This comic from Robot Hugs explores some of the many reasons why students should not start an essay with “Webster’s Dictionary defines X as…” I had been thinking about blogging on this topic even before the cartoon was drawn to my attention, and so I decided to share it and offer some thoughts on the subject. The punch line at the end of the comic makes it even more relevant to this blog. More thoughts from me below the comic.
Quoting the dictionary without showing an awareness that it is not a definitive answer does seem a lot like quoting the Bible without recognizing that it is a human work which offers answers which come from people, not from some objective non-human source.
But there are other reasons why quoting the dictionary is a bad idea in student assignments. One is that this is so common, particularly in weak high school work, that doing so makes your work seem cliché. Another is that, in most instances, if you are a student at a university, words that you may be defining by appeal to the dictionary – whether love, faith, utopia, or something else – are words that you should know, and that you can assume your professor knows. And so you should definitely turn to the dictionary if you don’t know the word – but don’t trot out your prior ignorance as though it were a good starting point for your writing. Inform yourself, get caught up, and then write like an adult for other adults.
But the most important point is one that relates to the cartoon but goes beyond it. When a word is central to academic writing, there is a strong likelihood that the term itself is under dispute, or that someone is offering a particular vision of what it should mean. And so one can wrestle with Paul Tillich’s proposed definition of faith, or the contrasting visions of utopia in capitalist democracies and in Communism. Looking the words up in the dictionary won’t settle those debates and discussions.
Are there other reasons why appeals to the dictionary are misguided, whether in student assignments or other context?