Dr. Richard Epstein (Associate Professor, English) teaches linguistics at both the graduate and undergraduate levels, and he faces a unique challenge in his teaching: students’ preconceived notions about how language works. “People don’t talk like books. They speak in fragments and run-ons. Students have to unlearn the ideas that grammar is primarily about right and wrong or that it’s straightforward or clear cut.” This is particularly relevant for the future English teachers taking his courses, who need to know more about the real rules of English grammar not contained in Strunk and White. Knowing about how language actually works also prevents prejudice in the classroom when teachers encounter students whose dialects differ from their own.
Despite the challenges, he recognizes the value of teaching linguistics and has set his goals for learning accordingly: knowing linguistics can give students a wider, more tolerant view of both themselves and others and can also serve as a window to society, culture and the way the mind works. Additionally, Professor Epstein views linguistics as an opportunity to teach scientific modes of thinking: “It’s a way of doing science that is accessible and doesn’t require a deep background,” since students already understand the rules of the language they’ll be working with, even if that understanding is unconscious.
To accomplish his goals, he fills his classes with examples of practical language use in the hope that the accumulation of evidence over the course of a semester will be enough to break through students’ preconceived notions. The scope of a full semester is necessary because of the deeply held prejudices most people have regarding language: “Doing this in five minutes doesn’t work. There’s no way you can change people’s ideas about grammar in five minutes.” One of his preferred examples is teaching the complex rules that govern often denigrated African American dialects and comparing them to the rules of standard English. Through the accumulation of clear evidence, Dr. Epstein hopes to cut through the perceptions his students have of particular kinds of speaking. While doing this, he keeps an open door policy to guide students through the many practice exercises that are necessary to grasp the material.
A particularly useful exercise he has found has been having students record and analyze segments of actual speech from the community. This hands-on approach gives students the opportunity to see for themselves how they and others around them speak and helps them move from the ideal of formal English they have been taught to an appreciation of how language is actually spoken. Seeing the complex patterns and rules that govern everyday speech gives students insight into the way language works and can break down the prejudices that are barriers to learning and tolerance: “I like to say in all my classes that if everyone knew linguistics there would be a little more peace, love and understanding in the world.”
Dr. Epstein was a 2013 recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Teaching Excellence.