It’s all Semantics to Me


It’s 7 a.m. and the wheels of my brain are already in spin, its synapses engaged with one of the Great Courses audiobooks from Audible.

In graduate school, the mornings became my haven of thought and research. Gone were my college all-nighters–filled with a glass of wine for inspiration and the double shots of espresso and writing until I got kicked out of the local coffee shop; after which, I would go back to my apartment and sit at my desk, surrounded by notes from my roommates: that I should go to sleep and cease the habit of housing four different types of liquids (normally water, coffee, tea, and diet coke).

The me of the present, who now shuts down mentally at 10 p.m., questions how any of that was possible; but, it does not deny the credibility of memories backed by my lovely and brutally honest college roommates who dislike the name Peter, know that a Mike Tyson can also be George Forman, and question my love of succulents.

With the exception of the loss of some seminar papers and my cat chewing through a tablet charger (RIP Psycholinguistics research on English in Japan), my habits, later on, were formed around making tea, sleeping early, and waking around five or six to continue whatever intellectual endeavor I faced (unless I had a press embargo to deal with).

I’m not sure what changed. Perhaps age. Perhaps habits. Perhaps my body finally was sick of the abuse of all-nighters. But regardless of the cause, my brain just functioned better in the morning. It retained more information. It put ideas together faster. It let words flow onto a page with ease. And I began to love it. Those mornings on the porch with a coffee and the sun and a book or a pen and a challenge to be completed. To be thought through. Brain churning. And while I taught morning classes three days a week, I still had those other four to better myself as a teacher and an academic. Intellectual stimulation, I learned, is paramount to my contentedness in life (high school me is totally laughing at that).

Teaching high school now, my mental stimulation comes in spurious moments. A small focus lesson on semantic chunking. A conference with a student over the process of their writing. A challenge in looking at how we can teach something better. Looking at data. Analyzing. Trying something. Failing at something. Growing from all of that. Those moments, when they happen, are my bread and butter. My fuel.

But that fuel, unfortunately, happens when my brain is already parked on the side of the road. It’s processes dimmed. Mornings now are filled with teenagers and rushes and questions. My attention is, necessarily, forced elsewhere.

But I still crave those morning moments. I still want to expand myself in my field of study (rhetoric and linguistics). I want that not only (selfishly) for myself, but also because my continued knowledge and passion for this content will continue to grow me as an educator.

Enter audiobooks and long morning commutes.

Recently, following some advice, I picked up the habit of listening to audiobooks on the way to school. Audible has this fantastic series called the Great Courses (Amazon, does this count as product placement?) which takes various subjects and turns them into easy to follow lectures.

I’m obsessed.

It started with learning about the history of King Arthur in the shower and evolved to me taking mental notes and scrapping together thoughts at stoplights on semantics and etymological narratives.

When I get to school in the mornings now, I often pause and write some notes on the morning lecture.

And it finally dawned on me that I could use this information for teaching. Understanding how we acquire language is something not often taught in pedagogy, but is that not pertinent in how we should teach it? Is acquiring new vocabulary terms not the same as teaching or expanding on a language? If, by the time students are in high school, they know an average of 25,000 words… and 24,700 of them were acquired through language acquisition, reading, and communication — why are not trying to teach the other 575,000 in the same manner?

Semantic chunking (categorizing the words), context, personal relations, and etymological narrative (evolution of words) are all proven to push words into our long-term memory. Not themeless lists in alphabetized rows and multiple choice quizzes, which lead ultimately to short-term memory, a grade, and then an ultimate loss in content learned. Remember that time you said you can’t remember what you learned in that class?

I’m currently listening to two different lectures right now: one on general linguistic theory and the other on vocab and language learning (psychological linguistics); both are having a direct impact on my teaching philosophy. Instead of quizzes, my students will be exploring the depth of words they select and encounter in context. They will be keeping track and categorizing these words in their writer’s notebook.

There are times when I crave being an academic again. But in reality — what dictates being an academic? What says I must be in a doctoral program to continue the research of my Master’s degree? While that is something I still want later in life, I can still better myself now and use that fire to fuel my passion in front of the classroom as well.

Basically, never stop learning stuff, people. This is especially relevant to those in my generation, who are just graduating and getting jobs and might be feeling a little lost in unexpected territory. You don’t have to be in school to be an academic.

Grow. Find things that inspire you to learn. Be proactive. Be curious and follow that curiosity. You don’t have to be in school to be an academic.

You don’t have to be in school to be an academic.

It’s all semantics.


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