Sali A. Tagliamonte

University of Toronto

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Overview Teaching Philosophy

Statement of teaching philosophy

My objectives as a teacher

My major objectives as a teacher are to impart knowledge and develop quality training in my area of specialization — sociolinguistics, the interface between language and society. However, my teaching philosophy extends well beyond this. I strive to inspire students to learn more about language that they hear/observe all around them. For example, my slogan for the yearly student fair when I was at the University of York, UK (1995-2001) was 'Discover a World of Difference! Language Variation and Change'.

Methods of teaching

My primary method of teaching is modelling. I attempt to integrate what I do as a sociolinguist (i.e. my own research) into learning the discipline (i.e. my teaching). This involves bringing my research and the research of other scholars into the classroom. Another major component of my teaching practice is to 'make it real'. In every course that I teach, I aim to make the connection between the textbook and experiences that students have everyday (e.g. on the transit system, in their homes, with friends, etc.). A typical beginning in my lectures is to ask the class, "What's going on out there? What have you heard?" This will usually promote a discussion as students bring to the floor observations about language from their own experience. In short, my goal is to show students what is there to be seen (what you know that you don’t know you know), and to give them the tools (methodology), to make sense of it (analysis), and to understand it (interpretation).

Further, I take a hands-on approach to assessment whenever possible. In larger classes (N=100+), this can only go as far as a small research project. In smaller classes, like HUM 199 (N=23), I require students to collect stories from family and friends, which they then they transcribe, code and analyze them. In higher level courses, students collect natural language data from any number of sources (sociolinguistic interviews, newspapers, the internet, previously-existing corpora, etc). In all courses, I ask students to examine what is in living language and relate what they observe to what is claimed in the textbook or course readings.

To me, undergraduate teaching and graduate teaching require a different approach. At the undergraduate level, the basic modus operandi (in addition to the transmission of knowledge) is to convey passion for the discipline. This may inspire students towards graduate school, or it may simply impart to students an enduring skill in, and awareness of, the language-society interface which will continue to bring them pleasure throughout their lives. I always say, "It doesn’t matter whether you never take another linguistics course again; knowing more about how people communicate will help you wherever you go." At the graduate level, my approach to teaching expands to include training in the painstaking methodology that is required to conduct research on the cutting edge of the field. This too requires that students are inspired to excel. The main technique I employ is 'apprenticeship' — I believe that the best practice is to learn by doing alongside someone who is more advanced, and who can show the way.

A summary of my publication record provides a good exemplar of my 'apprenticeship' approach: one-third of all my publications to date have been co-authored with my own students. Those same students, if they have pursued an academic path, have subsequently gone on to publish their own work in major sociolinguistics journals. If they have gone into the public sector for employment, they have often excelled in their positions. Recently, my long-term associate Jennifer Smith and I were working together on a paper after at least six years of collaboration spanning from student to colleague. She observed that she was still learning things from working with me. Comments such as these are my most favourite and highly valued compliments.

If I were to sum up my job as a teacher, I would say that it is to introduce students to new possibilities, from the most rudimentary level to the highest level of achievement. In the first lecture of my big undergraduate courses (e.g. JAL 253 or JAL 254), I do a demonstration by playing an excerpt of 'language in use'. Typically, this will be choice extract from one of my corpora. I point out to the students the things in language that they have not noticed before, but that they already know. For example, that they can tell the difference between male and female, old and young, just by listening to someone speak. I continue by pointing out quite a few other things that they 'know' from listening to what people say - such as age, social class, origin, etc. Then, I challenge them to stay until to the end of the course to find out what more they will learn to 'hear' and 'understand' from what people say. In the last class of the course, I return to this challenge. I play the same extract of conversation that they heard at the beginning of the course and we re-examine it. Trends and patterns in linguistic variation emerge. Looking at the same data with 'new eyes' brings the learning experience full circle.

How do I measure my effectiveness?

I measure my effectiveness as a teacher by the response I get from my students. I do not feel good about a class or lecture unless I sense that the students are moved somehow by the subject matter. One of my biggest disappointments in teaching was a student who wrote in her course evaluation "Professor Tagliamonte is too enthusiastic. We’re just taking this course for credit..." Conversely, one of the biggest thrills is a round of applause after a lecture (e.g. last class of course JAL 254, April 8, 2003; guest lecture SOC 374, Nov 5, 2003). Another measure, by far the most poignant, is when students let me know years later how much my classes have meant to them and what a difference the experience has meant in their lives.

What do students learn in the process?

By-products of the methodological approach I take to the study of sociolinguistics include a number of transferable skills. First and foremost is analytic thinking and problem solving. Students learn how to approach problems in language systematically and to work through the sociolinguistic method of uncovering answers to questions. Secondly, they learn how to write coherently and effectively because they have to build an argument and defend their evidence for it. Thirdly, through the interpretation and explanation of language using quantitative methods comes the transfer of computational/analytic skills. When students identify trends and patterns in language use and use statistical techniques to test the significance of these, they develop numerical abilities in the process. These skills range from introductory level techniques with frequency, proportion and constraint hierarchies (undergraduate level) to high-level capabilities using statistical significance, log likelihood and multiple regression (typically, but not always, restricted to graduate level). Other add-on benefits include: enhanced creativity, a sense of responsibility for making linguistic discoveries, organizational skills, development of confidence in facing new situations and challenge, build-up of self-esteem, development of initiative, etc.

What do I learn in the process?

My view of what I learn from teaching can be encapsulated in the following popular saying: "When you hold a torch to light someone’s path, you brighten yours."

Perhaps the very foundation of my teaching philosophy is simply an intrinsic love of what I do. When I teach, I do what I do. When I teach, I learn to do what I do better. Indeed, I think I learn as much from my students as they do from me. This is particularly true with graduate students. I always say, "Two heads are better than one. You learn from me, but at the same time, I am learning from you." I want my students to know that I respect and acknowledge their efforts and am proud of their achievements. Perhaps the greatest joy in teaching comes from what you get in the end: an incredibly stimulating group of colleagues and friends.

In sum, teaching is for me a way to transmit joy in doing sociolinguistics (it's not easy, but it's satisfying), and to introduce, with a certain sense of wonder, the scholarly tradition and discoveries of sociolinguistics (e.g. 'Wow! Look what I found out!'). More broadly, I strive to provoke curiosity, to foster questioning, initiative and self-direction, to transmit the thrill of discovery, and to convey the satisfaction that comes from taking on a problem and figuring it out.

Last updated: June 29, 2017

© 2014-17 Sali A. Tagliamonte