and expletives.
            All my syntax courses are taught in the minimalist framework. For the introductory undergraduate course, I introduce constituent structure in terms of Merge. I find students catch on to Merge quickly. I call it the Lego block theory of syntactic structure, and I have actual Lego blocks to illustrate the analogy. The individual words snap together, based on their particular shapes. I avoid introducing them to constituent structure via phrase structure rules (e.g., VP à V NP), since if they learn phrase structure rules first (before Merge), they get attached to them cognitively, and always doubt any alternative introduced later. I do however return to phrase structure rules later in the semester and make a historical comparison. From my teaching at NYU and the African Linguistics School, I have developed a reasonably complete set of introductory lectures notes on syntax in the minimalist framework. When I am teaching in the minimalist framework, I always have Collins and Stabler (2016) (“A Formalization of Minimalist Syntax”) in the back of my mind, since it gives precise formal answers to most elementary questions about Merge.
            Ultimately, I want to get the students to think syntactically. They should learn how to identify interesting syntactic combinations on their own by stepping back and looking at their language objectively. When they come across an interesting sentence (a “cool fact”), they should be able to break it down into words and phrases, and have some ideas about how these elements relate to one another. They should be able to formulate hypotheses about the structure of the sentence, and to test them by generating related sentences, recombining words and phrases in interesting ways. They should gain an appreciation for the vastness and endless fascination of natural language syntax.

2.         Field Methods
My philosophy of teaching is reflected well in the course Field Methods which I created at NYU when I arrived in 2005. Field Methods is a hands-on approach to learning linguistics. Every year, a different language is chosen to investigate. Usually we try to locate a language that has not been studied very much if at all. Students interview a native speaker of an unfamiliar language to study all aspects of the language's grammar: phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics. They learn to evaluate and organize real, non-idealized linguistic data and to formulate generalizations which then serve as the basis for a research paper. The class is run by the students on a rotating basis (the student doing elicitation, the transcriber, the recorder). Before an elicitation session, a student submits an elicitation plan and gets feedback. After eliciting, the student submits a report on the data that they obtained and gets more feedback. All work, including small group work, is posted online on a site available to the students in the class. There are no lectures, no textbooks, no quizzes and no final exam. I have tried to introduce Field Methods like activities into my other courses, including Grammatical Analysis, Introduction to African Languages as well as my graduate courses. I have also taught Field Methods courses to undergraduates in Ghana and Botswana.
For example, during Fall 2017, the language of study for Field Methods at NYU was Khoekhoegowab, a Khoisan language of Namibia. In spite of the complex click system, and the complex system of tones and tonal sandhi, the students were all transcribing full sentences with ease by the end of the semester. Their paper topics included work on case marking, verum focus, double object constructions, clitics, nasality, tone, tone sandhi and aspiration.

3.         Classroom Participation
I try to get students actively participating in class as much as possible. When students are asleep, or absorbed in their electronic devices or just paying attention passively, they do not learn very much.
I punctuate my lectures with class exercises. For example, after presenting some constituent structure tests, I will ask the students to apply the movement test to blue ocean in the sentence We see the blue ocean. I have a student come to the board and show their work (presenting the sentence they generated and explaining it). This always leads to discussion about the various tests and what they show. As another example, after defining recursion, I will ask the class to think of various kinds of recursion (NP recursion, AdjP recursion, etc.). This leads to tree diagrams and more questions, and general discussion about recursion. When I do this kind of activity I try to put everybody at ease by telling them it is not a sin to make errors, since we learn by making errors, and understanding how to fix them.
I rarely draw trees on the board during a class. Instead, if at all possible, I prefer the students to draw the trees. This helps them sharpen this essential skill, and always leads to questions. I try to make sure that every student in the class gets to the board a few times during the semester.
I encourage students to ask questions. I take every question seriously. I tell them if they do not understand something, then chances are that half of the class does not understand it. Sometimes, a student will ask a question that I intend to address in a future class. If so, I will tell them that I will return to the issue, and let them know when I will do it (and then, I make sure to return to the issue). I ask the students questions too. I learn their names in the first week of class, and I go around the room asking questions. I try to calibrate the question so that the student I ask can either answer it or give me some good information. In other words, the purpose is not to embarrass the student, but rather to get them to think about the material.
I come at the task of teaching introductory syntax with the expectation that I will learn from the students. To explain introductory material, one must know it very well, but also be ready to learn even more. In an introductory syntax class, I am teaching the foundations of my subfield. If those are rotten, then the subfield will collapse. So I make an effort to understand these foundations as deeply as possible myself. When a student asks me a question, and I do not know the answer, I try to be honest (with the students and with myself) and tell them that I don’t know the answer, but I will try figure it out by the next class period.
One strategy to increase classroom participation is for students to evaluate each other’s work. This works better in smaller undergraduate courses (e.g., less than 15 students), and in graduate courses. For example, suppose the assignment is to write a paper proposal (or the first draft of a paper). I often allocate a class period to the discussion of the proposals. After receiving the proposals, I distribute them to the students and require that each student comment on the proposal of another student (and I encourage them to read all the proposals). Students respond enthusiastically to this activity and benefit greatly from it. They help each other to find new references, to strengthen argumentation, to find examples and to write more clearly. They also learn about each other’s work, and learn indirectly what standard of work they should be aiming for.
In smaller undergraduate courses and graduate courses, I often give assignments asking the students to investigate some topic (e.g., DP structure) internal to some language other than English (including their own languages). Then when the assignments are due, I have the students show their work on the board. Not only does this activity give us an opportunity to discuss the relevant theoretical principles, but it usually leads to intense discussions of comparative syntax.
An activity that I sometimes do is to create strips of paper each with a different sentence written on it (some more challenging than others). Then I have the students each choose one strip. I give the class a few minutes, and then they diagram their sentences on the board. Usually, I do this exercise to summarize a topic that we have just covered.

4.         Advising [abridged]
            One of my favorite ways of teaching is through advising. I love to meet with students to discuss their work as they are writing qualifying papers, undergraduate honors theses or dissertations. In these sessions, we are doing real linguistics and trying to solve problems that do not necessarily have simple and clean answers.      
I am hoping to involve more graduates and undergraduates in Khoisan language research in the coming decade. I have recently (September 15, 2017) submitted a grant to the NSF to train undergraduates and graduates to do fieldwork on the Khoisan languages of Botswana: “This project aims to bring advanced undergraduates and beginning graduate students to Botswana to do linguistic work on the eastern Khoisan languages, in particular Cua (ISO code: tyu) and Tshila (no ISO code), both undescribed and endangered. The grant will last for three years, starting in the summer of 2018. During each summer starting in year 2, four students will be brought to Botswana to do fieldwork as a team. The purpose of the grant is to give these beginning linguists training for fieldwork on the Khoisan languages.”

5.         Teaching in Africa
I have a strong interest in higher education in Africa. I was the creator and co-organizer of the African Linguistics School (ALS) held in Accra, Ghana (2009), Porto Novo, Benin (2011) and Ibadan, Nigeria (2013). I also taught at ALS4 held in Yamoussoukro, Cote-d’Ivoire (2016). The ALS is a two-week institute which brings the latest work in core areas of linguistics to students from African universities. The areas of focus are syntax, semantics, phonology, sociolinguistics and fieldwork. 70 students from universities all over Africa are chosen each time from a competitive pool of over 400 applications. We have been very successful in helping graduate students to find research topics, to complete their dissertations and to gain admissions into European and North American competitive graduate schools. Organizing and teaching at the ALS has been the most rewarding of all my teaching experiences.
I have also taught linguistics in Africa at Legon University, Ghana (Fall 2008, Spring 2011) through the NYU-in-Ghana program, and at the University of Botswana, Botswana (2011-2012) as a Fulbright scholar. I would look forward to future opportunities to teach in Africa.

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