[These are some thoughts as I’m getting ready to teach our first semester graduate introduction to semantics. This fall, I’m also serving as acting Graduate Program Director, while Sabine is on sabbatical leave. So, I figured I should write down some points that I often address in sermons in introductory classes. Let me know if you have comments or disagree with anything.]
Any scientific topic of sufficient theoretical complexity and with interesting empirical breadth cannot be taught from first principles. Teaching and learning of such topics is a messy affair, something that it’s important to get used to. Many of these thoughts are also relevant when one is confronted with a new article at the cutting edge of research or when one is listening to a research presentation.
Ideally, one might start from what is common ground among the students in the class (or one’s readers). But especially when people with different backgrounds and diverse interests come together, there’s actually very little that is truly common ground. So, what to do? One strategy is to pretend there’s more common ground than there really is and let people catch up as fast they can.
In a way, when you’re new to a topic, you’re in a kind of situation that is familiar from the study of “presupposition accommodation” (I wrote a survey-ish article about this a while back). Imagine you enter an elevator and two people you vaguely know are in the middle of a conversation. One says “she’s in town for a conference.” The other: “we should talk to her about epistemic modality in Bulgarian”. And so on. As an eavesdropper, you can learn a lot from such conversations even if you never figure out who “she” is. Your task is to piece together what the common ground of the conversation is, without being explicitly informed about everything that’s being taken for granted. In classes and reading new work, that’s very often the case as well. Of course, while in the elevator it might be a faux pas to just barge in and ask who they are talking about, in classes it’s OK to ask clarifying questions about things that seem to be taken for granted. Maybe the question will be deflected and deferred to a later time, a conversation outside class or a TA tutorial, but at least it’s fine to register that you’re not entirely on board with the assumptions being made.
It’s important to get comfortable with not understanding everything, working to figure out the essence of what’s going on, and patiently and actively waiting for the pieces to drop into place. Yes, it’s often disorienting but if you keep at it, the picture will become clearer over time and tools and concepts will become second nature eventually.
In other words, you need to become used to feeling “stupid”. I mean this in an entirely non-disparaging sense: obviously, you’re not stupid. What it is is that you’re not completely understanding a complex topic. Of course, that is in fact the permanent condition of science. The whole point of science is to work at things we don’t understand and make some progress towards understanding, but that progress will then result in even more things we don’t understand. Answers to questions simply beget more questions. On my office door, I have a print out of a short article on this very topic.
When you’re in an almost perpetual state of progressive ignorance, and if you’re always surrounded by other super-smart people, it is very easy to lose sight of the inevitability of the feelings of “stupidity”. Instead, one easily starts to actually believe that one is inadequate and really is stupid compared to the others. This phenomenon is very widespread. I suffer from it myself. It’s important to be aware of it and if possible, turn it into a positive power. Here are two ways of thinking about it:
“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” (Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity”, 1933). Russell’s observation has been substantiated in psychological research and is known as the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”.
Another term for the dynamic is “Imposter Syndrome”. At the last LSA Summer Institute, Penny Eckert and Monica Macaulay gave a presentation on the syndrome and the slides are available. Here is a good blog post with further links on this set of issues.
Coping with boredom
At the other end of the spectrum, a class may at times underchallenge you. You may already (think you) know everything or the pace is such that anything that is new to you takes very little effort to pick up. So, you’re bored. There are three strategies to cope with such boredom and it may make sense to mix these strategies depending on your energy levels, the semester schedule, and what else you have to do.
Coast: You might decide to just take it easy for a while: just do the little that is needed to stay with the class and devote your energies to other tasks. This is legitimate. Faculty may choose to do this as well at times. It can’t be the dominant strategy, though, if it means that you’re not moving forward in your chosen field.
If the material appears too easy for you, there are two ways of deepening your engagement and thereby making it appropriately hard again.
Going meta: figure out how you would teach the material. The easiest way to do this is to actually teach it: in groups with your fellow students, some of whom probably find the material more challenging than you do, work on explaining things a different way from the way it was done in class. And even if you don’t have such an early outlet for your pedagogical insights, presumably in a few years you will definitely have to teach and it’s good to have thought about it beforehand. Pedagogical insights are also very useful for writing papers because the deeper your penetration of the topic is and the better you understand what it takes to convey its intricacies, the clearer your prose will be.
Deep dive: any topic has fractal levels of complexity. We may skate over that in class but you can go deeper. Find current research in the area and read it. Think about using other methodologies to study the relevant phenomena: what is the language acquisition angle on the topic? Is there relevant psycholinguistic work? What is the cross-linguistic picture? How do syntax, semantics, morphology, phonology work together? If you find anything that grabs your interest, pursue it, talk to colleagues and faculty about it. Rinse and repeat.