California is pushing many entry-level college courses online. I have so much to say about this that I don’t know where to begin.
I teach writing. The parts of the class which always, always engage the students most vividly are group work, critiquing other students’ papers, individual conferences, and class discussions. Taking those away would dry up students’ brains and hearts, and eviscerate the program. A writing class could, perhaps, meet less frequently, maybe only half the time, but to remove personal contact in a writing course would be unthinkable. (How many unthinkable things have I had to accept recently!)
The article referenced above projects removal of many adjunct professors. The very existence of adjunct professors as the backbone of many academic departments (mine included) is in itself a cost-cutting change. Adjuncts work like donkeys. We are poorly paid, and can only have a limited number of classes at each university, so adjuncts shuffle from school to school, teaching 2-3 classes in each place. I would hate to do the research on how much time these scrambling adjuncts have to spend on each student. Between commuting, attending various workshops and faculty meetings, planning courses presented in different academic systems, correcting papers, and attending class, there is not much time left over. Now they are even cutting out the adjuncts.
But my main point here concerns a workshop I attended last year on formulating online courses. A professor of music was the workshop leader. He made the point that formulating an online course is extremely time consuming, and must be thought through carefully, since there is virtually no student feedback on the quality of assignments and the class organization. You cannot see how the assignments are playing out in real life. You just receive disembodied work from students you never get to know.
After reviewing the class he had so laboriously devised , I said, “Excuse me if you find this offensive, but this is all so easy. There is hardly any challenge to this course at all — I already know most of it myself, and I am just an amateur musician.” The professor gave a sheepish smile and conceded that online courses had to be simplified and made more transparently accessible, because the teacher can never know whether the material is being grasped and internalized or not.
If we, as a nation, want to cut the costs of higher education, then we should find other ways to do it, and I would begin with the egregiously high-priced textbooks. I could so very easily give my class with no textbook, but the students are forced to buy one. All they need is a reference book, such as A Writer’s Reference or The Everyday Writer, where they can seek guidance for grammar, vocabulary, and rhetoric.
Online courses are not for the professor and not for the students — neither group prefers or enjoys them. They are to save the taxpayer some money, and it is up to us, the taxpayers, to determine whether we can afford to so drastically lower the standards of our children’s education.
A good teacher, not a bundle of information, is the student’s lodestar. If we think good teachers are too expensive for our children, we should fold our tents and retire from the world stage.
Apple has patented page turning on electronic books. While I understand the profit motive, it seems to me that certain things should be hustled into the public domain and left there for all to use. There is the occasional purpose for commercial activity behond just making a profit.
Having spent over half an hour in a movie theatre watching “coming attractions,” and one capsule of information and instructions after another before the movie began, I wonder how consumers and customers can rise up. Companies still did pretty well before they treated us like lemmings. I don’t want to stop going to the movies, but the insult is enough to keep me from going more often. That obviously is not working.
Dennis Baron has written about the Apple patent on his blog, The Web of Language: http://bit.ly/weblan
Here is a site loaded with cartoons about language, especially English, but some other languages as well. It is appropriately irreverent, and spikes our preconceptions, etc. — you know, the things that cartoons do. It was taken from a posting on linguist list, a resource that no person interested in English should be living without.
My friend Lillian is a Chinese-American chef who has been living in China for the past few years. She has seen more of the country than most native Chinese as she has traveled from restaurant to restaurant, market to market, farm to farm, tea plantation to tea plantation. She is planning to write a book about China’s various farms (which I can’t wait to read.)
Last week she came to lunch on one of her whirlwind visits to New York, and she brought along a 15-year-old Chinese young woman, Yen, who is on her way to Pittsburgh to begin high school. She will live with 15 other young Chinese women, at least during her first year. We batted around this decision — was it best to live with other Chinese students, or should she jump head first into English? Her English was pretty good, but she had only been here for three days and was struggling to understand English spoken at our natural pace.
She picked at her lunch. There was no rice (I have since learned that I should ALWAYS serve rice to Chinese guests), but she soldiered her way through a popover, a roast beef sandwich which Lillian had picked up at a delicatessen, and a salad. I know enough about Chinese visitors to know that American food tastes bland almost to the point of being inedible sometimes, so I offered her some of the fruit salad, which she hadn’t touched yet. It consisted of small pieces of cantaloupe, raspberries, and blueberries.
I offered her a small piece of canteloupe which she regarded in the same way that I would look at the Chinese delicacy, fish eyes. But she ate it. ”It’s sweet,” she said, surprised. Then she tried the raspberry. “It’s — how do I say this — it’s, um, sour,” she said.
If a Chinese person doesn’t know what canteloupe is, you can assume similar distance between our ways and every other aspect of Chinese culture, including our language. You’ll have to go easy on your assumption that your Chinese guest will know how to greet a host and how to thank a host, how to shake hands, how to cross a street (the Chinese are astounded that cars stop for pedestrians, but might misjudge driver behavior and get in some trouble). Most young Chinese have never cleaned their room, washed their clothes, or cooked a meal for themselves. Their parents take care of all that so the children can study hard. My daughter teaches pre-school, and a two-and-a-half-year-old Chinese boy came to the school for the first time the other day who didn’t know how to use a fork or a spoon. His grandmother had always fed him.
Yen has had her first piece of canteloupe and her first raspberry. So far so good. She’ll have countless other sweet and sour experiences here in America. I wish her well. Now I would like to hear about the experiences of at least 15 young Americans who are studying in China.
An article in the Arts section of The New York Times this morning, “How Do You Say ‘Disagreement’ in the Pirahã tongue?” points up the gulf between the soft science of Linguistics and ordinary mortals. Since there is no whiff of this science discernible in high school courses (at least in the U.S.), students do not know its basic principles. As a professor of freshman writing courses at a university, I know that terms used in the article, such as “universal grammar” and “recursion,” would meet with blank stares.
“Universal grammar” refers to the concept, first used by Noam Chomsky, that certain elements of language are genetically programmed. All human languages therefore have certain things in common (among them, “recursion”). While observing language usage, Chomsky had noted certain facts. Young children learn their native language so quickly that there must be something beyond normal learning channels at work. When we learn other languages later in life the pace is much slower. Chomsky noticed that children do not learn by imitation, as they hear all sorts of ungrammatical speech, including baby talk, yet still master grammatical forms. Even people with severe mental challenges can speak grammatically, though they may be unable to master other advanced knowledge. Chomsky became convinced that we, like blue birds who sing in bluebird instinctively, are somehow programmed to learn language.
“Recursion” is the proces of embedding one sentence within another by using clauses and other phrases. In his book, The Unfolding of Language, author Guy Deutscher gives an example of multiple recursions, “The lion running after the fox chasing the rabbit sniffing the dandelion blowing in the wind coming from the east.”
This morning’s article deals with a controversy about whether the Pirahã language spoken in Brazil is a language without recursion. One researcher claims it is, and if so, it would undermine the universality of grammar and therefore undermine the status of Noam Chomsky who, much like Albert Einstein in Physics, stands as the genius in the field.
The linguists are battling in ivory towers. No wonder, as Dr. Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive science at M.I.T., opined,”Chomskians and non-Chomskians are weirdly illogical at times…It’s like they just don’t want to have a cogent argument. They just want to contradict what the other guy is saying.” The article notes the “strangely calcified state of the recursion debate.” Science kept separate from life will calcify, like arguing how many angels can fit on the head of a pin. There is no answer to the “so what?”
If linguistic knowledge were allowed to trickle out of the ivory towers, the linguists might come down to earth, which could benefit them as well. Our students should be learning about linguistics, the same way they learn about quantum physics, Keynesian economics, or the Oedipus Complex, yet they do not. They should know how language is constructed, how meaning is made, and what the role of language is in our daily lives and in our communities. This knowledge will facilitate the acquisition of other languages and, for even mildly assiduous students, improve their ability to express themselves both orally and in writing. It would provide someone for the isolated linguists to talk to, which could make them less weird.
Educators in the U.S. are hesitant to introduce it into our common curriculum for fear that it will rob our students of their creativity and self esteem. What do you think?
In just the last month, this blog has been read by people speaking 33 different languages, in 58 different countries, from Vietnam to Djibouti to Trinidad to Sweden and everywhere in between. Most readers are from the United States, but there is a healthy representation from all continents (except Antarctica – that would be interesting).
It would be very interesting to share some of your experiences integrating linguistics exercises into your classes, and it would be helpful to all of us if some of your shared your experiences.
Posts from readers would be most welcome. Knowledge grows exponentially when it operates on a two-way street.
Wampanoag is the language of the tribe that coexisted with the Pilgrims. Their language disappeared in the 19th century, but has recently been reconstructed by a Wampanoag woman, Annie “Little Doe” Baird, who won a MacArthur “genius” Award for her work. A whole fascinating article can be found here. A film about Baird and the Wampanoag reconstruction, We Still Live Here – Âs Nutayuneân, was shown on PBS in October, 2010. A short PBS news report about the project can be found here, and a DVD can be purchased at this site.
The article concludes:
“Why should you care about Wampanoag, or any extinct language, for that matter? As Noam Chomsky says in the film, “A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.” But most importantly, as [Anne] Makepeace clearly shows in her film, a language can contribute significantly to mankind’s collective knowledge. That’s something for all of us, not just the Wampanoag, to be grateful for.”
Exercise: Discover what language(s) were spoken by native societies in your community. Which ones are still spoken, and which have disappeared. Is the language(s) still studied somewhere, at MIT, for example? Are there relics of it on the Internet or in local libraries?
From time to time, new languages develop in response to local needs. For example, a deaf sign language was developed in Central America by a small community which was isolated from other deaf communities.
A new kind of sign language is developing in the Occupy protests. To read about it, here is the link:
A previous post discussed Stephen Frye’s new tv series, in which he dismissed the language abilities of apes. The excerpt from a longer article below gives more respect to animals’ abilities.
“It was a childhood fascination with astronomy which drove him to where he is today and resulted in him joining SETI, an independent, non-political group of academics whose aim is to search for signs of intelligent life beyond our planet.
And it was his obsession with SETI which lead him to begin studying dolphins, which, he says, are the closest thing we have to aliens on this planet.
He explained why he believes it will be possible to converse with dolphins in his lifetime and how such a breakthrough would help us if aliens ever did dial earth.”
Here is the link:
Here is a link with a series of cartoons about language. Any one of them would go well on a teacher’s door…….