June 07, 2007

Learning to think like a ...

Many years ago, in the early days of sociolinguistics, I was pleasantly surprised by the rapid development of some of my grad students. At first puzzled  by why they progressed so quickly and did so well, I began to suspect that they were beginning to think like  linguists. As it turns out, my rosy view of their future careers turned out to be correct, because many of them went on to complete their Phds and became productive linguists at important universities. But it occurred to me that most professionals seldom stop to analyze how newcomers to their fields learn to think the way they do.

There are some signs that we are now beginning to study, or at least think about, the way students learn to think like their professions. In the field of medicine, for example, Jerome Groopman has recently published a book, How Doctors Think (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). Maybe it's not surprising that he places a very strong emphasis on the importance of the way doctors and their patients use language during diagnosis and treatment. Groopman believes that language is a large window to the thought processes. In the introduction to his book, Groopman says:

My generation was never explicitly taught how to think as a clinician. We learned Medicine catch-as-catch-can ... Rarely did an attending physician actually explain the mental steps that led him to his decisions.

Groopman's book is woven out of his own experiences. He's a marvelous writer and has a wealth of fascinating case histories to illustrate his ideas. His major point seems to be that med students are poorly taught about how to think like doctors. Med school gives them huge amounts of information about bodies, technology, illnesses, and treatment strategies, then sends them forth to try to match these with the patients' apparent symptoms. But med school training, he believes, doesn't give them much about the reasoning processes that makes this happen effectively. Groopman believes they diagnose too quickly, often without hearing the important signals that their patients could tell them, mostly because the current medical delivery system often allows doctors less than 20 minutes to make the important decisions in their patients' lives.

Elizabeth Mertz's recent book, The Language of Law School: Learning to Think Like a Lawyer (Oxford University Press, 2007), tackles this issue in the field of law school training. Mertz is an anthropologist with a law degree and now holds the position of Professor of Law at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She uses her research findings from eight different law schools to support her conclusions about how law students learn to think, talk, and read like lawyers. Law education tends to begin with reports of judicial decisions, focusing on the principles of law that were used to decide the human stories that created the problem in the first place. Mertz calls this "finding the layers of legal authority." Thus, learning to read like a lawyer plays a very important role in learning to think like a lawyer, especially learning to separate the relevant facts from the irrelevant and to distinguish legal doctrine from legal policy (alternative rules that might apply).

Unlike Groopman, who gets the data for his  conclusions from his own wide experience and perceptive mind, Mertz gathers her data more ethnographically. She tape-recorded eight law school courses on contracts in different law schools, transcribed her data, coded it, and analyzed it as an impartial outsider. She focused on the teaching methods (Socratic, modified Socratic, short exchange, and lecture)  and looked at social differences such as the race and gender of both faculty and students.

So now there are some early stirrings  about how these two professions, medicine and law, are starting to examine how their practitioners think, talk, listen, and read they way they do. I find it interesting that these treatments of medicine and law both begin with the clients' stories about their health and legal problems. Groopman would have doctors match the patients' stories with their own medical training in anatomy, technology, medications, and illness in the process of being advocates of health.  Mertz descibes the way lawyers match the clients' stories with their own legal training in statutes, judicial decisions, and case law precedents  in the process of being advocates of justice.

So now I'm back to wondering about how linguistics students learn to think like linguists. Unlike medicine and law, our teachers  don't usually construct their learning moments with specific complaints presented by patients or with problems presented by clients. Like both medicine and law, we start with a body of knowledge about our field, but that body of knowledge is not inclined to be as authoritative or precedent-laden as it seems to be in law. Our teaching methods may be indirect but they usually are not, as Groopman puts it, "catch-as-catch-can." Nor do we tend to lean heavily, the way law professors do, on teaching via the Socratic method. But I still believe that good linguistics students manage, somehow, to learn to think like linguists.

In my own approach to graduate courses in linguistics I tried to encourage students identify a language problem by themselves, gather data about it, apply the appropriate linguistic tools and approaches to it, and reach one (or possibly more than one) conclusion. But I can't say that this represents how my colleagues teach or how their students learn to think like linguists, and I should probably disqualify myself anyway, since I retired from teaching eleven years ago.

Maybe someone like Elizabeth Mertz should take on the question of how linguistics students learn to think like linguists...unless someone has already done this.If so, please let me know.

Posted by Roger Shuy at June 7, 2007 11:53 AM