It’s time for another Friday Word of the Week. I started this topic to help myself learn more words and to give myself motivation to expand my reading and put more challenging authors into my reading circulation (Hello, Nabakov!). I also found that the intense focus on a word helped me truly learn it in a more complete way than simply looking it up and trying to remember it.
In this journey so far, short as it’s been, I’ve learned some brand new words and explored the origins of familiar words. There’s a third kind, however, that needs to be included as well: words that I recognize and should know, but whose definition, for some reason, escapes me. These are the words that prompt me, when I see them, to think, “Oh, I know that word. It means…um…uh…oh yeah, it’s about…Okay, fine, fine! I’ll look it up. Crap.” I trot off to consult a dictionary. What usually happens next is a sharp slap to the forehead and an exclamation of “Well, duh!” And then comes the forgetting. Lather, rinse, repeat. Several times.
Today, I’m going to put an end to that routine for the word didactic. According to my old OED, didactic is an adjective that means: “Having the character or manner of a teacher or instructor; characterized by giving instruction; having the giving of instruction as its aim or object; instructive, perceptive.” The earliest recorded example is in 1658: “Must I be didactick [sic] to initiate this art?”
A word whose definition is about teaching? And a teacher can’t remember what it means? What’s wrong with me, anyway? Is there any way I can defend myself?
Part of the problem is the prefix di- which I always take to mean ‘two’. My knee-jerk reaction, then, is to assume that didactic means some sort of division or duality. I often default into thinking it’s a synonym for dichotomy. Of course, when I substitute that meaning into the context, it makes no sense at all. This should come as no surprise, seeing as though it’s the wrong meaning.
In fact, the word is from the Greek didaktikos, which means ‘apt at teaching.’ It is a derivative of didaktos which is the past participle of the verb ‘to teach’ (didaskein). The base of the word is conjectured to be *dens- in Proto Indo-European. (etymonline.com)
It was still hard to tell what the base of the word is, and it nagged at me. I suppose part of me wanted to save face and justify my assumption that the prefix di- was involved. The rest of me just wanted to get to the truth, or as close to the truth as I could manage. It was hard to get any clues, though. My physical dictionaries were of no help and most of the online dictionary sites gave me the same information about the Greek roots. Finally, this turned up from the 2010 Webster’s New World College Dictionary:“Origin: Gr didaktikos, apt at teaching < didaskein, to teach, prob. redupl. < IE base *dens-, wisdom, to teach, learn > Avestan dīdainghē, I am taught.”
What is interesting to me here is “prob. redupl.” – in other words, probable reduplication. The base was repeated, which would result in *densdens-, which would then very likely be reduced to didas- or something of the sort (think of the way a 14th century phrase “God be with ye” reduces to modern day “goodbye”). This helps me put away the idea that the prefix di- (two) is somehow involved.
As for the meaning, it seemed innocuous enough according to the 1933 OED definition. It has, however, a negative connotation that is not conveyed by the simple idea of relating to instruction. It has come to mean instruction that is boring, overbearing, or pedantic. A didactic instructor is one who blathers on in a long-winded, ponderous way and displays unnecessary reliance on lecture or text rather than on discussion, practical activities, or project-work. The definition also includes the idea of moral teaching that is too heavy-handed or preachy.
In a literary sense, didactic work is focused on instruction, conveying a single message, and that takes precedence over the artistic merit of the work. It can be said of textbooks, for example, or perhaps of overtly political novels or art. My thoughts turned to the novels of Ayn Rand, whose powerful reaction to Russian communism and propaganda resulted in some fairly didactic literature of her own. I would argue that the political and philosophical underpinnings of her novels far outweighed the literary merits. Books like Animal Farm by George Orwell, or Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, however, might not be didactic because the artistic value could arguably stand on its own and not be overwhelmed by the political subtext.
My teaching style is heavily influenced by my early days in the classroom, where teacher-talk was frowned upon and student involvement was paramount. This made sense for teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language because the students, not me, were the ones who needed to learn and practice English. Sure, they would be getting language input by hearing me talk, but that is only part of a language learning experience. They still needed more hands-on (tongues-on? Ew.) practice with producing language, not just ingesting it.
In other subjects, there is value in retaining some form of lecture, but I still believe that it should be minimal, and class time should always include a significant amount of student participation. This is the philosophy behind most of my course and lesson planning, and it’s the idea that is screaming at me in my mind whenever I am in front of a class and I hear myself talking for too long at a stretch.
I would dare to say, then, that didacticism is not my style, and so perhaps I can be forgiven for neglecting to properly learn that word until now. That’s my story, folks, and I’m sticking to it!
What is your preferred teaching/learning style?