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Often, I’ll be in lectures and the lecturer will explain the point to me, and I make a comparison with something else that helps me understand the point, and it clicks. For example, in Syntax, the lecturer was talking about the difference between a noun and a determiner phrase; how the former describes a set of things, and the latter points to a specific thing. This reminds me of computing, so I think: ‘Oh, right. Nouns are classes, and DPs instantiate those classes.’

Is this type of rephrasing ever a useful thing to vocalise in lectures, for other students or the lecturer? I do sometimes vocalise these thoughts, usually in a smaller class setting though, not lectures. I usually try to keep quiet because I feel like either people won’t understand what I mean, or the teacher doesn’t consider it relevant or useful. So, my questions are: Is this kind of contribution in lectures valuable? Or do lecturers prefer that you ask questions instead of making statements?

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    This is a bit tangential to your question, but I wouldn't say a DP is to a noun as an object instance is to a class. I can kind of see where you're coming from, so I won't belabour that, but a more important point is how "good" ones analogy is; both in terms of fit and others' ability to comprehend it. – Xophmeister Oct 28 '14 at 23:16
  • Sure, there's no real instantiation going on there. The thinking was, a noun refers to a general set of things, 'John' can mean any person called John. But 'that John with the hat' selects a specific identifiable being who fits the 'John' category. When the lecturer said that, the class analogy sprang to mind immediately; I'm aware it's not watertight though. – Lou Oct 29 '14 at 1:26
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If you are in a small lecture that encourages participation, then it is definitely appropriate to participate, and understanding things in more than one way is often a great thing. I would recommend phrasing your thoughts as a question rather than a statement, however, e.g.:

Would I be right in understanding this like [comparison]?

After all, you're only just learning the material and don't yet know if your comparison is actually right! If you can concerned that you might be talking too much then a) a very good lecturer may be able to let you know gently in the midst of class and b) you can ask the lecturer their opinion after class.

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  • Great idea! Also mitigates the problem of not having actually asked the lecturer a question; it could be incredibly awkward if the lecturer has to say the equivalent of "Yes" and leave it there. – Lou Oct 28 '14 at 18:10
  • I agree with this answer in general, but I think I would keep the comparison to myself (or "ask after class") in this particular example for the reasons given in David's answer. – DoubleDouble Oct 29 '14 at 16:07
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Yes, certainly it can be useful.

However, it's more useful if your analogy is well thought through, and can be stated concisely in a way that you think can be understood by the other students. If it's sort of rambling, or misses important aspects, or requires background that most other students may not have, it may cause more confusion than it clears up. So in some cases you may prefer to make a note for yourself, think it through later, and discuss it with the lecturer privately (e.g. during office hours). The lecture may then mention it in a future lecture, or invite you to do so.

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  • To say it "can" be useful seems like it might be difficult advice to act on. It seems very unlikely that it is always appropriate even if it is concise and well thought out. – Benjamin Mako Hill Oct 28 '14 at 20:17
  • @BenjaminMakoHill I find your objection ironic, given that your own answer says "These types of comments may or may not be welcome"! There's no universal yes/no answer, so the best any answer can do is say "Whether or not it's appropriate depends on a whole lot of factors that we don't know about and you'll have to judge for yourself, perhaps with the lecturer's assistance." That's basically what Nate's answer says and basically what yours says. – David Richerby Oct 28 '14 at 22:12
  • @DavidRicherby, My comment was not meant as an objection and I voted this up. My point was that I read this answer as saying "be careful but go ahead" and mine as suggesting, "ask the instructor first." Perhaps I will unbold the first sentence of my answer to make this more clear. – Benjamin Mako Hill Oct 28 '14 at 23:00
  • @BenjaminMakoHill Fair enough. To be honest, since Leo has sufficient self-awareness to ask the question, my guess is that he can take appropriate care. – David Richerby Oct 28 '14 at 23:01
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    @BenjaminMakoHill: The question was phrased "Is this ever useful?" so logically the possible answers are "Yes, there are times when this is useful" or "No, this is never useful". My answer is the former. (Can you tell that I am a mathematician?) I am not claiming it is always useful and my second paragraph included some suggestions on how to identify when it is. – Nate Eldredge Oct 28 '14 at 23:14
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To be honest, the specific example you give is unlikely to be helpful, since you're in something like a linguistics class and your analogy requires an understanding of a completely different field, object-oriented computer programming. Most of the other students probably won't have that background and the lecturer might not, too. And suppose the lecturer doesn't have that understanding. They'll likely be tempted to ask you to explain your analogy so they can evaluate whether you've understood or not. So now you have to spend a couple of minutes explaining OOP to the lecturer and all of that is time that would better have been spent on the actual subject at hand. The lecturer might also feel that you're trying to embarrass them by asking questions about something they don't understand.

In general, I'd be wary of interjecting with analogies since, unless the analogy is perfectly accurate (which most aren't), it's likely to lead to a discussion of the accuracy of the analogy, rather than further clarification of the real point.

Beyond that, I'd give the tautological advice that interjecting with alternative ways to understand is useful if it's useful. If the other students find it increases their understanding, go for it; if they seem not to appreciate it, don't do it. If the lecturer already explained it once and most people already understood it, there's no great value in you explaining it to everyone again. In particular, if your interjections become interruptions which break the lecturer's flow, you're hindering rather than helping.

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    Good point, and well put forward. "it's likely to lead to a discussion of the accuracy of the analogy, rather than further clarification of the real point." Yeah, I think I will keep these thoughts to myself unless they're super relevant and no one else seems to get it. – Lou Oct 28 '14 at 21:57
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Because these types of comments may or may not be welcome depending on the nature, topic and size of a course and the pedagogical approach of the instructor, you should ask your instructor if these kinds of interjections would be welcome. You can easily do this with a quick question after class or in an email. To make things concrete, it might be a good idea to come prepared with at least one concrete example of the kinds of clarification or reframing you might offer as a comment. As an instructor, I can see myself going way or another based on the class and the setting. That said, I would be always be happy to be asked ahead of time if this sort of thing would be welcome!

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