Online learning and intellectual honesty

In January I wrote that I believe online learning is possible, but I have doubts about whether online courses are an adequate substitute for in-person college classes, let alone an improvement. One of those doubts concerns trust and intellectual honesty.

Any course is an exchange. The students pay money to the college, the instructor gets a cut, and the students get something of value in return. What that something is can be disputed. In theory, the teacher gives the students knowledge: information and skills.

In practice, some of the students actually expect to receive knowledge in exchange for their tuition. Some of them want knowledge but have gotten discouraged. Some wouldn’t mind a little knowledge, but that’s not what they’re there for. Others just have no time for actual learning.

If they’re not there for knowledge, why are they there? For credentials. They want a degree, and the things that go with a degree and make it more valuable for getting a good job: a major, a course list, good grades, letters of recommendation, connections.

If learning is not important, or if the credentials are urgent enough, it is tempting to skip the learning, just going through the motions. That means pretending to learn, or pretending that you learned more than you did. Most teachers have encountered this attitude at some point.

I have seen various manifestations of the impulse to cheat in every class I’ve taught over the years. Some people might be tempted to treat it like any other transaction. It is hard to make a living while being completely ethical. I fought it for several reasons.

First, I genuinely enjoy learning and I love studying languages, and I want to share that enjoyment and passion with my students. Second, many of my students have been speech pathology majors. I have experienced speech pathology that was not informed by linguistics, and I know that a person who doesn’t take linguistics seriously is not fit to be a speech pathologist.

If that wasn’t enough, I was simply not getting paid enough to tolerate cheating. At the wages of an adjunct professor, I wasn’t in it for the money. I was doing it to pass on my knowledge and gain experience, and looking the other way while students cheated was not the kind of experience I signed up for.

I’ve seen varying degrees of dishonesty in my years of teaching. In one French claws, a student tried to hand in an essay in Spanish; in his haste he had chosen the wrong option on the machine translation app. I developed strategies for deterring cheating, such as multiple drafts and a focus on proper citation. But I was not prepared for how much cheating I would find when I taught an online course.

The most effective deterrent was simply to get multiple examples of a student’s work: in class discussions, in small group work, in homeworks and on exams. That allowed me to spot inconsistent quality that might turn out to be plagiarism.

In these introductory linguistics courses, the homeworks themselves were minor exercises, mainly for the students to get feedback on whether they had understood the reading. If a student skipped a reading and plagiarized the homework assignment, it would usually be obvious to both of us when we went over the material in class. That would give the student feedback so that they could change their habits before the first exam.

The first term that I taught this course online, I noticed that some students were getting all the answers right on the homeworks. I was suspicious, but I gave the students the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they had taken linguistics in high school, or read some good books.

Then I noticed that the answers were all the same, and I began to notice quirks of language that didn’t fit my students. One day I saw that the answers were all in an unusual font. I googled one of the quirky phrases and immediately found a file of answers to the questions for that chapter.

I started searching around and found answers to every homework in the textbook. These students were simply googling the questions, copying the answers, and pasting them into Blackboard. They weren’t reading and they weren’t discussing the material. And it showed in their test results. But because this was a summer course, they didn’t have time to recover, and they all got bad grades.

I understood where they were coming from. They needed to knock out this requirement for their degree. They didn’t care about linguistics, or if they did, they didn’t have time for it. They wanted to get the work out of the way for this class and then go to their job or their internship or their other classes. Maybe they wanted to go drinking, but I knew these Speech Pathology students well enough to know that they weren’t typically party animals.

I’ve had jobs where I saw shady practices and just went along with it, but in this case I couldn’t do that, for the reasons I gave above. My compensation for this work wasn’t the meager adjunct pay that was deposited in my checking account every two weeks. It was the knowledge that I had passed on some ideas about language to these students. It was also the ability to say that I had taught linguistics, and even online.

The only solution I had to the problem was to write my own homework questions, ones that could be answered online, but where the appropriate answers couldn’t be found with a simple Google search.

The next term I taught the course online I had to deal with students sharing answers – not collaborating in the groups I had carefully constructed so that the student finishing her degree in another state could learn through peer discussion, but where one student simply copied the homework her friend had done. They did it on exams too, where they were supposed to be answering the questions alone. This meant that I also had to come up with questions where the answers were individual and couldn’t be copied.

I worked hard at it. My student evaluations for the online courses were pretty bad for that first summer, and for the next term, and the one after that. But the term after that they were almost as good as the ones for my in-person courses.

Unfortunately, that’s when I had to tell my coordinator that I couldn’t teach any more online courses. Because to teach them right required a lot of time – especially if every assignment has to be protected against students googling the answers or shouting them to each other across the room.

The good news is that in this whole process I learned a ton of interesting things about language and linguistics, and how to teach them. I’ve found that many of the strategies I developed for online teaching are helpful for in-person classes. I’m planning to post about some of them in the near future.

The Photo Roster, a web app for Columbia University faculty

Since July 2016 I have been working as Associate Application Systems in the Teaching and Learning Applications group at Columbia University. I have developed several apps, including this Photo Roster, an LTI plugin to the Canvas Learning Management System.

The back end of the Photo Roster is written in Python and Flask. The front end uses Javascript with jQuery to filter the student listings and photos, and to create a flash card app to help instructors learn their students’ names.

This is the third generation of the Photo Roster tool at Columbia. The first generation, for the Prometheus LMS, was famously scraped by Mark Zuckerberg when he extended Facebook to Columbia. To prevent future release of private student information, this version uses SAML and OAuth2 to authenticate users and securely retrieve student information from the Canvas API, and Oracle SQL to store and retrieve the photo authorizations.

It would be a release of private student information if I showed you the Roster live, so I created a demo class with famous Columbia alumni, and used a screen recorder to make this demo video. Enjoy!

Nobody’s Boy

I got a paper rejected from a generativist conference a few years ago. A generativist friend of mine said, “Why did you bother submitting your paper to that conference? You knew they were going to reject it.” I said, “Well, the conference was in town, so I figured I’d send something in anyway.”

My friend proceeded to tell me a story from her early grad school days about reviewing papers for her school’s signature conference. She sat down one evening with Professor Big Deal, who glanced through the stack of anonymous submissions and sorted them one by one into piles. “This is from one of Professor X’s students, and this is from one of Professor Y’s students. Here’s another from Professor X’s group. This must be Professor Z.” She continued like this until all the papers were sorted, and then as I recall she had some formula for allocating time to each professor and their students.

I think about this a lot, because I’m not a Student Of anyone in particular. On paper I may look like a student of Professor Bigshot, and that’s probably how my paper got accepted to a conference where Professor Bigshot was a keynote speaker. But I’m not really a Student Of Professor Bigshot. I didn’t ask her to be on my committee. And I know she doesn’t think of me as a Student Of hers, because she was sitting in front of me later in that conference, and walked out of the room right before it was my turn to present my paper.

My relationship with my actual advisor is Complicated, but suffice it to say that we don’t work in the same subfield of linguistics, and I’m tied to the New York area, where she doesn’t have the pull to get me a job anyway. My relationships with my other committee members are problematic in various ways. I’m on good terms with plenty of other linguists, but since I’m not their Student their loyalty to me is always secondary.

Even if my friend’s story about Professor Big Deal is an egregious outlier, it is still a regular occurrence to see professors co-authoring and co-presenting papers with their students, making introductions and writing letters. If you know me professionally, I can pretty much guarantee that we were not introduced by Professor Bigshot, or by any member of my committee. If you’ve seen me present my research, or read it anywhere, or hired me, it’s entirely through my own hard work. I have not had any of the advantages that come with being a Student Of anyone.

You could say that it’s my fault for not choosing the right advisors, or for the problems in my relationships with my advisors. In my defense I would argue that most of the problems in these relationships had to do with my supporting my wife’s progress on the tenure track and my kid’s not being in daycare ten hours a day over my own progress on the PhD. But even if you disagree, does that mean that I deserve to be a second-class citizen in the field?

I know I’m not the only academic orphan out there. Maybe we should get together and found a Home for Orphaned Linguists, where we can hope to someday be adopted by professors with generous allocations of reassigned time, who will co-author with us and introduce us and attend our talks. Some day…

On being a public linguist

People say you should stand up for what you believe in. They say you should look out for those less fortunate, and speak up for those who don’t get heard. They say that those of us who come from marginalized backgrounds, like TBLG backgrounds for example, but have enough privilege to be out in relative safety should speak up for those who don’t have that privilege. They say that those of us who have undertaken in-depth study in the interest of society have a particular responsibility to share what we know with the world as “public intellectuals.” They say that we linguists need to do a better job of applying our knowledge to real-world problems and communicating solutions to the public at large.

They’re right of course, but there’s a reason more people don’t do these things. They’re hard to do, and even harder to do right. Lots of people are strongly invested in the status quo and in thinking of themselves as good people, and they don’t like to be told that what they’re doing at best ineffective and at worst harmful. Lots of people think that because they’re trans they know everything there is to know about trans issues, or that because they use language they know everything there is to know about language.

Case in point: after watching with increasing frustration for years as the word “cisgender” was invented and abused, back in December I wrote a series of blog posts about it. I know this is a controversial topic, and I was a bit apprehensive since I was on the job market, but my posts was not idle rants: as a linguist, a trans person, and someone who has observed trans politics for years, I had been trained to do this kind of analysis, and pursued these topics beyond my training.

I anticipated a number of potential objections to my argument and addressed them in the first three posts. As I published each one I was worried it would get a huge backlash, but there was barely a peep (more on that in another post). So for the title of the last one I went big: “The word “cisgender” is anti-trans.” Not much reaction.

A few weeks ago I came across a Facebook post by a gender therapist asking for opinions about “cisgender,” so I left a link to my blog post, identifying it as “my professional opinion as a linguist.” The therapist then shared my post without identifying me as either trans or a linguist.

Then there was a backlash. Several people immediately called my post “garbage” and “horse shit.” There were a handful of substantive disagreements, all of which I had anticipated in my post and previous ones that I had linked to. There was some support, but the vast majority of comments were negative. There were several similar comments made on my blog post itself, most of which I left unpublished since they were repetitive and unhelpful.

I know that plenty of people face far worse reactions to things they post. I didn’t receive any comments on my looks, rape threats or death threats. But it was still very upsetting, particularly as it was posted the same day I began my first full-time job since receiving my Ph.D. – an event that was positive on a number of levels, but upsetting on other levels.

The gender therapist, who presumably helps people with their mental states, showed no interest whatsoever in mine. They made no effort to moderate, did not intervene in the comments, and sent me no personal messages. The idea that a trans person might be losing sleep over these attacks on their page may not have even occurred to them.

The response my post has gotten from other public linguists has been minimal. A columnist who’s written about the issue and encouraged me to write gave my post a few tweets. A radical feminist whose writings about language and politics inspired me for years completely ignored it. It has not been picked up by any of the popular linguistics blogs, or by anyone talking about language, gender and sexuality.

It’s quite possible that these linguists disagree with me. There are some very specific linguistic questions at stake. But linguists love to argue, and I would welcome respectful, constructive engagement with these questions. So far there has been none.

I have also gotten very little support from other linguists. When I was first formulating these arguments a few years ago on Twitter, there were at least two linguists who explicitly denied that I had any standing to contest the arguments for “cis” that they were retweeting. They were satisfied with the flimsiest of pseudolinguistic rationales in pursuit of their political and social goals, and for whatever reasons I did not qualify as an authentic voice of the trans community in their eyes. I stopped following them on Twitter, and as far as I could tell they had no reaction whatsoever to my posts.

I know that a lot of people don’t want to get involved in flamewars on Twitter or Facebook. It’s really hard to know who’s right and who’s wrong. At first glance I look like just another white guy, and I project an image of success and confidence on social media because that’s what everyone tells me I need to do. Some people may disagree with my stance on a political basis.

I mostly came out of the Facebook flareup okay, although it’s hard to tell how much of my insomnia and touchiness relates to that as opposed to other stresses. Re-reading some of those comments just now was pretty upsetting. I made a decision to focus on the new job, and avoided reading comments, posts or links for a week or two. Now it’s blown over – but there’s no telling when it’ll get shared by someone else.

My main point is that being a public linguist isn’t easy. Speaking out isn’t easy. Fighting on your own behalf instead of some Little People somewhere isn’t easy – even if you’ve got a certain amount of privilege. If you’re wondering why people don’t fight for themselves more often, why they don’t speak up, why linguists don’t write more public posts about issues that matter – there’s your answer. It’s much easier to bury your nose in a book and write about grammaticization vs. reanalysis in Old Church Slavonic.

If we really want people to take a stand on these things, we need to support them. We need to stick up for linguists who speak out in public. We need principles that go beyond identity and political and social affiliation. And we need people who are willing to support linguists who speak out based on those principles. We need people who will make themselves available to back up other linguists on the Internet. Without real support, it’s all empty rhetoric.

What Professor Bigshot said

I was feeling very nervous, sitting there in Professor Bigshot’s office. I had just been accepted into the PhD program, and was visiting the department to get to know everyone and see if it was the right fit. I hadn’t applied to any other PhD program. If I didn’t go here, I probably wouldn’t get a PhD.

You can figure out pretty easily who Professor Bigshot is, if you care. I guess you could say I’m giving her a pseudonym for SEO reasons.

The student who was showing me around the department had asked, “Oh, have you met Professor Bigshot yet?” I had not. I had heard of her, but I had absolutely no idea what her work was: what she studied, what she had written, what her theories were. I was nervous, sitting there in her office, because I was afraid she would find out that I hadn’t read anything she’d written. I was right to be nervous, but for a completely different reason.

“So Angus,” Professor Bigshot asked me, “You know that the job market in linguistics is very tight? You understand that we cannot guarantee you a job when you graduate?”

I relaxed a bit. I knew this one. I had thought long and hard about it. I said, brightly, “Oh yes. But that’s okay. I have computer skills, and I can always get another IT job if this doesn’t work out.”

“Well, at this university,” Professor Bigshot’s face abruptly twisted into a snarl. “We are not in the business of granting recreational PhDs.”

That was the last thing I was expecting to hear. I did the only thing I could think of: I thanked Professor Bigshot politely, got up and walked out of her office.

I still had a day and a half before I left town. I had planned to visit classes and see the rest of the university.

I didn’t quite know how to tell my student guide what Professor Bigshot had said, so in a few minutes I was sitting down in Professor Littleshot’s office. I didn’t know what he had done in linguistics either, but at this point it hardly seemed to matter.

“So Angus,” said Professor Littleshot. “Have you made up your mind whether you’re going to attend our program?”

I opened my mouth. “Well…”

“Is there anything I can say to convince you?”

I shut my mouth and thought for a minute. “Well, I guess you just did.”

That was slightly over nineteen years ago. Professor Littleshot retired before I could propose a dissertation topic. I wrote a dissertation in Professor Bigshot’s theoretical framework, received my PhD in 2009, taught linguistics as an adjunct for seven years, sent out applications for tenure-track jobs and was invited to exactly zero interviews. Last week I started working as a Python developer in the IT Department at Columbia University.

Recreational PhD? Well, there have been times that I’ve enjoyed quite a lot. And yes, I suppose you can get a back injury, chronic insomnia and thousands of dollars of debt from plenty of other recreational activities. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t tried so hard to prove Professor Bigshot wrong.