I am a linguist and I teach about linguistics, particularly language change and language documentation. My teaching is research centered in that I want my classes, from freshman classes to graduate seminars, to be places where my students learn how to ‘figure stuff out’ – how to step outside their starting assumptions to figure out what language tells us about how our world works, how to find out what they don’t know, even when they think they know it, and how to be constructive critics of their own and others’ work. I want them to be excited about learning and not to see the syllabus as simply a set of hoops to go through to earn a grade. In short, I teach students how to think, not what to think.
If language were spoken in a vacuum, my teaching statement could probably end there, vague though it is. But language is spoken by humans and researched by humans, and humans are complex. Views about language, from the appropriateness of teaching spelling, to when to introduce a second language, to who should be bilingual, to who speaks better than others, pervade our lives. They affect the type of data that linguists can use, and more concretely, they directly affect the lived experience of a large fraction of the population, for better or for worse.
Linguists can, and should, have a lot to say about this. Our commitment to the ‘scientific’ study of language has implications, both for how to study social dynamics, and the ways in which language is used to reinforce or deny power. Our work as academics gives us tools to critically examine social constructs, to separate the content of claims about the world from the language used to deliver those claims, and to see the implications of such arguments.
My practical focus in this lab is on a combination of educational outreach and training, and the commitments that this entails. Quite simply, students need to be able to do the best work they can in my classes and research group, and if they can’t because they are systematically disadvantaged, that’s not just their problem, it’s my problem too.
How does this translate into concrete activities? For me, this means a twin focus on the broader impacts of training current and future researchers, and of making our methods, results, and approaches more available to others.
Within the lab and classroom, it means fostering an atmosphere of excellence and respect, where everyone’s contributions are acknowledged and valued. It means acknowledging the realities of implicit bias and how it can affect both our work and our perceptions of excellence. It means acknowledging and leaving time to explore history in the classroom.
For training, it means working from a broad definition of ‘excellence’ that factors in opportunity and potential as well as results achieved to date. It means recognizing that ‘pipeline’ questions won’t solve themselves without effort.
For activities, it means a genuine commitment to outreach. This includes making sure language materials are accessible to the people who need them, that we preferentially publish in open access journals, that we provide plain English summaries of our work, that the results of our work are integrated into general outlets such as Wikipedia, and that we help people who want to learn about linguistics and don’t have the resources to do so. It means not just an informational role, but an advocacy role for topics where our research is relevant, such as language endangerment.