By Susie Allen
Photo by Chris Strong

Jason Merchant, professor and chair of linguistics, works mainly in the theory of syntax, and on its interface with semantics. More particularly, most of his research concentrates on the cross-linguistic grammatical constraints on ellipsis, cases where the form seems to underdetermine the perceived (and intended) meaning. He is interested in data from a wide variety of languages, but has published mostly on Germanic, Greek, Slavic, and Romance languages. Recently, he has taught everything from the Core course Language and the Human and Intro to Linguistics to graduate seminars on agreement phenomena and comparatives.

What were your early teaching experiences like?

Really, when you start teaching you try to replicate the best practices of your own experience as a student. I went to grad school in California, at Santa Cruz, where they have a famously intensive undergraduate program in linguistics. Each day requires a 10- to 15-page write-up; over 10 weeks, that’s 300 to 450 pages of homework. Those students, by the end, they know how to do linguistics. That was the model I tried to implement. It’s not an easy row to hoe, but we have the advantage here that the classes here are small, and the students are smart. You give them as much as you can, and they run with it.

How do you approach your undergraduate syntax courses?

Linguistics is a very young science, in a sense. Many of the answers to basic questions are still open to debate, which makes it very exciting to teach and accessible to undergraduates, I think.

Typically, I’ll come in with a data set that I’ve designed, give pieces of it to the class, and talk about what kind of formulas or equations would be needed to describe these data, and then give them new data to show the equations didn’t work, and then we need to redesign the equations. That’s how we develop a grammar, basically, in a syntax class.

What advice would you give to someone teaching at UChicago for the first time?

In a small seminar it’s more like talking to smart people and figuring things out together. You think about what you want to teach over the course of quarter, and then you break it down week-by-week, day-by-day, and hour-by-hour. As you get into the finer detail, you think, ‘What do I need to do to get people to understand this?’ I try to use a combination of handouts and the board. I try to get people to ask a lot of questions. What you want is to have interactions between the students, so not all arrows go back to the instructor. That’s the goal of a great discussion class.

How did you feel when you found out you had gotten the award?

I’m very honored, though I don’t think that what I do is different from what anybody else in linguistics does. It’s the general pedagogical method that’s used in linguistics.

I enjoy undergraduate teaching. I was the director of undergraduate studies in linguistics for seven years, and I had a great time trying to build the program—introducing the minor, changing the requirements, trying to build the “Language and the Human” core course. My goal has always been to make undergraduate students feel that they’re not just students of the University, but also students of the department.

Obviously, students of the College feel a loyalty and connection to the College, but I think it’s important for the students, and certainly important to us, to have undergraduates feel that they’re also here in linguistics. I think that’s the thing I’ve hoped for and worked for the most—to make undergraduates feel that they’re members of the intellectual community of the department of linguistics, in addition to being College students.

I also feel it’s important to mention that some of my most valuable experiences with undergraduates—and I hope they feel this way as well—have come outside of the classroom, in particular in advising BA honors theses. These theses are not a requirement of the linguistics major, and there is no associated class for them, so the students who want to write them are extremely motivated and have taken graduate-level courses as well. The work that undergraduates do for these theses is often both the capstone of their undergraduate experience in linguistics and a really significant intellectual achievement, and I, in particular, think that writing and advising these theses is a kind of educational experience that is exciting for both the student and the professor.

Originally published on June 4, 2012.