Marie de France

Image result for marie de france

Marie de France was a 12th Century author who wrote between roughly 1160 and 1215 and is consider the pinnacle of Anglo-Norman literature. We know so little about her life that scholars aren’t quite sure which Marie she is. We know she was French, as her most famous works were written in a dialect of French spoken in Paris at the time. As her works have been found most commonly scattered throughout England, we can assume she most likely lived there as an adult. She attained a high level of education, being both literate and multilingual; based on those facts we can presume she was a fairly prominent figure, potentially an abbess or Henry II’s half-sister. Her works were widely popular throughout England and well known at the court of Henry II.

Having a French author writing in French while living in England would have been a commonplace occurrence in 12th Century England. In 1066, a leader named William the Conqueror (the Duke of Normandy in what is now Northern France) led an army to England and conquered the realm. The invaders installed themselves as the new nobility, with William as King of England, and made the English their servants. French became the language of the nobility in England for centuries after. 

Marie’s most famous work is a series of poems known as the “Lais of Marie de France.” Lais were a form of poetry often used by travelling Breton minstrels. Marie took the form and made it her own, being the first to use the lai for narrative poetry. Her stories are one of the best examples we have of the courtly love tradition, filled with love triangles, adultery, loss, adventure – even, at times, fairies. Marie skirts reality, with strong elements of Celtic folklore woven throughout. Her settings are fully realistic, but her characters are sometimes more supernatural. One lai, Bisclavret, even features a werewolf as a protagonist.

Image result for marie de france bisclavret

Courtly love is one of the biggest traditions in medieval European literature. The typical structure of a courtly love story involves a knight seeing a lady at court and then pursuing ever greater feats in an attempt to win her affections. In general, the love the knight feels is ennobling: it causes him to go on adventures, risk life and limb, and generally do what he can to improve his reputation, his position at court, and (usually) the kingdom. The lady typically acts as catalyst for the knight’s actions but has little else to do. The relationships themselves are typically unconsummated.

In Marie’s lais, however, courtly love is a bit more active. Women have a much stronger role. Women in some of her tales are adulterous, usually seeking to get some space from a forced marriage to an abuser or a much older man. Even in the best cases, however, love causes the lovers to suffer. There are very rarely any happy relationships in the way we would think of them today. In Marie’s world, lovers can be loyal to each other, but they will suffer, sometimes die, for that love.



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Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Frame Story:

Chaucer sets up his collection of stories as his chance meeting in tavern Southwark, where in he encounters 29 pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and the shrine to St. Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop Canterbury (1163-1170) murdered on the orders of King Henry II.

Image result for canterbury tales pilgrims

The catalyst that starts the tales is the barkeep, Barry Bailey, proposing that to occupy their time on they way to Canterbury that each pilgrim tell four tales, two on the way to and two on the way back, and he will choose the best tale. In total, The Canterbury Tales by design should contain 120 tales. However, since Chaucer never finished his master piece, the text that we have is fragmentary and incomplete.

Chaucer was not the first to write such a collection of stories. The literary tradition of an author setting up a bunch of stories by having a series of characters have a story-telling contest started with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron ( pub. 1353), which may very well have inspired Chaucer to write The Canterbury Tales.

Now, the structure of The Canterbury Tales has each pilgrim introduced with prologue, where she or he comments on the prior tale told, and a tale reflective of themselves. For example, The Canterbury Tales opens with the Knight, the highest in social ranking among the pilgrims, telling of Palamon and Arcites, two imprison knights and cousins, who have fallen in love with the same woman, Emelye. The Knight’s Tale is a romance in the courtly love tradition.

What’s important to understand is that the pilgrims’ tales are all different types of stories. The Canterbury Tales contains fabliaux, parables, fables, and romances. The Canterbury Tales does have consistent order or unifying theme to it. Rather, it is chaotic with each tale being determined by the teller.

The Miller’s Tale

Image result for canterbury tales characters millerChaucer sets up the Miller’s Tale in an interesting way – by actually apologizing for having to retell it. In the prologue to his tale, the Miller drunkenly claims that he must “requite” the knight for his tale and claims that he will tell a ribald tale of cuckoldry involving a carpenter, his wife, and their lodger Nicholas, a lustful clerk. Already, Chaucer is setting up how different of a tale the Miller will tell. The Knight, characteristically, offers a tale of courtly romance. On the other hand, the Miller is going to give to us a fabliau, a story that centers on the common folk and the hijinks of illicit sex.

One of the best ways I have ever heard to define a fabliau was as a long extended dirty joke. The genre, originating in France in the 12th-century, deals with a wife cheating on her husband or a young man tricking an unsuspecting young woman into having sex. In many fabliaux, the husband or father-figure will come off as naive and fall prey to a more cunning wife or her lover. A fabliau will contain references to bodily humor and crude language. To that end, the fabliau is more authentic in its depiction of everyday life, which may explain why it was so popular. One could make the argument that fabliaux through humor undercut or defuse the male anxiety of being cuckolded.

One question that readers of The Canterbury Tales have to contend with is why would Chaucer have the Knight’s Tales followed by that of the Miller.

The Wife of Bath

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From her introduction in the General Prologue (lns. 447-478), the Wife of Bath, or Allison, stands out among the pilgrims. First, she is the only one not identified through a profession or clerical position. She is more traveled than most of the other pilgrims, for she has been to Jerusalem three times, Rome, Bologna and Cologne. (Also, take note to how she is journeying alone.) She is described much through much of her sexual life – her having five husbands and “Withouten other compaignye in youthe.” While modern readers may understand may see the Wife of Bath as anticipating the modern empowered woman, Chaucer is responding to a contemporary debate on the spiritual merit of marriage.

Your textbook (pg. 282) refers to St. Jerome’s treatise on marriage (circa 393 CE), in which he condemns marriage as lower spiritual life than virginity. He writes: “My reply is, just because we have such organs below our waist and have the desire to use them in intercourse, that does not mean we are required to use them all the time, or that we cannot choose a higher way of life than engaging in the activities that join us to the animals.” Jerome goes on to argue that wives are needy both sexually and materialistically and trick their husbands into marriage by appearing to be someone they are not.  In her Prologue, the Wife of Bath responds to in general this condemnation of marriage and women. Her argument is that while whose who rail against marriage do so on just bookish authority, she has her own experience to support her claim we were made to “engendure.”

The tale Alisoun tells takes the form of an Arthurian quest. Her story is of knight who having committed rape has a year to find the answer to the question of what all women most desire. Failing this quest would mean the knight’s life. As the time to find an answer draws near, he meets an old, poor woman who claims to know the answer to his quest. Upon returning to the court, the knight gives his answer that what all women most desire is to have sovereignty over their husbands. In recompense for her helping the knight, she demands that he marries her, which he is forced to do. The tale resolves on the knight deciding what type of wife he wants.

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The Fall and Rise of English in England

The Norman Invasion

Last week we explored the earliest form of our language, that of the Anglo-Saxons. Now we are moving ahead to the next period in the development of our language, known as Middle English, and this period starts in 1066 with William the Conqueror.

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The Anglo-Saxons were not a unified people but were rather a bunch of tribes constantly fighting among themselves. Not until William, the Conqueror did what we know as England today have a ruling monarch. William’s conquest of the Anglo-Saxons culminated in the Battle of Hasting in 1066. Through his reign, William brought stability to England, albeit through subjugation of the Anglo-Saxons.

Connecting this back to the history the English language, it is important to remember that William was from Normandy and would have spoken an older form of French.

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English becomes the peasant language

With William’s conquest, French became the language spoken by the ruling class. For the next two centuries, the monarchs and French would have been the language of the nobility.  English, on the other hand, was the language spoken by the peasantry, the majority of the population. You can see this class distinction in English today. Consider the words chicken vs. poultry, cow vs. beef, or pig vs. pork. Notice how the word for the food from the animal is French, while the name of the animal is derived from Old English.

While the monarchs for the next three centuries would identify as French, the Anglo-Normans gradually became culturally distinct and intermarried with the Anglo-Saxon population. In 1204, King John of England, brother to King Richard the Lionheart and the one depicted as the villain in the Robin hood tales, lost the English monarchy’s hold on Normandy. Eventually from 1337 to 1453, England participated in an intermittent war with France to regain their control of Normandy, known as the Hundred Years War. (We are actually going to read about part of the Hundred-Year War in Shakespeare’s Henry V.) By this point, the monarchs of England saw themselves as uniquely English.

It is as this point, roughly the 14th Century, English again becomes the predominant language spoken, although by this point it had changed quite a  lot. In how the language is spoken (phonology), how words are spelled (orthography), and what words exist in the language (lexicology),  English starts to resemble more what we speak today. Here’s sample from the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour,

Though the spelling may be slightly different, most modern-speakers of English can recognize many of the words. (“shoures”=”showers,” “droghte”=”draught,” “perced”=”pierced,” “swich”=”such,” and “licour”=”liquour.”) Also, take note to how these lines of poetry contain words that derive from both Old English (“droghte,” “swich,” “Whan,” and “soote”) and Old French (“engendered,” “veyne,” “licour,” and “perced”).  At this point, English took in many loan words from French.

Here’s how these lines of verse sound:


Three points I want to make about how Middle English was spoken. First, Middle English had many different dialects – the English of London was not pronounced the same as that in the Midlands. (Chaucer writers in a London dialect.) Also, the way vowels sounded is different than the way we say them today. For example, the “y” in “every” today has a long “e” sound, whereas in Middle English it had a long “a” sound.  Another example is in the pronunciation of “shoures,” Middle English for “showers.” Today we say the vowel in this word with the same sound as in “bow.” In Middle English, this word would have a vowel sound similar to the long “o” in “boot.” Historian of the English language refer to this change in how vowels sound as the Great Vowel Shift.

These opening lines to Geoffrey Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales embody the English language’s evolution at this point.

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Meet the Anglo-Saxons


Image result for anglo saxon mead hall

First, you must understand that England is a land that has been conquered many times over. The earliest culture to inhabit that island were the Celts, who first came to the British Isle during the Bronze Age. The Romans colonized the island and some of the Celtic tribes, with their rule lasting from 43 ca. to roughly the fifth century. The literature we begin the course with comes from the peoples who would push the Celts into the western parts of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons.

Christianizing of Pagan Warriors

The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic peoples, coming from Saxony and Anglia, or modern-day Germany and Denmark.

Image result for saxony and anglia map

The Angle-Saxons brought with them an entirely different culture the native Celts, referred to by the Romans as the Britons. The Britons had readily adopted Roman civilization and, most importantly, Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans, which meant they did not have a conception of an afterlife. However, Christianity does make its way into Anglo-Saxon literature, which is mainly due to Anglo-Saxon being an oral culture. In 597, St. Augustine came to Kent as a missionary to Christianize the Anglo-Saxons.

Image result for st. augustine of canterbury

With the Christianizing of the Anglo-Saxons, much of their oral poems are written down by Benedictine monks. A fascinating aspect of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the integrating of Christian beliefs and Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic. (When defining the Anglo-Saxon Warrior ethic, the idea primarily focused on the pledge made by a lord’s retainer to defend and, if necessary, die in battle for his lord. This ethic valued violence, strength, and worldly exploits over passivity and spirituality.) The dream poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” shows this integration as the Rood, or the Cross, recounts Christ’s Crucifixion.

Further, with Anglo-Saxons came the first origins of the English Language, known as Old English. Here’s a sample of what Old English looks like:

Oft him anhaga           are gebideð

metudes miltse,           þeah þe he modcearig

geond lagulade            longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum    hrimcealde sæ

wadan wræclastas.      Wyrd bið ful aræd!

These are the opening lines to “The Wanderer,” which translates to “Often the solitary man finds grace for himself the mercy of the lord, although he, sorry-hearted, must for a long time row along the waterways, along the ice-cold sea, tread the paths of exile.” Also, here’s a Youtube clip of what this version of English may have sounded like:

If this language looks and sounds foreign appears, that is because the English Language has evolved so much over nearly 1400 years.

“longing for a hall    and a lord of rings” – The Comitatus

In surveying Anglo-Saxon culture, the social structure of the comitatus, the pledge of allegiance between the a thegn, or thane, and his warlord. The Anglo-Saxons were not united under one king but were really a bunch of competing tribes. These tribes were based on the loyalty between the thegn  and the warlord. John M. Hill outlines the tenets of this loyalty

between retainer and warlord, as especially enacted by the exchange of gifts for services and services for gifts; revenge obligation regarding injury or death, on behalf of kinsmen as well as for one’s lord; and fame-assuring battle courage, especially in a successful outcome – battlefield victory – seems impossible.

This symbol of loyalty between the thegn and the warlord appears as the warlord bestowing a ring to his thegn. (In the prologue to Beowulf, Hrothgar is noted for giving out rings to his warriors.) Now one of the worst acts a thegn could do was to betray his pledge, or be an oath-breaker. Doing so would make one an outcast with no home. (This sorrow of being without a lord comes through in “The Wanderer.” Here the speaker describes his “longing for a hall and a lord of rings” (ln. 25).) As you read “The Wanderer” and the excerpt from Beowulf, keep an eye out for how the importance of oaths being kept comes across. You could be nothing worse in the Anglo-Saxon culture than an “oath-breaker.”

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Wikipedia as a scene of writing,pt. 4 (final)

The semester is finishing up, and I am finalizing my students’ grades. This is the second term that I have had students work through the Wikipedia project, adopting and becoming an editor of an article of their choosing. As with any project that we do with our students, I know that the Wikipedia project will continue to evolve. What I want to share in this final blog post is an outline of the final part of the Wikipedia project, some students’ responses to the project, and some thoughts on how I will revise the project.

Wikipedia Wrap-Up

The question I have my students focus on in the final writing for the project is whether the premise of Wikipedia, i.e. that a decentralized, self-policing community can produced an accurate online encyclopedia, that edits should be judged on merit not on credentials of the editor, and that by allowing universal edits a Wikipedia article will represent all major views on a topic, works. While editing their chosen article, students gain the real-life experience of working on an online published documents collaboratively with editors outside of the classroom; however,when it comes to the wrap-up for the project, I ask my students to reflect on their own experience to make an overall statement about the legitimacy of Wikipedia. Students come to our classes with preconceived ideas about Wikipedia, most, honestly, not based on personal experience but rather on teacher admonishments. I hope that some of these ideas are problematized for my students through actually attempting to edit their articles.

Not all students find that Wikipedia works. A really fascinating aspect of this project for me is the diversity of my students’ experiences. Some students find an active community built around their chosen article and other Wikipedians challenging their edits, while others receive little to no feedback or response. I ask students to consider how important was the interaction or lack of to the quality of the article. That is, Wikipedia counts on an active community of volunteer editors to ensure the neutrality and accuracy of its content. Is this faith misplaced? In addition to reflecting on their own experience, students also relate evaluation of Wikipedia to two other texts, dealing with the merit of the website, that we had read throughout the term. Here’s the list of texts that guide our conversation about Wikipedia:

Katherine Mangu-Ward’s “Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales’ Sprawling Vision”

Clay Shirky’s “Wikipedia – An Unplanned Miracle”

Jon Brodkin’s “The 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia’s first 10 years”

The clips from The Colbert Report on “Wikiality” and “Wikilobbying”

Will Oremus’s “Wikipedia’s ‘Sockpuppet’ Problem”

Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia”

(All of these texts can be found online with a quick Google search.)

NoeNothing, Inmemoryofbabyluna, Sunshinebird28, and Philip121

Above are some of the usernames that my students took as Wikipedians. (I was very glad that my lecture to them about protecting their identity when online took!) I would like to highlight some of my students’ experiences as Wikipedians. Now there some common themes among my students’ final thoughts on their semester-long projects. For those students whose chosen articles were not very active, there was a general sense of frustration. One such student wrote: “[The] only reliable feedback that I got were minor tweaks to my edits made by other editors. I would like to [have received] some kind of feedback because writing something that no one gives criticism to is pointless.” While this student’s time editing may have seemed wasted to him, I would argue that he came learn the importance of receiving response to his writing.

Another common theme fThank you, Danny Troopor my students was their being forced to more in-depth their topics. Many students remarked that for a typical research essay they would perform some cursory research, gather the required number of sources and cite them throughout the paper. However, when editing Wikipedia, students noted that they had to go beyond what a Google search would turn up to discover new, vital information to contribute. I want to quote in length a passage from a students’ progress report on their edits, mainly because I think speaks to a struggle that many composition instructors encounter:

I felt as if every time I found something new on my topic, I just read further into the article that i was working on and found that it was just in a different subtopic than I had expected…I know that we had discussed different ways of doing research and how you can find great sources. But 80% of the time I just look at the first couple of articles that pop up on Google when I type in my preferred topic I’m researching…After this discussion we went to the library and found books on our topic. This really helped me out. I found books on my topic with way more information on my article than what was popping up on top of the Google search.

In my composition course, we have frequent conversations about how to research, gather material, using search engines other than Google. What this student’s comment helped me to realize was that no matter the amount of directing our students away from just relying on Google, most research essay assignments don’t challenge our students to do so. Or, if we require our students to use library databases, such as ProQuest or LexisNexis, it becomes just an imposed obstacle for our students. However, in having them edit a Wikipedia article, students come to appreciate the value of going beyond a Google search. Doing so becomes a meaningful part of the project!

A surprise for me that came out of my students’ experience was how many would continue to edit their articles even after the course was over. Out of my three composition courses this term, three students were asked to invite to become a part of select groups of editors on a topic. A student, who spent the term editing the article “Cannabis in the United States,” wrote, “Continuing, I have not had any monumental interactions with fellow editors, but through helping my… Wikipedia article, I have been invited to be a part of the WikiProject Cannabis, a WikiProject dedicated to improving articles related to Cannabis.” As a writing professor, my goal is to help my students see the value of their voice for conversation defining their social, political, cultural moment. The benefit of Wikipedia is that it allows students to participate in these conversations beyond the artificial community of our classrooms.

Final Thought

I want to finish this series of blog posts on the Wikipedia project by considering a question that Caitlin Martin poses in her blog post on Kuhne and Creel’s TETYC article on having students edit Wikipedia. Martin raise insightful questions about the merits of this project, many of which had me reconsidering what I was doing in the classroom. While I don’t wish to take on all of the questions that she poses, I would like to address her concern regarding the writing strategies that students develop through such editing Wikipedia. Martin writes,”What will happen when a student is asked to write a research paper in his or her history class, and he or she simply does not have the writing strategies necessary to complete the assignment effectively?” A very legitimate question! Part of how I address this concern is by having student also write what may be seen as more traditional essays, such response essays and argumentative synthesis essays, practices process writing; however, these writing projects do tie back to their work on Wikipedia. (For example, the topic for their argumentative synthesis comes out of the research for their editing of Wikipedia.)

Pertaining to the actual writing that students do on Wikipedia, it goes beyond simply summarizing and paraphrasing sources.  I require students to justify every edit they will make by posting in the Talk section. Here students argue for why their proposed edit is significant and must engage other editors. This part of the project is dependent on their being an active community around the article, something that I am going to check from now before recommending articles to students. Overall, student here argue for the merit of their research, a skill that is absolutely transferable to other writing situations. 

My intent in having written this series of posts on the Wikipedia project has been both selfish and altruistic. Selfish in that I want to take the chance to reflect on what I am doing with composition courses; altruistic in that I want to share what I think may be working to encourage student writing to other teachers. For this latter part, I have included all my handouts for the project. (Below are the assignment sheets for the progress reports and the Wikipedia wrap-up.) If you have the chance, please leave me your thoughts.

First Progress Report

Second Progress Report

Wikipedia Wrap-up




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Wikipedia as a Scene of Writing, pt. 3

This week’s post is devoted to laying out the semester-long Wikipedia project. As with all facets of our courses, this project has  and is very much evolving from its earliest version. Actually my Wikipedia project itself stems from a writing assignment that my then dean, Andy Anderson, recommended, which still holds a central place in the project.

Step 1: Evaluating Wikipedia

So in the conversations about Wikipedia, I ask my students to visit the Wikipedia page on the 5 Pillars.  Essentially what these are core principles by which the Wikipedian community works. I usually devote an entire class discussing and unpacking each of these pillars, understanding how each relates to the underlying belief that a self-policing community of volunteer editors would be able to maintain such a powerful source of knowledge. The pillar that I spend the most time on pertains to Wikipedia’s neutrality policy:

We strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence in an impartial tone. We avoid advocacy and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them. In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in others, we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context rather than as “the truth” or “the best view”. All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial or is on living persons. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong.

Here I encourage my students to consider the difference that Wikipedia implies between neutrality and objectivity – that a Wikipedia article will acknowledge the controversy on a topic and will look to present and give due weight to recognized points of view. (Here I usual ask students how we might be able to determine major and minor points of view on a topic.)

The discussion of neutrality on Wikipedia leads into the first writing assignment. I ask students to select a Wikipedia article from a list I give them, emphasizing they should choose a topic they can imagine spending the term researching. After reading through the article and “Talk” page, I ask students to find 3-4 sources that were not cited in the Wikipedia article. From these sources, students identify key pieces of information that were omitted from the Wikipedia article. Based on their research, students evaluate the Wikipedia article to see whether it adheres to the neutrality pillar. (To help students wrap their minds around the assignment, I suggest a hypothetical: what if your only source of information about President George W. Bush was the Wikipedia article on him? Further, what if the article did not mention at all the Afghanistan or Iraq Wars? Would you then have an accurate view of his presidency? The idea here is that bias can be created through omission.)

Wikipedia Essay

The pitfall that some students encounter is that they understand the assignment as a typical informative research paper, one which the Wikipedia article simply becomes just one of the sources they cite. The best way I have come up with for anticipating this problem is by emphasizing for students that this is not an essay about the topic of the Wikipedia article but rather about the article itself . In other words, the essay is not meant to inform the reader about, say, school bullying in the United States, but the purpose is to evaluate the Wikipedia article on this topic. I remind my students that their essay should support their conclusion on how the article needs to change. (Given the complexity of the assignment, I am very generous in allowing my students to revise their submissions.)

Step 2: Wikipedia, What’s it Good For?

Once students have completed this part of the project, we have a class devoted to beginning editing their chosen Wikipedia article. Now there is quite a lot of content that I cover with my students in this class meeting, but the three major topics we deal with are 1) the parameters of the editing part of the project (I have image of the assignment sheet below), 2) the need to stay safe online, and 3) the user-interface for making edits on Wikipedia.

Here’s an image of the Wikipedia project assignment sheet:

Wikipedia Project

At this point, students will have done some cursory research on their topic. Based on the research, they have a starting point to make some edits. Students can be resistant to this part of the project. A common complaint that students have voiced to me is that the article is “perfect” and does not need to be edited. When I encounter this response, I ask students to visit the “talk” section of the article to see what other editors have to say about the article. Sometimes doing so gives my students  springboards for their edits. Another concern students have is that they are not experts in the topic and so have no right to edit the article. To this I like remind my students that Wikipedia is not for professionals or experts in the field – it is for those who care about the topic and want to ensure that the most accurate and neutral information is available. Further, I try to encourage them by pointing out that they do have a right to voice what they have learned through their research.

Here’s are some more tips that I have learned so far in introducing the overall Wikipedia project to my students:

1) Make sure that you are also an active Wikipedian. (During this class I introduce students to the Wikipedia article, “Works by Francis Bacon,” that I have been editing over the past three years under the username Atownnative. I will make an edit in class as a model for my students.)

2) Although a bit dated, show students this Youtube video on how to edit a Wikipedia article. (When students create their Wikipedia accounts, they will have to do so outside of the classroom. Wikipedia allows only one account to be created at a time on the same IP address.)

3) Discuss with students how to stay safe online. (I advise my students not to create usernames that in any way relate to their real life identities. Also, I warn them from giving out any personal information to other Wikipedia users – all communication should be done via website and not from personal emails.)

4) Finally, set some class time aside throughout the term so that students can work on their edits. You may have to reserve a computer lab for this part. (Even the most web savvy students will need some help making their edits through Wikipedia’s interface. You should become very familiar with how to do operate the edit feature on Wikipedia.)

My next post on the Wikipedia project will cover the progress reports and overall where I see the project being successful and where I would like to improve it.

Here are the above assignment sheet in WordDoc format:

Wikipedia Essay Assignment Sheet

Editing Wikipedia Semester Project

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True or False? Take Our April Fool’s Literary Quiz

Here’s a fun literary trivia quiz from

Interesting Literature

As today is April 1st, better known as April Fool’s Day, we thought we’d separate the truth from the tricks in a special quiz. Below are ten ‘facts’ about literary works or famous writers which may be true or may be utterly false (but often believed to be true). Can you tell the the facts from the fiction? Or will you end up fooled? We’ll put the questions in the top half, and the answers and explanations underneath. Tell us how you do in the comments below, and invite your friends and family to take the fiendish foolish quiz!

1. In the 1980s, John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath was translated into Japanese as ‘The Angry Raisins’.

2. Book paper almost always catches fire and burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, hence the title of Ray Bradbury’s novel.

3. One of Dylan Thomas’s first published poems was plagiarised from a comic called…

View original post 849 more words

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Wikipedia as Scene of Writing, pt. 2

When introducing the concept of Web 2.0 to my students, two terms always come into play in our conversation – “digital native” and “digital immigrant.” The generational dividing line between these two groups is a bit elusive – some associate “digital natives” with the millennials (those born 1980 or after), while others set the date at around 1990. In essence, a “digital native” is inherently internet savvy – one who sees Web 2.0 technologies as always having been there for them. They are comfortable navigating search engine and have not know a time when websites, like Wikipedia, were not available for them to access information. Conversely, “digital immigrants” are those who, while not necessarily unfamiliar with Web 2.0 technology, were born before the widespread use of digital media. For “digital immigrants,” Web 2.0 technologies may not seem as intuitive as they do for “digital natives.”

Along with this intuitiveness comes a lack of critical questioning on the part of digital natives regarding online sources. A 2010 study conducted at Northwestern University posed the question of what cues do undergraduate students use in determining the credibility of material found online. Surveying 1,060 students and then conducting interviews and direct observations with 102 students, the researched found that the criteria used to assess credibility was the ranking in branded search engines, such as Google: “We find evidence of users’ trust in search engines with respect to the credibility of information they find when using these services. To complete many of the assigned tasks, students often turned to a particular search engine as their first step. When using a search engine, many students clicked on the first search result. Over a quarter of respondents mentioned that they chose a Web site because the search engine had returned that site as the first result suggesting considerable trust in these services ” (479). (I do enjoy explaining to my students how Google’s ranking are not based on credibility ( a subjective measurement) but rather number of visits (a objective measurement).)

When it comes to Wikipedia, how an article is created, maintained, and edited is generally a mystery to students. Back in 2011, Tushar Rae had a great piece in The Chronicle of Higher Ed  on how students are generally ill-informed about Wikipedia. Based on a study, entitled ““Young Adults’ Credibility Assessment of Wikipedia,” that Rae cites, most students’ understanding of Wikipedia comes from teachers’ and professors’ warning against the site rather than information available on the site itself. Most students’s experience of Wikipedia is limited to to just retrieving some general knowledge about a subject. (But let’s be honest, that is the majority of visitors to Wikipedia.)

I take my students’ lack of or limited understanding of how the community of Wikipedia functions as the starting point for our discussion. Based on this I open our conversation about Wikipedia with a compare-contrast exercise. I divide my students into groups and distribute to each group a xeroxed copy of the entry on Darwinism from The Encyclopedia Britannica. Then I ask students to go to Wikipedia and find the corresponding entry for Darwinism. The task for my students is to contrast both these entries for how the information is presented to them. (I give them a brief explanation about the difference between content (the information that each entry offers) and form (the presentation of the knowledge).) After while, we come back together to generate a class list of differences they noticed.

Encyclopedia Britannica






WP Darwinism

This exercise serves multiple purposes. First, it allows students to explore a Wikipedia page, becoming aware of the “Talk” section, “History” page, and all of the languages the article is available in. Second, and more importantly, the list acts as a leaping-off point for discussing how each source of information places users in different roles. That is, two of the questions that I ask students are (1) what’s your job when it comes to The Encyclopedia Britannica and (2) how’s this different from what Wikipedia asks of you. My goal here is to introduce students to the concepts of centralized and de-centralized forms of knowledge gathering. We talk about how power is concentrated among a few when it comes The Encyclopedia Britannica, while power is dispersed among all users (ideally speaking) on WikipediaA hypothetical that I pose students is for The Encyclopedia Britannica who determines how long the entry on Jesus Christ is versus how long the entry on Muhammad is and then who gets to make that decision on Wikipedia. Since most students already come to class with a prejudice against Wikipedia, I try to suggest the ethical concerns that The Encyclopedia Britannica offers when it comes to who can and cannot take part in knowledge production. (A great essay that piggybacks on my students and my conversation is Katherine Mangu-Ward’s “Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales’ Sprawling Vision.”)

Here’s a pdf of Mangue-Ward’s article:Mangu-Ward__Wikipedia_and_Beyond

So next week’s post I will devote to explaining the first writing assignment of the Wikipedia project. If you have any feedback to about this lesson, I would love to hear from you!




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Wikipedia as a Scene of Writing, pt. 1


I want to shift the focus of my blog a bit. That is, I am going to dedicate the next four blog posts to a  writing project that I have been developing in my Composition II courses for the past three terms. My motivation for doing comes out of an article that colleague of mine, Andrea Broomfield, posted to her FB profile. (Please forgive me for not having the actual title of the article. Andrea, if you read this post, would you mine helping me out?) Anyway, the gist of the piece was about ways teaching in the 21st century is changing. The part of the article that struck a cord with me was how teachers need to share, via, blogs, Tweets, etc., what they are doing in the classroom. Having taught for more than a decade now, I have benefited so much from those more experienced teachers who were willing to let me steal from them. So in this spirit, I would like to share a semester-long project that I have had some success with it for any other writing teacher who would like to use it or offer some feedback on how it could be improved.

The idea for the project came out of multiple sources. Particularly, though, the project responds to a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Ed. In his letter, titled “Who Says Wikipedia Isn’t Trustworthy?”, Richard Morrill, a librarian at Lake-Sumter Community College, argues that instructors must change how they broach the topic of Wikipedia with their students.  Instead of just hectoring students that Wikipedia is an unreliable source, Morrill writes, “Surely the thing that librarians and English instructors should be doing is giving students assignments to find and evaluate critically information in the Wikipedia?” I have a mixed response to Morrill’s claim. I absolutely agree that simply telling students that Wikipedia is unreliable does not allow for the independent critical thought that we should nurture in our students. However, I think Morrill brings a Web 1.0 mindset to a Web 2.0 site. Wikipedia cannot be treated simply as another traditional academic resource that positions users as a passive, receptive audience. Instead Wikipedia is a forum, a space in which those dedicated to a topic contribute their knowledge in a vigorous and, most of the time, thoughtful way. If anything, the articles are snapshots of rather long, involved debates/discussions among Wikipedians.  Wikipedia is not a source for our students to cite but rather a scene of writing for our students to participate in!

With this characterization of Wikipedia, I have been working on a project in which my students adopt a Wikipedia article of their choosing (although, I do set out some guidelines) for the term. The project works like this: after choosing a Wikipedia article, students evaluate it against non-Wikipedia sources and, then throughout the term, make eight to ten major edits to the article, while engaging in the “Talk” section. Michael Kuhne and Gill Creel describe a similar project in their article “Wikipedia, ‘the People Formerly Known as the Audience’ and First-Year Writing” in the December, 2013 issue of TETYC. (Caitlin Martin raises some significant questions as to the writing skills students are developing through this project at her blog, Cooking and Composition.)

Now there’s a  huge amount of scaffolding that accompanies every stage of the project that I will get into in subsequent posts about this project. However, I want to mention here how students respond to the feedback from other Wikipedians. One of the greatest frustrations that I have had as a writing professor is how students generally ignore my comments on their papers. While incorporating revision based on my feedback, students generally do not have a sense of urgency when it comes to my comments. Yet regarding publishing their writing on Wikipedia, my students perforce must engage with the other editors of the article through the “Talk” section. (While not all the feedback they receive is of the same quality, these interactions present an opportunity for my students talk about how to respond to comments made by other writers not within the classroom. That is, the comments made on their edits come from beyond the artificial community of our classroom and so take on greater weight for students.) Kuhne and Creel observed that through having their students edit Wikipedia articles, their roles as teachers became more facilitative, which is a transition I have experienced as well.

So over the next few weeks I am going to publish a series of posts about this project, covering these topics:

1) How to introduce students to Wikipedia

2) How to set up the project

3) What type of writing students are practicing

4) How the project still needs to evolve

I am going to include all handouts and supplemental readings I give my students, along with outlines for lesson plans. My hope is that anyone who wants to try this project out in their course will find my posts helpful and also may be offer some feedback on how I may be able to improve the project for my students.

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Walt Whitman’s and Langston Hughes’ America

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is one of the first true American poets.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

In the preface to his most well-known and influential work, Leaves of Grass (1855) , Whitman has this to say about the poet’s relationship to his/her country:”The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbs it.” Here Whitman claims that the measure of a poet is in how well s/he speaks the voice of the country. Whitman in his poems seeks to articulate the idea of America and what it means to be an American.

leaves of grass

“I Hear America Singing” exemplifies this goal of Whitman’s. Before delving into the beautiful and problematic metaphor that he constructs, I want touch on two poetic devices he employs in the poem. As you read the poem, you probably noticed that the poem itself is simply a list of different laborers at their work – the mechanic, the carpenter, the mason, the boatman, the deckhand, the shoemaker, the hatter, the wood-cutter, the ploughboy, the mother, the housewife, and the young girl sewing (these last three I will discuss in a little bit later). The style of poem that Whitman is most known for is called a catalogue poem. Essentially, a catalogue poem is a list of different items that the poet sees as having some type of relationship or characteristic uniting them. So the question for us, as readers, is what unifies all of these people together. In choosing whom to include in his poem, Whitman is making a statement about American identity. (More about this later on.)

The other poetic device I want to highlight in the poem is free verse. Way back in my first blog post on the sonnet tradition, I introduced the term blank verse, also known as iambic pentameter – a line of poetry that contains 10 syllables alternating between unstressed and stressed and divided into five feet. Until to Whitman, poets followed strict rules governing meter – the rhythm of stresses and unstressed syllables. In his poetry, Whitman does something very radical – the lines of his poetry do not follow any rules governing meter. He uses free verse. In a way, we might think of Whitman’s use of free verse as defining him as an American poet. A characteristic that we share as Americans is the need to break away from the old, the rigid, the conventional. We prize the radical, the innovator, the one looks to express his/her individuality. So by writing in free verse, Whitman captures this facet of American-ness.

Now lets go back to content of the poem, those people Whitman chooses to see as singing the carol of America. The similarity that binds all of these characters is that they are part of the working class. Whitman celebrates in this poem the laborer, whom he views as truly embodying the American. (These are the people, part of the society, often overlooked by poets.) Moreover, the song he hears is them at work – the sound of the carpenter sawing wood or the mason laying his stone. A really interesting, and progressive, part of this poem comes in line 8, when Whitman decides to include women at their domestic labor in his catalogue. The work that women do as mothers, as homemakers, as “the girl sewing or washing” contributes as much to America as the male labor performed outside of the home. In this way, Whitman’s vision of America is inclusive regarding gender.

Finally, I want to unpack the significance of the last line of the poem: “Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs” (line 11). In this poem, the metaphor that Whitman uses to describe his idea of America is a chorus. In a choir, singers have their individual parts or roles that come together to form a harmonious whole. For Whitman, America is made up of individuals but who form this nation as community. (Your textbook identifies this as the American ideal of e pluribus unum – “Out of many, one.”) To give a bit of historical context, Whitman publishes this poem in 1860, three years before the outbreak of the Civil War. So when Whitman writes this poem stressing American unity, he is witnessing his country dividing along political lines. Even today, we might question the accuracy of Whitman’s vision of America as harmonious – are there those whose voices are not included in the song of America?

Langston Hughes

Hopefully, you have had the enjoyment of reading a poem by Langston Hughes before this course.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

He is one of my favorite 20th-centruy poets! Moreover, he is a native of Missouri, born in Joplin in 1902. (He actually lived in Lawrence, KS during his youth.) Taking up permanent residence in New York City in 1929, Hughes became the voice of the Harlem Renaissance – an artistic movement that celebrated the art, poetry, literature, and music of the African-American community. In his poem “I, Too” Hughes takes a difficult and fraught question – how to identify with a country that has rejected him? In other words, how can one reconcile being black and being an American?

The opening line of the poem (“I, too, sing America”) is a direct response to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing.” Hughes’ word-choice is important here. The first word of the poem, “I,” suggests an urgency to assert his identity. The “I” here is not just Hughes but is more general – the “I” is that of the African-American. Hughes’ use of “too” creates a sense that his song, his voice, has been overlooked and not listened to in the carol of America. The black American experience, that defined by slavery, violence, dehumanization, segregation, is a part of our national identity and history, albeit one that is hard to accept. In the opening to his poem, Hughes rightfully demands recognition for this part of the American song, that has been mostly demeaned and neglected.

In the second stanza, Hughes represents the African-American experience as that of the “darker brother” who is forced eat in the kitchen “when company comes.” (Remember that Hughes is writing during the period of segregation, when he would see signs reading, “Whites only.”)

segregated phone booth

coloredswimming pool

drinking fountain

However, Hughes expresses defiance in being excluded from the dinner table: “But I laugh,/ And eat well,/ And grow strong.”

Overall, Hughes’ poem is optimistic. The third stanza looks forward to a time beyond segregation, when he will sit at the table. (Notice that the stanza opens and closes with words that indicate a point in the future: “tomorrow” and “then.”) What’s important to note in this stanza is that the speaker does not wait to be invited to the table but asserts his rightful place. Hughes in this stanza continues his challenge when his speaker mentions that “nobody’ll dare” send him to eat in the kitchen.  Furthermore, in lines 15-17, the speaker sees a time when those who had discriminated against him will recognize his beauty and strength and will be “ashamed.”

The final line of the  poem (“I, too, am America.”) mirrors the first: again there is this sense of urgency to assert his American identity. His experience, his story of racism and discrimination and of triumphing over it to claim his equality is one that is an essential part of the American tale. Although there are those who would deny his story and his American-ness, Hughes, through this poem, demands recognition of it.

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