This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on March 2, 2018. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.
Previously in The Teaching Professor (31.7), I wrote about my efforts to help students get what John C. Bean in Engaging Ideas (2001) calls the “Dictionary Habit.” As I wrote, I had always assumed that my approach to teaching the “Dictionary Habit” was effective. However, a student email inquiring about the meaning of the word “dwellings” alerted me to the possibility that my approach was perhaps too teacher-centered. In other words, I began to wonder whether I had inspired this student to turn to me for a definition rather than a first-class dictionary like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). In short, up to that point, I had been the one choosing what words we would look up as we read through texts, at least on most occasions. After the student’s email, I decided to try something new, something more organic. As a self-described “dictionary enthusiast,” what happened fascinated me.
I created a “Dictionary Exercise” for the two sections of each of the two courses I teach (four sections in all). For the one course, students had to look up two words during their reading of the book River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. The students could choose words they did not know or words whose particular usage was unfamiliar to them. After choosing their words, they had to write down the sentences from Dawkins in which each word appears, and they had to cite the proper definition for each word as provided in the OED. For the other course, students did exactly the same thing, but they had to choose their words from stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe.
I culled the results of 23 students’ exercises from one section where students worked from the Dawkins text. The students had looked up two words each for a total of 46 words. Amazingly, there were 42 different words in all! The words included “equilibria,” “gunwales,” “morsel,” “parsimonious,” and “spawn.” Only four words were repeated on different students’ assignments, and each of those only once: “erroneously,” “insuperable,” “pernicious,” and “progenitorial.” I had not anticipated the out-and-out variety of words, which taught me a lesson about the diversity of students’ reading experiences.
In one section of the course where students worked from the Poe texts, there was also substantial variation, though not quite as much. Still, these results offered me their own special lesson. In this sample, 26 students looked up two words each for a total of 52 responses. Among these 52 responses were 33 different words, including “hogshead,” “intemperance,” “pallid,” “phantasm,” and “surcease.” Moreover, nine words were repeated, four of them more than once: “obeisance,” “sagacity,” “sepulchre,” and “seraph.” The word “sepulchre” was repeated seven times, the most by far. Interestingly, the word “sepulchre” has become part of my personal lexicon—probably from my years of reading Poe. As a result, and misguidedly, it is most likely not a word I would have chosen to look up with my classes! Doubtlessly, teachers make assumptions about the material they teach and how students will receive it, as I have done in regard to the word “sepulchre.” It’s difficult to see how this would not be the case. Nonetheless, my experience in this instance reminded me that I should be continually challenging my own assumptions.
Indeed, although it seems as if it should be obvious, especially in hindsight, one semester of these exercises has made me more fully aware of the fact that individual students’ critical reading experiences present discrete challenges. I cannot assume that students’ encounters with texts will usually mirror those of other students or my own. As I noted in the previous article in regard to Mary Wollstonecraft’s use of the verb “sophisticate” in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, there are times when the class as a whole can focus effectively and meaningfully on a single word-related reading lesson. I do not plan to dispense with such moments. However, I have recognized that a more organic approach to encouraging students to use the dictionary adds a critical dimension that likely benefits students in ways that teacher-centered moments simply cannot.