June 8, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 19

current issue
archive / search

    Graduate Teaching Award: John Goldsmith

    Upon learning that he had received a Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching, John Goldsmith, a master of language and linguistics, said, "I'm tongue-tied!"

    Goldsmith, Professor and Chairman of Linguistics and a nationally renowned scholar, said he thinks his students chose to recognize him this year because it is his last year as department chairman. "I think it's a way of the students saying thank you," he said.

    Since award nominations are usually handled by the department chair, Goldsmith's current and former students pressed his case to Philip Gossett, Dean of the Humanities Division.

    "Perhaps because I've had to spend so much time with administrative issues and had to cut back my teaching to only one of my specialties, I've had a chance to really work in depth with graduate students," Goldsmith said.

    The specialty that Goldsmith has taught for the past five years is phonology, the study of the structures of the sound systems of human language. In his teaching, Goldsmith emphasizes the mentoring process.

    "I try to take students from just being students of phonology to being original thinkers doing original research," he said. "And I try hard to give my students a broad background as well as keep up with current issues. I make them aware of current debates in the field, but I feel they are better able to appreciate the significance of those debates because they are able to see the wider historical context in which the debates exist."

    Goldsmith's concern for historical context marks his overall view of the state of research in linguistics.

    "Our graduate students need to master what is already known and learn how to recognize and capture a new insight," he said. "Facts related to the key issues in phonology -- what sounds occur in various languages, in what combinations, and what effects those sounds have on neighboring sounds -- transcend the various theoretical approaches.

    "In fact, many linguistics students throughout the country feel the need to be on the cutting edge of theory and can speak fluently in current theoretical languages. But I am always taken aback at the number of students who can speak the current technical lingo without the slightest understanding of how those ideas connect to what was happening five years ago, much less 10 years ago. Students here learn to make those connections."

    In working with graduate students, Goldsmith emphasizes the importance of students taking a critical stance toward what they learn.

    "It's not just a matter of memorizing current research or uncritically accepting it or overcritically pointing out theoretical flaws," he said. "I insist that students have something positive to offer. Within every criticism, there is the germ of a positive alternative view, and the goal in my classes is to learn not only how to take apart a flawed argument but also to find something constructive through which one can redeem a flawed argument."

    Goldsmith said that his approach to teaching was greatly influenced by the teachers he had at MIT, where he received his Ph.D. in linguistics in 1976.

    "When I think of the teachers that I've had, I see their influence on me with each succeeding year," he said. "I got a lot of extremely supportive attention in linguistics from such extraordinary teachers as Noam Chomsky, Morris Halle and Haj Ross. Over the years, I've found that teaching is a job that requires a lot of nurturing to help students understand just how really good their ideas are in the real world of research. I try to keep that in mind at all times."

    -- Jeff Makos