Just before the pandemic, Stony Brook University’s Department of Linguistics completed the process of converting the department’s largest general education course — Language in the USA (LIN 200) — into an asynchronous online format. As it turned out, thanks to the unexpected and sudden shift in learning caused by the pandemic shortly after, the timing of the conversion couldn’t have been more prescient.
Lori Repetti, professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics in the College of Arts and Sciences, described the conversion as “a multi-year process involving a large team of faculty, Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) staff, and both graduate and undergraduate students.”
The conversion began in 2017 when a Stony Brook Online Learning Development (SBOLD) grant was awarded to Repetti and two fellow faculty members — Distinguished Professor Mark Aronoff and Lecturer Andrei Antonenko. Building on the success of another asynchronous online course developed by Aronoff years earlier (LIN 110, Anatomy of English Words), the trio designed online components and modules that were introduced to the traditional in-person course.
“We interviewed and videotaped scholars in various subfields of linguistics, edited and transcribed the interviews, looked for readings and other materials on the internet, created exercises and quizzes, discussion board prompts, and more,” said Repetti.
The resulting course is divided into 14 modules that deal with timely and relevant topics that are usually not addressed in other courses, including “Language and Social Justice,” “Language and Gender,” “Native American Languages,” and more.
Each module features an identical structure, beginning with an outline on how to study the module followed by a short video clip presenting the issues in a popular and accessible way. This is followed by a slide presentation, and an invited lecture and discussion. This invited lecture format provides students the opportunity to learn each of the subfields covered in the modules from experts around the world. Lecturers have included nationally recognized linguist and social commentator John McWhorter of Columbia University and William Labov, professor emeritus at University of Pennsylvania and founder of variationist sociolinguistics, a discipline that examines social variation in dialects.
The format proved an immediate hit with students. In addition to covering topics most students can associate with personally, the course uses data and scientific methods, which makes it appealing to STEM-oriented students as well as those in the social sciences and humanities. Repetti said discussion boards, one of the innovative features of the course, offer students an experience that’s very different from traditional in-person discussions.
“Every student is assigned to a group of 12 for the semester,” she said. “Each week, one or two students are designated as discussion leaders on a rotating basis. All members of the group must respond to the leader posts. Both leader posts and responses are graded. This highly structured format means that all students participate.”
According to Repetti, the students enjoy the modular approach, adding that the “NYC English” module is especially popular, as are the “Bilingualism” and “American Sign Language” modules. And though the class is primarily taken by students to satisfy Stony Brook Curriculum (SBC) credits, courses designed to ensure that students learn the skills necessary to facilitate life-long learning, she said many students discover linguistics through the course and add it as a major or minor. Areej Niaz ‘23, a biology major and linguistics minor, is one example.
“I took this class to fulfill my Diversity and Inclusiveness SBC requirement, but after completing the course, I have to say it was one of the most progressive, informative, and life-altering experiences I’ve ever had,” said Niaz. “It may seem a bit dramatic but I genuinely learned so much about social issues and the way language can affect something as trivial as how other people perceive us to something as important as witness testimonies. I enjoyed the course so much that I decided to take up linguistics as a minor. Even though I am pre-med, I believe that this course will give me more holistic knowledge.”
“Language in the United States is a genius combination of sociology, humanities, and the art of languages,” said linguistics major Nicole Marino ‘22. “With firsthand accounts, interviews with professionals, and valuable resources, this class leaves no stone unturned while addressing cultural divides and current events with the power of language. Not only is this class well-organized and accessible, it also encourages ethical debates and critical thinking that have brought light to the diversity in languages and dialects that have been in the shadows.”
Repetti said that the topics covered are ones students have personal experience with, but have never approached in a scientific way.
“This course is very highly structured and consists of numerous small segments,” she said. “It also takes advantage of the medium of delivery, with a large number of presenters from around the globe who have generously contributed their expertise and who visibly share their enthusiasm for the subject matter.”
The course developers, Repetti, Aronoff, and Antonenko, along with other faculty, students and staff who have been involved in developing the course, have submitted an article on the course to Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America, which describes its structure and innovations and also demonstrates the pedagogical success of the course.
— Robert Emproto