Bringing Linguistics to His Brooklyn Classroom
A high school teacher returns to finish his Ph.D. and finds new relevance for his expertise.
After finishing the coursework for a Linguistics Ph.D. in 2008, Jason Meilands intended to complete his doctorate, but life interfered with his plans. Already a high school teacher, he got married, became a father, and moved to the suburbs. His dissertation fell by the wayside.
“I always regretted it,” he said. “I always felt like I had left something unfinished.”
Then, in 2019, while teaching at the Lyons School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, he introduced a linguistics course and decided it was time to complete his doctorate. He emailed the former executive officer, asking to return, and the program welcomed him back.
Three years later, he spoke to the Graduate Center about his love for linguistics, why he teaches it to New York City high school students, and how he has balanced his career and his scholarship.
The Graduate Center: How do you teach linguistics to high school students?
Meilands: I take what I learned at the Grad Center and try to translate it into a high school-friendly format. High school students don’t know an awful lot about linguistics and to sell them on Chomsky and syntax or something would be tough. So we look at attitudes, we look at the way language interacts with your identity and things like that, because every student here has had the experience of being made uncomfortable about the way they speak.
Last semester, a student wrote a paper about some of the interesting features of Dominican Spanish and looked into why those features are the way they are and how they differ from Mexican Spanish or Spain Spanish. This came up because this student transferred here from somewhere else, but she says, ‘You know, my whole life people have tried to correct my Spanish and they told me the way I spoke was wrong and needed to be fixed.’ She was able to articulate to herself and to others that that's not the case, that her Spanish is just as valid as everyone else's.
GC: It sounds like linguistics, at least the way you teach it, is very relevant to your students’ lives and yet it’s rare for students to study it in high school, right?
Meilands: I don't think it's very common in high schools. This is a consortium school. There's a number of schools in New York State that belong to this group called the Performance Standards Consortium where we are exempt from all of the Regents exams except the English Regents. Instead, we do performance-based assessments. We have the latitude to do more interesting stuff
The demographics of the school are 70% African American and 30% Hispanic. And we have these discussions where students believe that the register or the dialect or the variety of English that they speak is lacking somehow. And that's obviously not the case. But to stop and in some systematic way consider language is, I think, well worth the time. And I think the kids do, too. I mean, there's 34 people in the class this year, and it's just been gratifying for me.
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GC: What drew you to study linguistics in the first place?
Meilands: My father came from Latvia, and he didn't use the language at home. So I grew up not speaking it. Years later, I went to learn. I went and bought books, but Latvian is not the easiest language to find a teacher for. So I just had this interest in languages and how they worked. And then I took this course at City College with Professor Joseph Davis, and it was fascinating. And I thought, ‘I'd like to look into that further.’
GC: Looking back, what advice do you wish you’d been given when you started your Ph.D.?
Meilands: One piece of advice would be just be practical about managing time. I think if you're in a situation like mine, where you're working full time, it's a different experience than being a full-time student. It may be a bit hackneyed, but if you're in it because you love the subject, not as a career move, then just remember why you're pursuing something like this, because it's hard, and there are sacrifices that have to be made. Oh, and trying to read Chomsky on the subway at 6:30 in the morning is a big mistake because you just will not be able to concentrate.
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