Here is a small gem from class that I want to remember. This exchange took place during an introductory phonetics class in which I am a graduate TA.
Professor X: Now, if you know the length of a person’s vocal tract, you can easily calculate the frequencies of the formants of the vowels they produce using this formula…
Student: Professor, how do you measure a person’s, um, vocal tract length?
Professor X: Well, first you die, and then we take it out of you.
[Entire class laughs]
Other TA: This is why we love Professor X.
Okay, now reading this in retrospect, it sounds awfully morbid. I promise that it was very funny in the moment, though.
This semester, I am teaching an introductory phonetics course as a graduate TA, which means that I don’t give the lectures, but I do lead three smaller discussion sections, with a total of about fifty students. I really enjoy this part of being a graduate student, and as I tell everyone who asks me what my future plans are, it’s because I believe teaching is one of my talents and something I definitely want to keep at the forefront of my career as a linguist. Which means that one day I would like to be like Professor X… maybe with a slightly different sense of humor, though! I crack jokes all the time during discussion sections, and I really do wonder whether my students think I’m funny or just incredibly awkward.
I’m grateful for the privilege of having the time and resources every week to influence, even in small ways, a group of very smart and talented young people. I know that I’m not just teaching them linguistics, but that other things I say or do in class, even offhand or subconsciously, is being picked up and encoded somewhere in their minds. That’s why I try hard to make my classroom completely accessible, fair, friendly, and tolerant. There are simple things an instructor can do to help all of their students achieve. For example, I can give the class problems to work out in small groups, then walk around and help the individual who is struggling get to the answer, and finally call on that student to explain their findings in front of the whole class, which boosts their confidence.
Unfortunately, there are also simple things an instructor can do that can unintentionally set a student on the course to failure, such as a microaggression or a flippant remark about a mistake they made. I have a tendency to ramble when I give my own lectures, and I do worry that I’ll say something stupid that will have an adverse reaction with a student and cause them to lose their trust in me. It’s tough, but I think it’s important to learn how to maximize the opportunities for student achievement and minimize the risk of alienation. On top of figuring out the actual course material, this is one of the more interesting aspects of teaching. (Plus, it’s one of the aspects of teaching, given the human element and the need for improvisation and mindfulness, that a robot cannot replicate, at least not yet…)
I will, of course, joke about my students from time to time, but don’t get me wrong: I care deeply about all of them. I care about their educational attainment, I care about their mental health, and I care about their physical safety. That’s why the other TA in the class and I decided to allow all students an excused absence last week during the height of the “Free Speech Week” debacle during which anti-fascist protests overtook parts of campus and the predicted presence of a huge contingent of the alt-right, plus a minor bomb scare, understandably made some students fearful of coming to school. We feel that our role as instructors in a public university carries with it a tad more authority than just that of experts in the subject matter. I want to demonstrate that we can be role models, too. And with our authority comes responsibility. It was the responsible thing for us to send a message to our students telling them to be safe, and telling them that they were all valued regardless of their religion, ethnicity, legal status, sexual orientation, or gender.
Every day I understand more and more, usually from firsthand experience, what it takes to be an excellent teacher. As long as I am “in school”, or part of an academic institution, I would very much like to continue learning. In fact, I don’t want to stop learning new things until the day that I die. And then you can take my vocal tract out and measure its length.
Word of the Day: keen — in this case, the noun/verb keen that is derived from the Irish caoine, not the adjective — is a wailing lament for the dead, or the act of mourning. My heart goes out to the families of the victims of the Las Vegas massacre. END GUN VIOLENCE THROUGH STRICTER GUN REGULATION NOW. Call your Congressional representatives and shame them if they do not support legislation that brings the United States one step closer to all those other Western countries that don’t experience massacres like this one on a regular basis. My lament starts with words and ends in action.