Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2005 | People

Word Power

By Tina Owen

Bipartite. Quincunx. Septentrional. Christy Lockheart wrestles with the unfamiliar polysyllabic words, trying to match them with possible meanings. Which one refers to an arrangement of five objects? Which means northern? And which signifies something with two parts?

This class assignment is much more than a soon-forgotten exercise in etymology. As she painstakingly breaks down the words into their Latin and Greek components, Lockheart builds up confidence in her ability to wield the English language in all its glory and complexity.

“Students learn how to continue developing their vocabulary after the class is over,” says classics professor Helena Dettmer, who’s been teaching students about diminutive suffixes, hybrids, clipped words, and the like for more than 20 years. “It provides them with an enduring interest in words and makes them lifelong learners.”

In many respects, “Word Power” is an unusual course—and Lockheart is an unorthodox student. Offered as a Guided Independent Study (GIS) course through the UI’s Division of Continuing Education, “Word Power” enables students to benefit from the resources of the UI without setting foot on campus, meeting their professor face-to-face, or interacting with fellow classmates. They work through the set text, submit completed assignments to the university, and take their exams at an approved location. This arrangement is particularly important for Lockheart. For when she closes her textbook, Lockheart returns to her life as a prisoner at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville.

“Word Power” is the latest in a series of courses Lockheart has taken over the last 19 years, since receiving a life sentence for murder when she was 17 years old. Each course takes her a little closer to earning her bachelor of liberal studies degree. “If I get out of prison, I don’t want to walk out with nothing. It’s hard to find work if you’re a felon,” she says. “I hope the degree will help with that. Plus, it keeps you going, gives you something to aim for, and improves your self-esteem.”

GIS offers about 120 courses, ranging from elementary German to American history to finite mathematics, across 34 UI departments and five colleges. For obvious reasons, they’re popular with prison inmates. Dettmer remembers one inmate from Arizona who was so enthusiastic about “Word Power” that he set up a study group to share his new-found knowledge with other prisoners.

Other students live in a distant state or part of the world and choose to take a few courses for interest or career development. Currently, many military personnel serving in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan are taking GIS courses. Some students opt for GIS because it’s the only way to fit another class into their packed schedules.

Whatever their backgrounds, students in this course often find themselves disheartened at first by the daunting magnitude of the task ahead. Fortunately, the first lesson starts somewhere both unexpected and easy: the dictionary. More than just a repository of words, a dictionary provides vital clues about pronunciation, grammatical use, past and present meanings, synonyms, and idiomatic uses.

“The first few times I taught the course, I thought, ‘These are college students; I shouldn’t have to teach them how to use a dictionary,’” says Dettmer. “But, by the third class, I realized I did need to do that. Now, it’s absolutely a given.”

Students also have to rely on old-fashioned methods such as flash cards and memorization. The course involves a lot of grunt work. “You have to persuade students that it takes some work on their part—and they’re not as good at memorizing as they used to be,” says Dettmer. “Sometimes, you feel as if students just want you to open their brains and pour the information into their heads.”

“Word Power” is offered both as a GIS and a regular course—which Dettmer calls “the live version.” Some 50 to 60 students typically sign up for the distance learning course, while up to 150 pack into lecture rooms to be taught by Dettmer or her colleague Professor John Finamore. “The live version is best,” Dettmer says, “but if you can’t take that, the correspondence course is a pretty good alternative.” Indeed, many students say they appreciate the one-on-one instruction they receive in GIS courses, compared to the less personal atmosphere in a large lecture room.

More than their counterparts in the classroom, GIS students need to be focused and self-directed. Nina Cilek, 03BA, of Colorado Springs, took the GIS course in her senior year at Iowa. A veteran of a previous distance learning course, she says, “The format of the course forces accountability, discipline, and a committed work ethic on the part of the student. The disadvantage is that it’s often difficult to motivate yourself to complete the work on a schedule.”

Whichever version of the course they take, students benefit from a carefully designed structure that helps them learn in a systematic and analytical manner. Using the workbook (now in its second printing and used by other colleges and high schools) that Dettmer and one of her former students, Marcia Lindgren, 81MA, 83PhD, developed to accompany the course textbook, they complete page after page of multiple choice, true/false, word analysis, and fill-in-the-blank questions. They spend considerable time studying Greek and Latin word elements, which are the source of an estimated 75 percent of English words. Dettmer says that she loves teaching the course and showing students how ancient Latin and Greek are still alive today, even though the languages are no longer spoken. “Every day of our lives,” she says, “we’re acknowledging our classical heritage in the words we use.”

This heritage has practical benefits, too. For the effort of memorizing the Latin base “duc” or “duct”—which means “to lead”—students reap the payback of not just one new word but many. Combined with suffixes and prefixes, “duc” leads to dozens of words including abducent, deduce, productive, seduce, and viaduct.

Students also come to realize that the English language is a living, growing thing, one that adapts itself to keep pace with the mood of the people and the time. In Shakespeare’s day, “deer” referred to any animal. Before its current specialized meaning, “undertaker” meant simply someone who undertook to do something. Whether through hybridization (words such as “petrify” that mix components from different languages), scientific terms, changing concepts, or the habit of clipping long words to make smaller ones (“mob” derives from mobile vulgus, “the movable or fickle common people”), English constantly absorbs new words and meanings. The language reinvents and reinvigorates itself.

“There are practical reasons for improving vocabulary—better scores on standardized tests, the ability to read and understand English literature or scientific texts,” says Professor Finamore. “But the main reason is surely that it is just plain fun to learn about words.”  

A robust vocabulary is particularly important for college students, who are thrust after high school into a world of intensive reading and writing. Studies have shown a correlation between extent of vocabulary and success in college. Dettmer, who’s also associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, would encourage every freshman to take the course. “Vocabulary is a fundamental skill for everyone, not just writers,” she says.

Speaking as both a writer and an English major, Cilek says, “Words are how I define my world and make my impression in it. As your vocabulary increases, so does your understanding of ideas, people, theories, and even yourself.”

The professors delight in such feedback. Finamore once ran into a student who proudly reported that, thanks to the analytical skills he gained from “Word Power,” he was the only person in a science class to correctly decipher an unfamiliar technical term. “The best moments are when students come and tell me stories of their own about word recognition,” Finamore says. “There’s something exhilarating about passing on knowledge.”

When Finamore taught the class as part of his on-campus interview for a position at the UI, he gave students a personal example of word power. He wrote his name on the board, broke it down into the component parts of “Fin” and “Amore,” and then explained the meaning: “pure love.” So engaging was his teaching that, at the end of the class, students gave him an ovation.

In that instance, actions spoke louder than words.