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Giving the claim that you disagree with a chance to succeed

Line Mikkelsen

My teaching philosophy has emerged as an outcome of managing tensions that present themselves in teaching in general and teaching linguistics in particular.

The first tension is between teaching students how to do linguistics (data gathering, problem solving, and theory building) and teaching them about the field of linguistics through its literature, development, and major results. My own undergraduate studies left me with a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the field of linguistics but almost no ability to do linguistic analysis. In other words, I was a rather pompous wanna-be linguist who could talk the talk, but would stumble when confronted with unknown data. My aim is for Berkeley students to be much surer on their feet when leaving the classroom and confronting new data on their own.

The second tension is between teaching what I know (and love) and teaching what I don’t know (and fear). The first time I taught Linguistics 100, I was extremely conscious of my weakness in phonetics and phonology and strove very hard to cover those topics thoroughly. As a consequence, semantics and pragmatics, which are closer to my area of expertise and to my heart, got short shrift, and I was not very happy with the course overall. As I was preparing to teach the course again this term, I told one of my colleagues about my phonetics woes and he encouraged me to shift the course towards the topics I enjoy teaching with the justification that one of the goals of the introductory course is to draw interested students into the major and that one does that best when teaching material that one is knowledgeable and truly excited about.

The final tension is between teaching students to be critical of the presented material and teaching the material on its own terms. Berkeley students seem naturally critical, especially the graduate students, and early on I noticed that for some students their overly critical attitude seemed to prevent a deeper engagement with the material. My response is to appeal to the principle that one must always give the analysis or claim that one wants to argue against the best chance to succeed.

There is one other principle that guides me in teaching and that is that everyone in the room must learn something from every class, including me. This keeps me engaged in teaching and furthers my own intellectual development class by class and course by course.

I am drawn to teaching as a collaborative, but focused and uncompromising enterprise that can, at least temporarily, obliterate whatever boundaries exist outside the class room and bring people and their ideas together in pursuit of something greater than the individual.

Editor’s note: Line Mikkelsen received UC Berkeley’s 2010 Distinguished Teaching Award.

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