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.
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 for 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.
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.