Transforming a Syllabus from HEL
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Transforming a Syllabus from HEL

Courses on the history of the English language are commonly acronymed HEL, and for many students "hell" could well describe the netherworld experience they might expect upon entering the course, as the following excerpts from typical HEL syllabi suggest:

I can assure you that this course will be one of the most difficult but also one of the best classes you will ever take.

Students fear linguistics, even those who intend to become language or language arts teachers. As Freeman and Freeman (2004: ix) explain, "Typically, these students come to the first class session feeling both apprehensive and resentful. They are nervous about having to take the class, and at the same time, they suspect it will be of no use." As the resident linguist in a teacher education program, I am confronted each semester with these "apprehensive and resentful" students and with the challenge not only of quieting their fears but also of demonstrating to them the relevance of linguistic science for their academic and professional development. I recently developed a new syllabus for an introductory course on the history of the English language in which my goal was to make explicit connections between linguistic analysis and issues of concern to English majors and language arts teachers. In this essay, I reflect on some of the decisions I made in transforming a traditional HEL syllabus, beginning with reasons why I thought the traditional syllabus needed changing and continuing with several examples of how I attempted to reorganize the topics of a traditional HEL syllabus into a more integrated and pedagogically relevant treatment of language structure and history. I then discuss some of the texts and supplemental reading assignments included in the syllabus, followed by brief descriptions of individual projects students were assigned in the course. I conclude with a look at how the students' work on these assignments reflected their emergent understanding of how linguistics can inform language teaching.

Attempting to transform a HEL syllabus from the traditional historical linguistics course to a pedagogically relevant introduction to language study required a transformation of my own pedagogical beliefs and practices. For example, my previous course syllabi began with a standard declaration: "Linguistics, the scientific study of human language as a system, has relevance to every speaker of a language. Through the study of linguistics you learn to appreciate the subtlety and creativity of the human mind . . . and to think objectively about a phenomenon we all take for granted." In a sample HEL syllabus, an instructor similarly declared, "Most of the material we will cover in this class is inherently interesting." Such statements implicitly reflect the instructor's stance as an expert as well as the tacit certainty that experts have about the value and interest of their discipline. Ultimately, students see through this posturing. I admit that my response, when students have questioned the usefulness of tree diagrams or phonetic transcription, for example, had always been similar to the following, from another HEL syllabus: [End Page 465]

That it is a content or knowledge-based course, not a methods course in how to teach the English language . . . intended primarily to enhance the background knowledge of students interested in language, particularly language education, and English Department and Linguistics Program faculty have agreed that overt applications should not be emphasized in the course. However, students should be able to find many uses for the material covered.

(Emphasis original)

As Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo (1995: 382) have pointed out, "We must not negate practice for the sake of theory. To do so would reduce theory to pure verbalism or intellectualism." For my HEL course, rather than putting the burden on students to find uses for the material covered, I intended to design a course that would explicitly connect content to teaching practices and demonstrate by example the principles of pedagogically relevant instruction. In short, I was going to step down from my platform of expertise and certainty about the value of linguistic study and engage my students in a dialogue about language and learning, theory and practice, teaching and discovery.

In developing the syllabus for my HEL course, I surveyed dozens of sample syllabi...