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Creating OED Word Constellations

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Brief Assignment Overview: 

In this assignment students use the Oxford English Dictionary to make individual mindmaps of the multiple definitions of related words, then the class together creates a constellation of meanings surrounding a seemingly simple topic that becomes more and more complex. 

Type of Assignment: 
Assignment Length: 
Pedagogical Goals - Rhetoric: 
Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

The main goal of this exercise is to get students familiar with using the OED, and to increase their awareness of the multiple overlapping meanings of words. The secondary goal is to get the students thinking complexly about a seemingly simple concept through an elaboration of the many words associated with that concept. The more they describe and map the intersections relating to a concept, the more complex the concept becomes. 

Required Materials: 

Computer classroom, access to the OED.

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

I ran this assignment in my class on the literature of disgust, so we began the assignment right after a reading from a book about the sociology and anthropology of disgust, early in the semester. In general, though, I think this would be best assigned after any reading about one particular concept or word.

At the beginning of class, we began with a discussion of the definition of the word in question (in this case disgust). As a part of this discussion we developed, as a class, a list of synonyms and related words and concepts. I had already prepared a list at home and made sure we got most of the words I thought would be most useful; many of these words also came from the reading. For example, for disgust we also came up with: gross, horror, sloth, terror, fear, loathe/loathing, hate/hatred, nausea, etc. Using the overhead, I then led the class through the basic uses of the OED, using disgust as the example. We talked about the various historical meanings of the word, how you can find examples, and how the different meanings might be in conflict or otherwise related to each other. The opening discussion took about 10 minutes, and the following demo/discussion took about 10 more.

I then split the class into pairs and assigned each a different word from our synonyms list. I showed them the mindmeister mindmapping website, and told the class that they should research their words and each create a mindmap explaining its multiple meanings, being sure to historicize each definition and include the relationship to disgust. The class did this for about 15-20 minutes. We then reconvened and went around the room, with each pair showing and explaining their map to the class. Finally I imported the different maps and created one larger constellation, all related to the one central word. This took the rest of the class. 

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

It is best to have a relatively full list of words prepared that would be fruitful for the students to research. This means looking up the suggested related words beforehand on the OED. Also come to class with a general idea on how the words might be related or overlap. 

Instructions For Students: 

Using the OED and mindmeister.com, create a mindmap for your selected word, linking its multiple meanings and explaining their relationships to each other. Be sure to historicize each definition and give examples of its use. Also be sure to relate the meanings to our central word; please use your own words and do not copy/paste. We will later combine these mindmaps to create a larger meaning constellation relating to our central concept; keep that in mind. You have 20 minutes to complete your map with your partner. 

Evaluation Suggestions: 

This is a research exercise, and doesn't require any explicit participation. The goal is to get the students familiar with the dictionary as well as the multiple meanings of words, so it is best to keep things informal and fun. 

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

In general this went pretty well, and the students had fun. I think a large portion of the fun came from us "investigating" such fun/gruesome topics, and words that had interesting backgrounds, so I would suggest doing the research before to make sure the assignment goes well. In general, though, I would definitely use this assignment again.

Additional Resources: 
Course Description: 

This course was for E314: Banned Books, but could be used in any literature course that emphasizes a historical/complex understanding of key words and teaches the OED

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