I finished teaching my first class about two weeks ago, and have had some time to reflect. Overall, I think things went pretty well, although I haven’t seen my course evaluations yet.I had worried about grade inflation, and rightly so. The final exam turned out to be easier than I thought it would be (the class average was a 93). Between an easy final and extra credit opportunities, most people did quite well over all in the class. About half the class got an A+, an A, or an A-, and only a small handful got less than a B-. I had hoped the class average would be around a B or B+, but both the mean and median turned out to be an A-.

At first, the grade inflation troubled me. Grades are tricky, since I don’t want to fail any one and discourage them from taking more linguistics classes, but I also don’t want to artificially inflate the egos of anyone with generous A’s. But then I started looking at people’s scores and realized that the people who got A’s really did go above and beyond what was required in the class. The textbook has 15 chapters, but I only assigned 10, along with 10 online quizzes. The other 5 I assigned as extra credit reading, along with 5 online quizzes. The people who aced my class had completed the extra credit readings, so I suppose they deserve their A’s. The people with C’s or below tended to turn in homework late, or not at all, so I suppose they deserved their grades as well. And the B students were somewhere in between.

But teaching isn’t all about grades, and I learned a lot of other things as well. I learned that students treat you much differently when you’re the “instructor” than when you’re the “TA”. The difference in power and respect was really noticeable. As a TA, I felt like I had to earn their respect and prove myself to them. As an instructor, I felt like I had to earn their trust for them to open up and feel comfortable sharing anecdotes about their experiences with language.

I also learned a lot about how much work actually goes into preparing a class. I tried to make my lectures cover the same material as the book, to reinforce the concepts, but without repeating the same examples. With over 7,000 languages in the world, it’s easy to find new examples of different concepts, but it also takes time to research. Sometimes I found that tried-and-true examples, however boring they might be, are really the best. Just as every programming tutorial begins with “Hello world!”, so does every linguistics course include classics like gavagai and colorless green ideas sleep furiously. As hackneyed as they are, these examples just work.

Some tried-and-true examples didn’t always work though. For allomorphs, the classic examples are English past tense and English plurals. These didn’t seem to catch on, so I tried my favorite example, which is the English prefix in- ‘not’. This prefix becomes im- before bilabials like p, b, and m as in impossible, imbecile, and immature. It also becomes il- before l and ir- before r like in illegal and irresponsible. This still didn’t catch on. But the allomorph that really clicked with my class was the indefinite article aA becomes an before a vowel: a cat but an apple. Moreover, it’s the sound not the spelling that triggers the change: an hour and a university. This example really resonated with my class, and I think reinforced how important it is for linguists to pay attention to sounds and not spelling.

The last thing I learned was LaTeX. I had been meaning to learn LaTeX for a very long time, but didn’t have the motivation to, since it’s so much easier to just use Open Office or other similar software. But I made it my personal goal to complete the entire class in LaTeX, and I did! All the assignments, exams, lectures, and the syllabus were all done in LaTeX! I’ll save the details for another post, but for now you can see some of the results on my teaching page.

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