Today while being totally unacademic, I came across the December 2012 issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College on my desk. I had glanced over it a couple of times but not done much actual reading of it, probably because I was completely absorbed with my reading list about when it came out. For some reason, one of the articles caught my eye today, about teaching with Wikipedia in the first-year research writing classroom.
I wish I had read it almost a year ago when it came out because it makes me reflect on and critique my own teaching of research writing. In “Wikipedia, ‘the People Formerly Known as the Audience,’ and First-Year Writing,” Michael Kuhne and Gill Creel discuss the pedagogy of their first-year research writing class in which students write about and in Wikipedia. Drawing on Rosen, they discuss the “read/write web” (177) and how it offers opportunities for students to interact with their audiences. Specifically, their article focuses on explaining some of the changes that their own students made to Wikipedia articles and the audiences (both bots and humans) who responded to those revisions. Overall, they make a compelling argument for teaching students to conduct research and write to an “audience [that] is no longer static and imaginable but dynamic and real” (178). Although these writer-audience interactions are not always positive, the anecdotes Kuhne and Creel share provide insight into the productive conversations surrounding revision and editing, as well as what students learned throughout the process.
Kuhne and Creel’s course plans intrigue me. They explain the major writing projects of the course. They begin with “an analysis of one of the debates about Wikipedia raised in the literature review articles” (181). Students then read about Wikipedia’s guidelines for creating articles. After doing so, they “analyze one article and explain how it could be improved to meet these criteria” (181). Kuhne and Creel’s third project is a collaborative assignment in which students “edit a Wikipedia article and document this process in a separate collaborative document” (181). In my own pedagogy, I’m growing increasingly interested in collaborative writing projects, so this definitely caught my attention. Students end the semester with another project that makes my scholarly heart happy, a reflection “on their readings, writings, and experience during the semester” in which they “analyze anew some aspect of Wikipedia or the debates around it in light of the knowledge they have gained” (181). Personally, I think this class is very cool. It correlates well the WPA Outcomes Statement for FYC, especially in thinking about teaching students to compose in electronic environments. I really like the emphasis on reflection because metacognition is an important part of learning, and it becomes extra important when students are completing assignments or activities that they may see as a novelty.
But I’m not all sunshine and roses when it comes to thinking about this course design. I like it, to be sure, but I’m not certain it would adapt well into my current teaching environment where there is more focus on “academic” writing (with the assumption of a universal academic language and writing process) and the mechanics of Standard Academic English. I try to resist read-and-regurgitate forms of research, but sadly that is what most of my students are accustomed to (and most of them are resistant to the research-as-conversation metaphor, even when they are, in fact, engaging that conversation well). I am one of those instructors who ask students to “consider their audiences,” tasking them with thinking about who would be interested in their writing, who would be reading their writing, who would be looking to them as an authority (or at least a legitimate author) on their topic. This is a challenging task to ask of FYC students, many of whom are accustomed to seeing their teacher (and perhaps their peers) as their only audience.
I wonder about how students learn and develop the mechanics of research-based writing. When the main focus of their research is to revise Wikipedia, I feel like students may learn more about summarizing and paraphrasing, two excellent tools that will certainly transfer into other researched writing settings. But what about the sticky ground that is ethically using direct quotations? From my own experiences as a composition instructor, I can say with some degree of confidence that students struggle with selecting, integrating, and supporting ideas that come from other individuals. Being able to ethically and effectively use quotes (and paraphrases and summaries) are a key part of my pedagogy in teaching research writing, but I feel like that could get lost in a course focused on a genre that, from my experience, doesn’t seem to use (let alone emphasize) the direct quote. Perhaps this is nitpicky; perhaps I have a narrow view of the writing conducted on Wikipedia. But I am interesting enough in this pedagogy that is seems like a valid (and useful) question to further consider.
I also question if students will be able to identify the transferability of these activities and the learning that results from them. The final reflective component is going to be important to that, but it’s not just whether or not students can identify what they’ve learned. Will students actually find an opportunity for transfer of this learning? I am not in favor of viewing composition courses as being in service to the rest of the university, but there is definitely an assumption that what students do in those composition classes will relate to their writing expectations in other classes. This assumption is highly present at my own university, and it also is a major factor that contributes to my scholarly interests in transfer of writing related knowledge. I’m less concerned about helping students understand how this could transfer to other writing situations (because it is certainly more directly connected to most “real” writing that students will do), and more concerned with what rhetorical situations students will encounter when writing in other, non-composition courses. 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? In this case, has the course focused on research writing helped or hindered? It’s possible here that there is more happening in Kuhne and Creel’s courses than they can present in one article, and that students are, in fact, being exposed to the writing strategies that I am discussing.
Finally, I wonder how they discuss the voice necessary for revising a Wikipedia article effectively. Kuhne and Creel discuss their own students’ revisions, and one stands out here. When one student revised an article on an album to include the sentence “The album debuted at an incredible #3 spot on the Billboard 200,” the revisions were quickly removed by another editor. Kuhne and Creel explain that the words incredible and spot were removed, while “[t]he word ‘prominent’ was removed from another sentence.” They go on to say that “These minor changes represent, if course, a major shift in the presentation of the material.” When the student-editor adds them back in, they are again edited out by someone else. In this case, Wikipedia’s contributors and editors are seeking to maintain a neutral, unbiased viewpoint (a viewpoint that I also actively resist in my classroom). While Kuhne and Creele focus their discussion of this process on the idea that feedback can be ignored by writers regardless of who provides it, this situation also makes me think of some work one of my colleagues from Miami University is doing. Leigh Gruwell, a PhD candidate, works to “explore how Wikipedia’s policies reflect an exclusionary epistemology that mechanizes writing and knowledge production” (according to her 2013 Computers and Writing presentation, “The Mechanization of Knowledge: Wikipedia’s Silenced Voices). While Gruwell is mainly interested in the experiences of women writing on Wikipedia (as women are grossly underrepresented in terms of contributors, it seems that her work would intersect interestingly with Kuhne and Creel’s. In fact, Kuhne and Creel’s discussion of their students’ learning about revising and writing with an audience actually illustrates the numerous ways their students were silenced simply because they were new to the world of Wikipedia editing, even when this silencing was done unnecessarily. By encouraging revision that fits within Wikipedia’s “pillars,” are we not really limit the way that students develop as writers into something that is highly mechanical and leaves little room for things such as experimenting with voice, style, or modes of writing? But this is a topic that I feel like I could write much more about if I had the time, energy, and background reading.
Essentially, I’m very intrigued by Kuhne and Creel’s pedagogy using Wikipedia as fundamental tool of research writing. The course sounds fascinating and like students will encounter real learning. At the same time, I wonder how students will be able to connect that learning to other academic and professional settings. In addition, it seems almost regressive to encourage students to write in such a limited form because of what it does for audience awareness when students are losing their right to having an independent style. Of course, students could resist the style dictated by Wikipedia, but that would only result in all of their revisions being removed. There are some definite benefits to this course design, but I see some limitations that I would personally need to understand how to overcome before I attempted to adapt this course into my own.
References & Further Reading
Council of Writing Program Administrators. “WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition.” WPACouncil.org. July 2008. Web. 15 February 2014.
Gruwell, Leigh. “The Mechanization of Knowledge: Wikipedia’s Silent Voices.” Abstract. Computers and Writing Conference. Frostburg, MD. 2013.
Kuhne, Michael and Gill Creel. “Wikipedia, ‘the People Formerly Known as the Audience,” and First-Year Writing.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 40.2 (2012): 177-189. Print.