Research isn’t worth a dime if it never leaves the lab. This is my teaching philosophy. While teaching is not explicitly stated, the premise is fundamental to why teaching is important. Research, defined as “a systematic investigation with the intentions to develop new knowledge,” has practically no value if it does not reach the generations who can utilize it. What continues to be a work-in-progress is developing effective strategies for communicating the fruits of research to students.
Debunking myths: One strategy that seems to engage students the most involves debunking myths they may have developed before coming into the classroom. As someone interested code-switching (i.e. to alternate between languages within a given discourse), I find many people, including students, develop misinformed and falsifiable ideas about this phenomenon. One myth is that people code-switch because they are not proficient enough in either language. During my guest lecture in Language & Society, I covered two papers–one on Spanish-English code-switching and one on switching between dialects of Arabic. The intention behind this was to first challenge what language proficiency means and then illustrate how code-switching among two different populations both appear rule-governed.
Developing a toolkit: Once students realize the value of systematic investigation, recitations become testing grounds for developing questions and methods. Students in my Language & Mind recitation were provided a link where they could send me anonymous questions about content from lectures. After the lectures on visual perception and reading, a student sent the following question: “What is the cause of dyslexia?” I adjusted my plan for recitation to include a discussion on existing research and what sub- questions they addressed under this larger question. By the end of that recitation, students were better able to define concepts from that week’s lectures, use them to develop their own questions, and consider possible methods.
Being accessible: This last strategy, being accessible, is the one I still find difficult to do. When content is presented in a way that is both interesting and non-intimidating, students perform better on assignments and exams. Within my recitation group for Language & Mind, there was a group of students who did poorly (D or lower) on the midterm exam. I met with them to discuss strategies that could improve their performance on the final exam. One takeaway was to include more interesting data examples and visuals. I started to do this in recitation sessions, and the dynamic quickly shifted. Five of those six students finished the course with a C or higher.
These strategies not only introduce students to the products of research but also invite students to engage in research. Over the past two years, I have also mentored students in research projects that go beyond my work on bilingualism. Two of those students who have since graduated contacted me about campus visits to MIT, Stanford, UCLA, and UC Santa Cruz; and I am now working with another student who is submitting a proposal for the DURF grant. Witnessing students have their light bulb moments as they figure out how they intend to answer their own questions brings home the reward of teaching research to undergraduates.