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Blogging Research from the Oxford English Dictionary

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A picture of an open dictionary page with eyeglasses on top.
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Brief Assignment Overview: 

In two short blog posts, I asked students to choose an interesting or perplexing word to look up in the books we'd just finished reading. After conducting their research, students blogged about their findings and made a quick effort at applying their research to a passage. 

Type of Assignment: 
Pedagogical Goals - Writing: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

I wanted students to get used to close reading and using the OED in a low-stakes environment. I also wanted students to start thinking about what kind of paper topic they might pursue if they were to use their OED research.

Required Materials: 

Computers with internet access. I use Wordpress as my course's blogging platform, but I can see a number of different sites fulfilling the same function. 

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

To prepare for their blog posts, students chose one important, unique, and interesting word used in the assigned text; located all instances of the word in the text and noted their initial opinion of how the word functions in these instances; looked up the word in the OED, paying particular attention to the word’s etymology, historical definitions, and examples of usage; and summarized the three most useful pieces of information they learned from their research in the OED. In their blog posts, students used their OED research to better explain at least one passage in the text that includes their chosen word; developed a sentence-long thesis; and listed possible Paper 1 topics that might stem from their research.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

Before assigning these blog posts, I showed students how to find and use the OED by asking students to look up words as we close read the texts together in class. 

Instructions For Students: 

Your goal in these two blog posts is to analyze the use of a single word in eitherOroonoko or Heart of Darkness by referring to information from the Oxford English Dictionary. To complete this assignment, you will choose one important, unique, and interesting word used in the assigned text; locate all instances of the word in the text and note your initial opinion of how the word functions in these instances; look up the word in the OED, paying particular attention to the word’s etymology, historical definitions, and examples of usage; summarize the three most useful pieces of information you learned from your research in the OED; and write your blog post. In your blog post, you will use your OED research to better explain at least one passage in the text that includes your chosen word; develop a sentence-long thesis; and list possible Paper 1 topics that might stem from your research.


  • Choose one important, unique, and interesting word used in the assigned text: As you’re reading a text, you should underline or note interesting words in the text. Look specifically at words that are used frequently in the text, though you might also notice a word that is only used once but seems especially important because it is part of a crucial scene in the text. You might be drawn to words that are unfamiliar to you. You might be interested by words whose meanings may have changed since the time of the text’s publication. Make sure to choose a word that seems important, ambiguous, unique, or interesting. Even if the word you end up choosing seems “basic,” you’ll find that the OED’s entries could open up a world of possibilities!
  • Locate all instances of the word in the text and note your initial opinion of how the word functions in these instances: Identify passages in the text that include your chosen word. Try using a searchable, electronic version of your text to find passages.Project Gutenberg or GoogleBooks might be good places to check for searchable versions of your text. In your search, make sure to include variations (like “slaves” and “slavery” for “slave”). Examine these instances and make a few preliminary notes about how the word functions in each instance and what each passage means.
  • Look up the word in the OED, paying particular attention to the word’s etymology, historical definitions, and examples of usage: Navigate to the Oxford English Dictionary resource page at the UT Libraries website by visiting the “Reference Sites” page under the “Research Tools” dropdown menu. Choose “Dictionaries/Translation” at the “Reference Sites” page, then choose the “Oxford English Dictionary” link. Once you’re able to access the online OED, use the site’s search function to look up your chosen word. Click on “Full Entry” (not “Outline”) once you’re at the word’s page.
    • Research the word’s etymologyWhat part of speech (noun, adjective, adverb, verb) is the word you’re looking up? Make sure you choose the right one, but remember that your chosen word might be interpreted as multiple parts of speech. What language is the word descended from? Is it French or Saxon, Greek or Latin?
    • Research the word’s definitionsHow many different ways has the word been defined over time? According to the date the text was published, how many definitions would have been available to the text’s author? Note all definitions—even conflicting ones—that were in use at the time of the text’s publication.
    • Research the word’s historical usageLook at the etymology and sample quotations listed. What is the earliest known usage of the word? Which usages are familiar to you? Which usages by famous authors or well-known texts might merit your attention? Keep in mind that some usages might have become popular after your text was published, in which case they aren’t as applicable for close reading your particular text. Are there any other words or allusions you need to look up to close read the text?
  • Summarize the three most useful pieces of information you learned from your research in the OED: As you’re researching in the OED, make sure to take notes on your findings. Write down the entry headings and definition numbers for information that might prove useful down the road. In your notes, summarize at least three pieces of information from your OED research. Remember to choose the most compelling and pertinent tidbits to summarize—what pieces of information might help you understand the text better?
  • Write your blog post: Draft a single paragraph that encapsulates your research. When writing your blog post, you must:
    • Use your OED research to better explain at least one passage in the text that includes your chosen word: Earlier in your notes, you summarized your three main pieces of information. With these three main pieces of research outlined, reexamine the passages in the text that make use of your chosen word. Choose at least one of these passages to better explain with your OED findings. Describe the scene and cite its page number. Next, explain your preliminary hunch about the word’s usage—a sentence taken from your early notes should suffice. How did your OED research change your interpretation of this passage? What information from the OED has helped you understand this passage from the fictional text better? Do your chosen word’s origins matter? Which definitions of your chosen word apply in the passage? If the word is used more than once in the passage, do multiple definitions apply? Does the word’s meaning shift in the course of the passage? Are there any images or allusions to previous usages of your chosen word? 
 Quote from the OED and your text, making sure to cite your sources. To cite the OED, make sure to include the entry headings and definition numbers, like so:

According to the OED, the word “home” could also mean “the usual contents of a house; a houseful” (“home, n.” 2c).

  • Develop a sentence-long thesis and move this sentence to the beginning of your blog post: After you have written a paragraph about the use of your chosen word in one passage from the text, try summarizing your ideas about the word’s usage in one sentence. Your thesis should confidently state how and why the text’s author decided to use your chosen word.
  • End your post by listing possible Paper 1 topics that might stem from your research: Think about possible paper topics that might come out of your OED research. What questions about the text might be addressed by your findings?
Evaluation Suggestions: 

I use the Learning Record, so I did not grade these assignments. I had students post comments on each others' blogs, and I also posted comments in a separate private file on PBworks. I mostly wanted students to practice close reading and researching using the OED, and that goal was definitely met by the end of these assignments!

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

Students loved this assignment because their blog posts could be used to build Paper 1. If I assign these blog posts again next year (which I intend to), I might have students only write one of these posts. My class is quite jampacked in the first unit, so it'd be a good idea to give students some more breathing room!

Additional Resources: 
Course Description: 

Cultural productions have been banned and censored for a number of reasons, some expected—profanity, lewdness, vulgarity, sacrilege—and some surprising—retelling the past. This course will attend to books, graphic novels, short stories, plays, and films that have caused public controversy because of their unique representations of historical events. Whether nostalgically revisiting “the good old days,” vehemently criticizing “the dark ages,” or merely telling a story that “is not a story to pass on,” many from England, South Africa, Iran, Antigua, Israel, and America have been banned, censored, or criticized for their historical imaginings. Through close reading and critical writing using formal, historical, and cultural approaches to literature, we will work to uncover some versions of the past that have gotten a few authors in trouble. The Oxford English Dictionary and other resources essential to literary study will aid us in this endeavor and will also help prepare you for upper-division courses in various disciplines. The stakes are high when representing difficult, forgotten, or unwanted stories from the past—in this course, we will examine why reimagining the past in cultural productions around the globe was, and continues to be, so fraught.

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