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A Structured Approach to Teaching the OED as a Close Reading Tool

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a person in a black shirt holding up a book. On the left-hand side of the book is a yellow page that read "step one" in white font. On the right-hand site is a white page with the word "one" written in large brown font.
Brief Assignment Overview: 

Using a structured worksheet, students explore a word of interest from one of the course readings through the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online. The worksheet asks them to consider how the definition(s) of the word can help inform their textual analysis/close reading of a text.

Pedagogical Goals - Digital Literacy: 
Additional Pedagogical Goals: 

Using a university database, computer literacy

Required Materials: 

Computer/Laptop, course readings so far, OED worksheet, access to university database with OED online

Timeline for Optimal Use: 
Full Assignment Description: 

Using a structured worksheet, students explore a word of interest from one of the course readings through the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) online. The worksheet asks them to consider how the definition(s) of the word can help inform their textual analysis/close reading of a text.

My students were focusing on writing close reading based entirely in the text anot not contextual resources. So to show them the ways in which exploring a single word can lead to new interpretations or ideas about a text, I created this exercise using the OED online. My goal for the exercise was to give students an introduction to using UT's library page and navigating to databases, in addition to give them an outside tool that could help them do their Essay 1 close reading. I told them that the word they exmained for the exercise could be used for their larger essay.

Suggestions for Instructor Preparation: 

You may want to make hard copies of the worksheet so that students can write their answers down and use the computer just for the search process. You may also upload a soft copy of the worksheet to a class management site (ex. Blackboard, Canvas, PBworks wiki) and give the students the option to type in their responses. They can then either print the completed worksheet, E-mail it to the instructor, or upload it to the class management site (ex. Discussion Board). I also prepared an "exemplar" for them where I completed the worksheet just as the students would. It helped them to see the length of response I expected and also how my own process (which was surprisingly fruitful as prepartion for class discussion on the reading) led to new and improved readings of the original text.

Instructions For Students: 

1. Make sure you have read at least one reading in class that students can use to pick their word from.

2. Show students to steps required to navigate your university's databases website in order to get to OED online.

3. Briefly showcase the search options and also the "Cite" button which provides MLA citation for the students (they love this).

4. Either take the chance to go through your exemplar together, with you explaining the questions and why you gave the responses or give students time to read through the exemplar, and then allow time for students to ask clarifying questions about the assignment.

5. Students then go to their computers/laptops and given the time you allow (at least 30 minutes though 45 minutes is probably a better time period), have them complete the worksheet, either in hard or soft copy (see "Instructor Preparation" below).

6. Students turn in the worksheet for instructor feedback.

You can also do Steps 1-4 as preparation for assigning this as homework. This has the benefit of giving students more time to explore; on the other hand, it does not allow the instructor to help students out as needed in the process.

The blank worksheet is copied below in its entirety:

Close Reading Strategies: OED Exercise

Directions: use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) website as accessible through lib.utexas.edu to explore the etymology and multiple meanings of a word in the passage(s) you are considering for Essay 1, or any word from Douglass, DuBois, Washington, if you do not have your heart set on a passage yet. Look at the example of “propaganda” provided to be sure you complete this in proper detail. You may write on the hard copy or on the soft copy of the class website.

 

  1. Go to http://www.lib.utexas.edu/ and then click on the “Databases” tab of the scoUT box. Click on the letter “O” and click on the link that read “OED (Oxford English Dictionary).”

 

  1. Use the search box and type in the word you’ve chosen. Note if there is more than one entry.

 

 

 

 

  1. Click on the entry (or entries) and read through them. Makes notes about key information, such as (but not limited to):
    1. Etymology (origins of the word; how it has been used)

 

 

 

 

 

    1. Difference between different parts of speech (is it both a noun and verb? If so, how does the word used differently as a noun or a verb?)

 

 

 

 

 

    1. How many definitions? How similar or different are the definitions from each other?

 

 

 

 

 

    1. Are there any “compounds” listed in the entry? If so, what does this say about the primary use of the word?

 

 

 

 

  1. Overall, what are the thoughts you have about the word? How does this information tie into how the author might (or might not) be using the word? Is the word being used in an archaic (old, out-of-fashion) way or in multiple ways are the same time?

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Make sure to consider how the word fits into the context of the entire sentence, into the context of the entire passage, and even into the context of the entire work. Write those thoughts here.

 

 

Evaluation Suggestions: 

I graded this as participation, though if this a homework assignment, I would also give it a small grade. Or, you could make this an informal assessment. No matter what grade you do or do not ascribe to it, I think it is very important to give students feedback.

Notes on Reception, Execution, etc.: 

I had planned a lot less time for this assignment initially but since I had made my schedule flexible for that day, I was able to adjust and add more time. I think this was appreciated by the students, who were able to complete most of the worksheet. In addition, a number of students ended up using the OED in their Essay 1's (a major writing assignment - a 4-page close reading of one text) and told me that they had been using it in other contexts. Because we did this exercise in class, I could offer commentary on their writing assignments about words I suggest they OED (we started using it as a verb) and I think that I may include OED definitions of words in future notes for students. I will definitely do this assignment again.

Additional Resources: 

Below is the exemplar I created for my class, using the word "propaganda" from WEB Du Bois's "Of Booker T Washington and Others":

Directions: use the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) website as accessible through lib.utexas.edu to explore the etymology and multiple meanings of a word in the passage(s) you are considering for Essay 1, or any word from Douglass, DuBois, Washington, if you do not have your heart set on a passage yet. Look at the example of “propaganda” provided to be sure you complete this in proper detail. You may write on the hard copy or on the soft copy of the class website.

 

  1. Go to http://www.lib.utexas.edu/ and then click on the “Databases” tab of the scoUT box. Click on the letter “O” and click on the link that read “OED (Oxford English Dictionary).”

 

  1. Use the search box and type in the word you’ve chosen. Note if there is more than one entry.

 

Propaganda is both a noun and a verb, so I will make sure to check both links (I opened them as 2 separate tabs)

 

  1. Click on the entry (or entries) and read through them. Makes notes about key information, such as (but not limited to):
    1. Etymology (origins of the word; how it has been used)

 

The noun version actually originated in the church as a body that missionized groups. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that the word took on a broader, more secular meaning as “an organization, scheme, or movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine, practice, etc.” (def. #2)

 

    1. Difference between different parts of speech (is it both a noun and verb? If so, how does the word used differently as a noun or a verb?)

 

The verb version is rare and has the same meaning as most recent definitions of propaganda (i.e. to persuade or influence using propaganda). The noun is how DuBois uses it.  But as noted above, the history of this word is quite interesting and though he probably means it in the more recent way, the church valences may still be there.

 

    1. How many definitions? How similar or different are the definitions from each other?

 

After the church-related one, the third is fairly similar to the 2nd one, except that they tend to emphasize the “biased and misleading” aspect of the information. There are only 3 definitions (not including the compounds).

 

    1. Are there any “compounds” listed in the entry? If so, what does this say about the primary use of the word?

Yes, most of these are the tools of propaganda (like propaganda leaflet, propaganda movement, etc.)

 

  1. Overall, what are the thoughts you have about the word? How does this information tie into how the author might (or might not) be using the word? Is the word being used in an archaic (old, out-of-fashion) way or in multiple ways are the same time?

 

Looking at this word, it made me think about it in a larger sense. I kept thinking about DuBois talking to the audience about Washington’s speeches and texts, just the print material, but I realize that DuBois is likely also talking about Washington’s “scheme” – maybe not in a nefarious way, but he is noticing that Washington’s ideas are disseminated in many ways beyond the text, by the Tuskegee machine, and by an organization that is represented by Washington but that encompasses many more people and organizations. Indeed, until I looked at this OED, I felt like propaganda was prettily singular but I can see how it connects to other aspects of the text outside of my own chosen passage.

 

  1. Make sure to consider how the word fits into the context of the entire sentence, into the context of the entire passage, and even into the context of the entire work. Write those thoughts here.

 

I think that “propaganda” can be tied to DuBois’ invocation of the word “cult” on the second page of the text (CR 55). The cult is more related to a movement or organization and looking at this OED definition, I see propaganda as a more organized movement. In addition, I think it adds to the idea that Washington is spreading misinformation (“dangerous half-truth” on CR 60).  The OED definition helped me make a connection within

Course Description: 

This exercise was used in a lower-division literature course focused on African American literature and culture, Black Public Intellectuals (course-listed with African American Studies). Students are range from first-years to seniors. My class has 22 students.

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