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Rickford: Attempting to 'empower' students
STANFORD -- Linguistics Prof. John Rickford does not take his selection as a Bing Fellow - an award honoring excellence in teaching - as a signal that he has "arrived" as a teacher.
In fact, he would like to use some of the $10,000-a-year prize money to bring faculty from the University of London Teaching Methods Unit to campus to put on a workshop for faculty and teaching assistants in the linguistics department.
When he was a young professor at the University of Guyana, faculty from the London group came to offer a series of workshops and seminars on university-level teaching. That "made a tremendous difference in my teaching," Rickford said. "I don't always follow their lessons, but when I do, I do a much better job."
His approach to teaching, Rickford said, is characterized by "trying to relate to students as individuals and involving them in the production of knowledge."
In his classes, he said, "I attempt to empower students and get them to see that they have it within themselves to discover and rediscover things."
One of the primary ways he does this is by engaging students in creative discussions of research. The London University instructors, he recalled, said that students listening to a lecture retain only 20 to 30 percent of the information. Yet, he said, "so often that's how we do things - the flow of knowledge is from the podium to the pews and students take notes feverishly."
Meanwhile, research and discovery "is where all the action is in academia," he said. "None of us (faculty) is here because we are saying the same things people have said before. Our whole enterprise is to create new knowledge."
Rickford probably will use a portion of the Bing money to involve undergraduates in that enterprise. For example, he said, in his course on African American vernacular English, students do independent group research on a number of subtopics. At the end of the course, students present their findings at an all-day mini-conference.
This, said Rickford, gives students "a sense of what it's like to be in the world of exchanging ideas, engaged in the kind of work scholars do as graduate students and later as professors."
Putting on a mini-conference involves certain expenses, such as bringing in a guest speaker - in the past, students have invited the author of the textbook they used - renting audio-visual equipment and providing refreshments.
And if he has the funds, Rickford gathers all the student papers in a binder together with a list of all the topics and photographs of the participants. Each student receives a copy of the conference proceedings.
Rickford's convictions on the importance of research in undergraduate education go back to his own student days at the University of California-Santa Cruz. As a freshman there, he took a class on "Ethnic and Status Groups," in which students had to do intensive research into their family roots. The class was taught by sociology Prof. J. Herman Blake, who subsequently hired Rickford as a teaching assistant and served as his mentor.
When Rickford began teaching at the University of Guyana, he asked students to research various aspects of Guyanese Creole, and found that the students "came up with information and insights that had not been available or accessible before."
Research and training go hand-in-hand, he finds, since in the course of doing research students often find they need some particular skill or information. Then, a lecture on how to apply statistical methods, for example, will take on a significance it did not have before.
Rickford's commitment to teaching and working with students includes involvement in Stanford's Residential Education program. He and his wife, Angela, are resident fellows in Kimball Hall; prior to that, they worked in Arroyo House for three years. Living with students, Rickford said, "gives you a more rounded picture of undergraduates and what makes them tick. And this in turn helps you to become a better teacher."
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