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Pupa versus puppies: how language can be used to manipulate and other lessons from the Living Language course

May 19, 2020

Why are invertebrates referred to as 'pests' in journal articles, but rats aren't? Why should sign language courses be offered at the university? How can non-English and non-French speakers easily access mental health services in Canada?

Final projects for the Living Language: Science and Society course tackled these questions and more last term. On offer in September 2020, the course encourages students to look at how language is used in their own field of work, and apply this knowledge outside the classroom, as well as recognize the influence of language, including when it is used to manipulate rather than inform. It features guest lecturers, which last year included a speech-language pathologist, the CEO of a virtual reality company, and President Santa Ono.

Living Language engaged me more than any other classroom-based course I've taken at UBC, and gave me the opportunity  to look at language from the lens of my passion, mental health, to create a final project that I am proud of and want to take beyond the course.

- Anjali Arora

Cross-listed in six faculties, and with co-instructors from different departments, Living Language: Science and Society emphasizes interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration, including for the final project, where groups of senior undergraduate students from different departments work together to produce practical projects addressing a language-related issue.

Letters to Santa, emoji-based apps, and puppies versus pupa

Commerce student Taryn Jessop, and speech sciences students Paris Gappmayr and Lauren Denusik, wrote to Senate to support the offering of two ASL courses at UBC, after conducting a cross-faculty survey of student perceptions of the language. Gappmayr and Denusik provided knowledge about ASL and Deaf culture, while Jessop edited the letter for clarity and professionalism. The project was successful because of the group's different backgrounds and skillsets, Denusik says.

Communication and language are absolutely fundamental to business. It is a core element of business.

- Taryn Jessop

This interdisciplinary project work was something fourth year Land and Food Systems student Mira Macnair enjoyed. She worked with linguistics student Jesse Hawker , and linguistics and First Nations and Endangered Languages student Laura Griffin, to conduct a small-scale literature review to determine whether bias exists in how researchers describe stress in invertebrates compared with vertebrates (spoiler alert: it seems to. "People don't like bugs, but they like puppies.") "I learned a lot, [my group mates] learned a lot of science. You don't get that same experience in a physics class, a biology class, etc."

Language touches everything

- Katy Chen

Macnair's project helped fifth year speech sciences student Katy Chen understand the many different applications of language. "It really opened my eyes in terms of what the different disciplinary perspectives were."

Working with a team that included biology and psychology students, Chen's group designed an app that uses emojis to guide non-English speakers to mental health services available in Canada. The brainchild of fourth year psychology student Anjali Arora, the notOK app aims to address gaps in a system where language can be the biggest barrier to accessing these services for immigrants. Arora will work on creating and testing the app over summer as an Arts Entrepreneurial Co-op. "I'm very grateful for the opportunity, and excited to see how it turns out!"

Learn more about the course

A picture of students walking along UBC campus with Drs. Turin and Werker

Working 9 to 5

The course was a good simulation of working in different teams within a business, Jessop says. "It helped me think critically about my skillset...and how this would fit into an interdisciplinary team." Gappmayr learned to communicate to different audiences with interdisciplinary knowledge not aligned with her own.

The course showed Chen there are lots of different applications of her degree outside her own discipline. "There's a multitude of positions that still utilize language in a very useful and thoughtful way." Group member Jasmyne Eastmond, a Biology and English Literature student, says Living Language allowed her to better understand the importance of accessible language. "Learning that perception is conceived in relation to how one forms meaning...made me appreciate that misunderstandings and confusions may not necessarily be addressed or taught in pedagogical ways."

Especially in scientific writing, achieving the universal understanding and care for global scientific issues that are required to battle our current environmental crisis depends on how these issues are relayed to the general public and how language is used to promote understanding. 

Students enjoyed hearing from guest lecturers, that marking was based on self-reflections and explorations, and sharing information between peers and groups. Suggestions for improvement include the streamlining of co-instructor presentations, a clearer schedule for guest lecturers, potentially offering the course over two terms, and that the course material could be repetitive for students in Linguistics and Speech Sciences. But each student interviewed recommended the course, particularly to peers outside these latter disciplines.

I cannot see myself taking another elective instead of Living Language. I had a lot of fun working on the project and with these guys.

- Taryn Jessop

English Language and Literatures Assistant Professor Elise Stickles and Psychology Assistant Professor Darko Odic will take over as co-instructors from Psychology Professor Janet Werker and Anthropology Associate Professor Mark Turin this year, and plan to address concerns around repetitive material, including introducing a flipped classroom approach and reducing linguistics content.

Interdisciplinary thinking

Overall, Stickles and Odic want to give students a set of tools for interdisciplinary collaboration and different ways of thinking. "We want to give students the tools to collaborate with each work with each other," Odic says.

Although a little nervous about potentially holding the course online, the pair are looking forward to team teaching, and interdisciplinary learning. As well, Stickles says, they aim to dispel the 'sage on the stage' stereotype by having two experts discuss and debate points in front of students. "It's a really special opportunity for students to see how the critical thinking of academia works."

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Read more in Letters to Santa, Puppies versus pupa: how does stress terminology show bias in invertebrate literature?, and Emoji-based apps to aid mental health access for immigrants

Image credit: Tiffany Cooper

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