Essentials of Linguistics “It will be a living thing that keeps getting revised and added to, and keeps getting better and better every year. That's pretty exciting.”

Dr. Catherine Anderson is a teaching professor in the Department of Linguistics at McMaster University. Mariam Behket is a first year Humanities student in Dr. Anderson’s class. This story captures their reflections on Essentials of Linguistics, a course designed and taught by Dr. Anderson, which received support from eCampus Ontario.

Essentials of Linguistics

Essentials of Linguistics brings together Open Access content from around the web and enhances it with dynamic video lectures about the core areas of theoretical linguistics (phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics), supplemented with discussion of psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic findings. Essentials of Linguistics is suitable for any beginning learner of linguistics but is primarily aimed at the Canadian learner, focusing on Canadian English for learning phonetic transcription, and discussing the status of Indigenous languages in Canada. Drawing on best practices for instructional design, Essentials of Linguistics is suitable for blended classes, traditional lecture classes, and for self-directed learning. No prior knowledge of linguistics is required.


Catherine and Mariam’s Story

Please introduce yourself and give me a brief summary of the project and your work.

Catherine: I’m a teaching professor in the Department of Linguistics and Languages at McMaster University. In that role I have permanence, which is functionally equivalent to tenure, so I have a full time career and I concentrate on undergraduate teaching, which is just the most fantastic thing! I have a responsibility to always be iterating and improving and taking account of evidence to keep improving my courses for undergrads. The courses that we’re talking about today are my two big intro classes — the two halves of Introduction to Linguistics, which enroll 300 to 400 students one semester and 600 students the other semester. I have a lot of students and about four years ago I redesigned that class to make it a blended experience. Students are watching lecture material, mostly videos, on their own time and then coming to class in a big lecture classroom where we’re doing active learning exercises with clickers and we have discussions. When I started redesigning the course, I was thinking a lot about accessibility issues and how that design for the course was going to affect the experience of students with all kinds of different needs. It started to come to my attention that the textbook itself was an accessibility issue because it was so expensive. I’ve realized over the last few years that fewer and fewer students were even buying the textbook because it was so expensive. They weren’t getting access to the material that I expected them to read before class so we could work on it together in class. They didn’t want to spend $147 on the book, so they weren’t prepared for class, so they didn’t get much out of our time together. When I saw the opportunity to apply for funding from eCampus Ontario for a grant to adapt existing open materials I thought, I have these videos that I’ve created that are on Youtube, I’ll adapt those. I got the grant, and with Pressbooks we shot and embedded the videos and made an ebook that was an adaptation of the stuff I had created for the class. And it’s free for anybody! Mariam: It’s my first year in Dr. Anderson’s class and we just finished our first semester, which gets me super excited for the second half. Having an online textbook that’s not $147 is definitely helpful. As a student you already have so much to pay for. I actually did buy the physical copy because I thought I was more of a book learner, but I found myself using the online version a lot more. It’s so much more easily accessible to me at all times. If I forget my textbook, I don’t forget my laptop. It’s awesome to always have it there. It’s also really awesome when I’m confused about something to have Dr. Anderson explain it to me in my own home than to rely on myself to translate that information. Catherine: In the videos in your own home. Mariam: Yes. You’re not here teaching me in my own home. That would be a whole other experiment!

Are you pursuing a degree program? What are you studying?

Mariam: It’s my first year and I’m taking a general humanities first year course. I was looking to either go into linguistics or cognitive science of language, which both are quite linguistics heavy. I’ve found the program is so fun so far and hopefully there’ll be more free textbooks in my future.

My next question is about successes and I feel like you are the poster person for success! Catherine, do you want to tell me where you felt a sense of pride in your work?

Catherine: The real sense of pride has come now that the project has been publicized. One of the PR people at McMaster contacted me and interviewed me about the book. We started using it in the spring semester with my spring students. We had just finished it and the students helped me discover some of the typos and make some corrections. I thought, we’ll roll it out in a small way and my students will get to use it. But once I was interviewed by the McMaster PR folks and they put it out on Twitter and it started getting a lot of attention, that’s when it hit me that this is kind of a big deal. I just thought it was a nice thing to do for my students and if someone else wants to use it, great! But there’s been so much interest and people saying this is so great for the field. That hadn’t really crossed my mind — I had only been thinking about my students. I realized that this project might make a big difference to a lot of students, not just mine. And to profs who are teaching this material. I’ve also had several colleagues reach out and want to contribute parts to the book, too. Parts where their topics aren’t in my book and they would like to write and contribute those. That’s really exciting to think that it’s just going to keep getting better as people keep contributing to it.

Mariam, how about you? Was there a moment of success for you in this process?

Mariam: The moment of win is when I don’t catch something in lecture or I don’t necessarily catch something on my own, then it’s really nice to have both the video of Dr. Anderson and the script to follow along, just in case I miss something. English is my second language, so it’s definitely nice to have the script.

Let’s look at the flip side of that and think about frustrations or challenges.

Mariam: I’ve been fortunate enough to order the physical version, so I think the only real frustration I would have is if I didn’t have access to the internet. Catherine: Because this was a province of Ontario project, it had to be finished within the fiscal year, which meant we had to get the whole thing done between October 2017 and March 2018. There was some stress around that timeline. It was a lot to accomplish in a short time. That meant sometimes we just had to say, “Good enough.” We could add more, we could do more stringent copy editing, we could add more quiz questions and exercises — we could have made it even better quality if we weren’t trying to squeeze it into six months. On the other hand, we got this thing done and because it’s an ebook, it’s fairly straightforward to make updates. We don’t have to issue an errata sheet and wait for the next edition in four years. I can log into Pressbooks and make updates. The nice thing about electronic publishing is that it’s easy to fix those things when the students find a typo or the quiz question is wrong.

It’s almost like the versioning of this is a collaborative process with your students. Have they been suggesting additions or is it more the copy editing?

Catherine: From the students so far it’s been, “Why does this syntactic tree look like this?” Or, “I don’t understand the answer to this quiz question.” Which means they’re paying attention and they’re using the exercises the way I had hoped. I haven’t had them suggesting other topics yet and I think it’s because it’s an intro class and they are just discovering what topics are even possible in linguistics. I have this little daydream that in a couple of years I might get some upper year students collaborating on adding topics that are of interest that aren’t yet in there.

You raised an assumption about how students might use the textbook and I’m curious if there were other assumptions you had at the beginning that turned out not to be the case?

Catherine: I am pleasantly surprised to find out that the scripts are useful. Mariam: They are! They are so useful. Catherine: When we first started designing it, it felt not much like a book because there are a lot of links to video. Then there are a few sections that are written — some chapter sections just didn’t feel like they needed video. They had examples of words and they didn’t need me to be talking. On my team I had an instructional designer and a digital media specialist from MacPherson Institute — that’s our teaching and learning center at McMaster. First the impetus was to make it feel more book-like by putting more text in. They suggested we put in the script of each video because I had them written anyway. Then they realized that for accessibility reasons, it’s so useful to have that. It’s not just that the videos have captions in them, but that the script is there. I hadn’t anticipated that that would be useful, but here’s Mariam saying that it’s useful. And it’s super simple to search for something, even when I’m using it. I think, what was the chapter where I said this thing? I can just type in the search term and not have to scroll through the video to find where I said it.

Mariam, do you have an example of what you thought the experience was going to be like and how it actually turned out to be different?

Mariam: Everyone said linguistics is pretty hard. You either have the brain to get it or you don’t. So I went into this thinking, uh oh, I hope I get it! But I found that even when I didn’t understand certain topics, either Dr. Anderson would cover it in one of her videos or she would cover it in lecture. I was pleasantly surprised find out that it’s not a black or white situation. You can actually understand a topic that you don’t necessarily pick up right away.

Can you tell me about a relationship or a connection that emerged from your work on this project?

Catherine: Connecting with the open education community in general. A lot of that has been happening on Twitter. I follow all these people and have been learning so much. I joined the OER committee at McMaster, which is really just starting to promote things in a small way on our campus. Through this promotion on almost entirely on Twitter, I’ve had colleagues at other universities say, “I noticed it doesn’t include this topic.” And I say, “I would love for it to include that topic. Do you want to contribute?” Right now I’m in conversation with three people at three different universities who are thinking about adding new stuff or updating what’s there. There’ll be even more exciting new content in the book for a future year. That’s super exciting.

Earlier, we spoke briefly about collaborating with students, but this is collaborating with faculty across different institutions, and the potential there must feel vast.

Catherine: Yeah. That’s kind of when it hit me that a lot of people are interested in this and want it to succeed and want to contribute to it. It’s not just going to be Catherine Anderson’s book, it might be a book that a whole lot of people use.

Mariam, what about you? Did using these digital resources change the way you interact with other students?

Mariam: I have a friend who goes to Wilfrid Laurier University. I was doing homework with her and we were working on our linguistics and I was telling her about how this book is online and it’s free. She’s in third year psychology, but she’s taking a psycholinguistics course this summer. She said, “That’s awesome! I can read up on my course before I go in.” It’s cool that it’s not just for McMaster students and it’s not just Dr. Anderson’s book, but it’s available university-wide.

Is it open to people only within the university or could anyone on the web find it?

Catherine: It’s hosted in the eCampus Ontario Textbook Library. If you go to eCampus Ontario, look in the textbook library and search for Essentials of Linguistics, it’s right there. Anyone in the world can read it.

Did you want to speak a little bit more about how it feels to go from using a textbook that is, as you mentioned, really cost-prohibitive, to it being a resource that anyone has access to. What is that like for you?

Catherine: On the one hand, it’s a little intimidating because I think all my fellow linguists out there are going to read this and what if something is wrong in it? There’s some anxiety about that. But on the other hand, I hope that they will see my openness to collaboration and if they wish that parts were different, I hope they’ll reach out and offer to add to or improve what’s there. I hope it will turn into a more broadly collaborative effort. So on one hand I feel a little worried about this baby textbook. What if other people don’t like my baby?! But on the other hand, it’s such a neat thing. I have a friend who has got a university degree but is not studying now. He’s working in another field and he was listening to a podcast that talked about linguistics. He said, “I’d like to learn more about this field. Could you recommend an introductory textbook for me?” And I said, “As a matter of fact, I can!”

How did the outcomes and activities change from what you may have originally envisioned?

Catherine: When I got this grant from eCampus Ontario, that allowed the university to assign me an instructional designer and a digital media specialist. The instructional designer was Anastassiya Yudintseva and she was really good at saying, “What are the learning outcomes for this section?” and, “Have you got quiz questions that tie to each of those learning outcomes?” She helped me be really clear and organized about the content and the way students would progress through it. She would see when I asked a question when I referred to something in a later chapter and remind me that I either needed to mention that earlier or move the question later. On the timeline that we had, the technology we had to do H5P wasn’t yet available. I gather that’s a way of doing web exercises that are a little more flexible than just multiple choice questions. That wasn’t available to us before our deadline in March, but now it is in the Pressbooks software. That’s a specific thing that we can update in the book that will make the learning activities more interesting for students. We can have more flexibility and creativity in designing questions that they can answer right there within the book. That’s something that should support those specific learning outcomes of knowing vocabulary and knowing how to apply the principles. That’s one way of answering your question. The other one’s harder and a little more abstract. I’m really excited about these new collaborative relationships with other linguistics profs at other universities. Just in the last few weeks I’ve been beginning to envision this becoming a real contribution to the field. There might be lots of places using this book, or parts of the book — some of it is specific to Canada. But a lot of it is the basics of linguistics that are pretty much the same across most of North America, as far as I know, and most of the English-speaking world. That view is just beginning to open up to me to imagine that this might become really broadly used, and to imagine how much fun it will be to collaborate with people. It will be a living thing that keeps getting revised and added to, and keeps getting better and better every year. That’s pretty exciting.

Even though the shape of the future is amorphous, it must feel exciting to be at that threshold.

Catherine: It is. The threshold is a nice way of putting it. It got on Twitter and now I’m through the threshold whether I was ready for it or not! Here I am at the next stage.

Mariam, how has using this resource changed your journey in this class or through your learning, or even beyond that into your career?

Mariam: We’re going to be using this textbook for part two of the course, which I signed up for. Even when I move forward into second and third year linguistics classes, it’s definitely going to be helpful to have that book to go back to. Refreshing the basics is something that’s important — I don’t think anyone can memorize all that stuff. It’s nice to have something that I know is constantly there, that I can always go back to, that’s going to have the solid ground that I need to build the rest of the information on. Catherine: In fact, in one of my second year courses there’s a bit I wanted them to review before we did the topic for that class so I just took the stuff from the ebook and plunked it into the second year course and said, “Review this stuff.” I could do that because it was my stuff.

Mariam, do you imagine digital textbooks might impact the future classes you look for?

Mariam: Yes, I would definitely prefer an online textbook. I never thought that would be me because I like to have a physical copy of a book in front of me. I like to highlight as I go through. But it’s been surprisingly nice to have something constantly available online, whether I want to access it on my phone or my laptop. It’s nice to have something so valuable at my fingertips.

Catherine, what’s next? You mentioned a lot of potential, especially in collaboration, but have you identified next steps to scale or otherwise grow this project?

Catherine: That’s happening organically. I’m hoping that because I joined the OER committee at McMaster, some of the librarians and people who have been in this world longer can help support me in figuring out how to be more organized or structured about how this is growing. As I said, it feels a little overwhelming right now. It’s exciting, but also I also think, what am I doing? I’m looking forward to working with the local people at McMaster in the library and the OER world. We’re talking about sitting down and working out some H5P things. Once we’re through next semester and I’ve got two semesters plus the summer’s worth of data from students, then we’ll go through and try to catch all the typos, do a clean second edition and then push that to the relevant sites. That’s the immediate term. And then imagining where else it might go. What other topics we can add? Who else would like to be involved? I can imagine a modular design where there’s a version for the US that includes some of the content but then has some stuff that’s specific to the US that Canadian colleagues might or might not choose to include. Someone might do a different chapter for phonetics for UK English because there are very different accents and dialects there. I could imagine there being different local versions that have some core that’s in common, but then people slotting in their own chapters that are specific to their own regions.

Mariam, what’s next for you now that you have tried this textbook?

Mariam: What’s next is to complete first year! There’s an exam next week. This has definitely been my favorite subject so far and I’m hoping to continue.

I can tell you’re going to be a great evangelist for this resource! Both of you talked about this in different ways, but I wonder how open educational resources and the practices surrounding them have changed or impacted your work?

Catherine: Mariam talked about the efficiency side of it, just being able to have it with you all the time. That’s one of the pieces. Having created this one for my first year class, I’m now thinking about ways I can accomplish something similar in my upper year classes. Not to write my own because for the courses that I teach it doesn’t make sense for a variety of reasons. But are there ways of pulling material from other places in the world and from the web to create something that’s more financially accessible for students? So thinking about the accessibility issue for students on the one hand and thinking in this open way about scholarship in general. If I’m thinking about writing a paper to submit somewhere, then whether the journal is open access is a factor I consider now that I hadn’t ever before. I’m thinking, where am I going to send this paper? Are people going to be able to read it for free? Are they going to have to pay $42 for the article? Is it something that their libraries even have? The principle of openness and sharing and collaboration is underlying a lot of the thinking about my work in a way that it didn’t before doing this project. Mariam: Another really important thing to mention is the accessibility. Like Dr. Anderson mentioned, it’s just at her fingertips and she can go in and change anything. For example, if she wanted to make a second edition, she doesn’t necessarily have to wait for anything, she can just go and update. When most textbooks get updated, you have to buy the new textbook, which is usually pretty expensive. But it’s crucial because you don’t want to have wrong information. It’s nice to constantly be up to date.

I can imagine if you’re interested in applying your education to a future career that it’s especially important to be up to date. Here you’re working with some of the most cutting edge tools and information so that that could be a real benefit.

Catherine: It’s a big responsibility, too. It’s a responsibility I take seriously for my students, to make sure that each year I’m checking that the stuff that I’m teaching is still current. If it’s getting used more broadly, then the responsibility just magnifies. It’s important to make sure I’m not telling students stuff where people are going to say, “No one’s talked about that for 10 years.”

Is there anything more that you want to tell me about your involvement with this project?

Catherine: I want to highlight the work of the team that helped with this project. In the first place, we wouldn’t have had a product to adapt if it hadn’t been for the support I had from the Faculty of Humanities and Humanities Computing. My colleague, Katrina Espanol-Miller, helped me figure out how to do this stuff in the first place four years ago. And then the grant from eCampus Ontario made it possible for me to have Anastassiya (Anastassiya Yudintseva, Instructional Designer) and Kendrick (Kendrick Potvin, Digital Media Specialist) who did the tech stuff and kept it organized. That meant that in the six months that we had, I could concentrate on the content and they could do the other stuff. I really would like to foreground that none of this could have happened if I hadn’t had this fantastic team to work with. Mariam: I’m really excited and looking forward to learning more.

That’s a wonderful note to leave it on.


LICENSE: Copyright eCampus Ontario. Published by Loup.Design on with permission from eCampus Ontario. This content may be further remixed and distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike-4.0 International license.