Linguistics Professor Peter Jenks wins the 2024 UC Berkeley Distinguished Teaching Award

April 17, 2024

Linguistics Professor Peter Jenks was named a recipient of the 2024 Distinguished Teaching Award (DTA), UC Berkeley’s highest honor. DTA recognizes faculty who consistently do an outstanding job teaching and inspiring their students. These faculty members not only make learning exciting but also help their students and fellow faculty see how classroom lessons connect to the real world. Award recipients receive a financial prize, recognition from the Academic Senate, a public ceremony on April 23, a permanent listing in the university catalog, and are frequently consulted on campus teaching matters.

Professor Jenks spoke to Berkeley Social Sciences about the prestigious award and his academic career. The interview is edited for clarity.

Tell us more about yourself and your background?

Peter Jenks: I'm a linguist and a syntactician. Linguists are interested in all 7,000 different spoken and signed languages on earth, from how people make the sounds or signs to how these combine to eventually produce complex meanings. As a syntactician, I study the structure of sentences. The basic idea is that sentences in Swahili, Thai and Quechua are all made of the same basic building blocks, kind of like a programming language. We want to understand what that programming language is and how different languages make use of it. I also do research on understudied languages, working with native speakers to describe the grammatical patterns, and in some cases, to make resources like grammars or text collections, which might be useful to speakers of those languages.

I first got interested in linguistics because I was raised overseas in Thailand, and I grew up speaking Thai and English. I've also always loved both math and languages, and formal linguistics puts those things together in a really beautiful way. 

Outside of linguistics, I enjoy hiking with my family, playing video games with my kids, cooking Thai food and working in my very overgrown garden. 

What is your reaction to winning the 2024 Distinguished Teaching Award?

Peter Jenks: It's very humbling to be put in the company of some of the very best educators in the world, a place I never expected to be. It's also made me think about the ways that I feel I could do better, and I feel inspired to make those changes.

Why did you think you were chosen?
Peter Jenks: I truly love my field of study. Nobody knows much about linguistics when they take their first class in college, and it is always a thrill to watch students realize that they had no idea how languages work, and then to learn to see them as beautiful and intricate systems. That enthusiasm comes across in my classes and office hours. 

Linguistics can be technical, so in the past few years I've tried to make the material accessible to students in different ways, both by varying the types of assignments that students have to complete, and when possible, giving students multiple chances to show that they understand the material.

I also try to highlight the ways that language can be used as a tool of discrimination, for example, against marginalized varieties of English such as Southern English or African American English. From the perspective of linguistics, there is no correct English or any other language, every variant is interesting and complex in its own right.

What do you like most about teaching at UC Berkeley?

Peter Jenks: I'm very lucky to be in the Linguistics Department, where the faculty and graduate students care deeply about teaching and inspire me to be a better teacher. I think we have a collective feeling that it's our responsibility to tell the world about language, how it works and why it matters. There's also an emphasis on equity, inclusion and diversity in the classroom, and that emphasis is constantly challenging me to not be complacent in how I deliver difficult material and what languages or research I'm centering.

What do you like most about your students?

Peter Jenks: Berkeley students are both smart and also willing to put in hard work if they feel like they are learning and the classes are fair. They care about social justice and want the classes to be relevant to social issues wherever possible, which has challenged me in the best way, as someone who was primarily trained as a theoretician. Most of my motivation to be a better teacher comes from the incredible interactions I've had with my students over the years. They are usually willing to go along with my crazy pedagogical ideas, are not afraid to let me know when I'm asking too much, but also always exceed my expectations.