Bakhtin, Wordsworth, Eric Cartman and why Google Should Replace the Dictionary.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
in such a jocund company:
– William Wordsworth
“That’s F’ing Gay as hell.”
Earlier this year I was teaching ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ by William Wordsworth and when I came to the line “A poet could not but be gay,” I put the book down, looked at the class and waited for the inevitable giggling to ensue.
In a Bakhtinian sense of course these pupils were not engaging in an act of sedition so much as responding to a socio-cultural signifier in the form of the word ‘gay’ which has been radically transformed since Wordsworth employed the word. For Cartman and many kids today the word ‘gay’ has a negative connotation, for many (idiots) the word represents a moral transgression yet for many others it is a proud badge of identity. Where then does the ‘meaning’ of this word lie? All this got me thinking about how the notion of a monologic definition of a word is fast becoming obselete and that at a time when student literacy is reportedly worse than ever we surely need a better framework for students to access meaning than the dictionary.
For Bakhtin, the ‘word’ is not where the locus of meaning resides. Words are imbued with meaning depending on the speaker, the tone used or the prior relationship between the speakers. The determining factor is the context around which the word or utterance is created which is why I have such a problem with giving students dictionary definitions of words. If they do not have the frames of reference with which to comprehend them, then what use are they?
Bakhtin writes that
When we select words in the process of constructing an utterance, we by no means always take them from the system of language in their neutral, dictionary form. We usually take them from other utterances, and mainly from utterances that are kindred to ours in genre, that is, in theme, composition, or style. (p.87)
Another example of this is when I heard one of my students utter the phrase “uhhhh, that’s peak!!” Although I understood the word ‘peak’ in terms of its dictionary definition I had no clue what the hell she was talking about and thus had a lessened understanding of my students. I was captivated by the possible alternative meaning of ‘peak’ and asked them to explain it to me. It was subsequently explained to me as meaning ‘severe’ or ‘harsh.’
Every time I hear students use language in this way I always make a point of asking them to teach me their meaning of the word and the right context in which to use it. I have actually spent whole lunchtimes in my classroom being ‘taught’ by my students alternative meanings to words such as ‘soggy’ and ‘moist.’ This particular process proved very confusing for me and required multiple explanations of the word in different contexts. The nearest approximation I could find for the word ‘moist’ was pathetic. (For some reason negativity is equated with dampness.)
Instances like this really made me reflect on how difficult it must be for students to construct meaning with a limited vocabulary, who are not exposed themselves to an expansive vocabulary or who have come from another country. Add to that the fact that words are in an increasingly rapid state of flux depending on their temporal and spatial parameters and also the limitless contingency of the internet of you really have to look at the validity of dictionaries today in the English classroom. Bakhtin writes:
“In any given historical moment of verbal-ideological life, each generation at social level has its own language; moreover, every agehas as a matter of fact its own language, its own vocabulary, its own particular accentual system that, in their turn, vary depending on social level, academic institution…and other stratifying factors.” Bakhtin (1981d, p.290)
So last week I tried an experiment with a year 10 class. (14 year olds) I thought instead of using the monologic exchange of dictionaries to ‘expand’ their vocabulary. I would try and create a broader contextual framework for students to construct meaning and more importantly to get them into the habit of teaching themselves and ‘owning’ the word.
I gave them a chapter from Jonathan Franzen’s new book that I hoped would not only give them access to new words but also stimulate their thinking. One word that came up for a student was ‘resonance.’ The said student asked me what it meant and I resisted the urge to tell her and asked her to use the internet as an experiment to see if she could determine the meaning herself. She of course then went to Dictionary.com and go the following definition:
Resonance: The quality or condition of being resonant.
Brilliant. She now didn’t know two words. Why define a word for someone who doesn’t know the word with a variant of the same word they don’t know?? So I asked her to not focus on the word but focus on words around the word and try to create meaning by using a combination of different Google searches such as ‘That idea resonates with me.’ or ‘The book had a real resonance…’ etc. And I also asked her to be persistant and to do at least 10 searches and try to build up a ‘gradual meaning’ of the word instead of the solitary and (for her) confrontational dictionary definition of it.
The results were amazing. Within a few minutes she had not only completely understood the word through seeing in a dialogic exchange with texts she could relate to, but could now apply it in her own vocabulary and had learned it in a way that had far more consolidation than the monologic exchange a dictionary provides. More importantly, she also felt better about herself.
Ot of this experience, I decided I would create a series of lesson starters aimed at improving students vocabulary called ‘Dialogic Dictionary’ where instead of giving students dictionary definitions of words, I would instead subvert that process and give then 10 instances of the word in context and then leave a blank space at the end where they then have to write a standard dictionary definition in their own words, and then a final task where they write a sentence using the word incorporating an instance in their own life where the new word applies. Anyone interested in this, or (in the spirit of Bakhtin’s dialogic principle) anyone with ideas to improve this please email me.
The danger of course is that ultimately you will end up like this.
Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1986.
I actually taught a lesson on the etymology of ‘gay’ this week for an A level invitation day lesson for prospective students. Had them discuss why that word exemplified aspects of the course – then took them through the etymology to reveal Language Change, as well as introducing the idea of semantic shifts etc. I then had then devise lists of gender related terms for sexual promiscuity, with the inevitable gender bias against woman, before they researched those terms – with the likes of ‘slag’ providing really interesting findings. It worked a treat (I have to admit my colleague @Helen_Rachel88 planned the resources etc.). It drew on their knowledge (Cartman) and introduced the traditional (Wordsworth) – language change can be really great, or deadly dull!
Love the idea of the dialogic dictionary. Thank you for such a thoughtful, reflective and above all rigorous post.
Carl this is brilliant and the kids must absolutely love you – you’re a great teacher and destined for great things.
LESS WORDS AND MORE BACON, CARL.
wonder is natural produce of ignorance…
I appreciate your notion of a “dialogical dictionary”. While it may seem to some an oxymoron, it seems like a real and important possibility. In fact, it seems to me that reflection on the meaning of our words is the core of any reflective process. I am developing a comparable digital tool, and would appreciate your feedback. In your article you invite readers to reply by email. However, I can’t find your email address. If you don’t want to post it, perhaps you could send me a note at “email@example.com”?