Innovative Wikipedia assignment kind of smells like comp/rhet pedagogy

There’s a good article in the October 29 Inside Higher Ed, “When Wikipedia is the assignment.” It’ll be good for something like English 516. It’s another report from the Educause conference, and it’s about how a professor teaching a course in the University of Washington at Bothell’s “Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences” program (sounds a bit like a gen ed class to me) has required her students to post their papers to Wikipedia. To quote from the article:

At first glance, a college term paper and a Wikipedia entry appear to have little in common. Term papers are intended for an “extremely limited audience, namely, me,� as Groom pointed out, they have little impact outside of the classroom and are constrained to a specific “time� and “place� in the world of ink-on-paper documents. “That is not a very good model of scholarship, to say that anything you produce [belongs] in this tiny space,� she said.

On the other hand, shared, public online documents have characteristics in common with parts of the academic review process. “The shift to thinking about placing the term paper as a Wikipedia encyclopedia entry allows for another level of peer review,� [Martha] Groom said. Such entries have references and citations; allow for a process of repeated, continual editing; and encourage collaborations between authors.

They also reach a much wider audience, through the Wikipedia site and search engines. “How do you motivate students to do their best work?� she asked — implying that the answer lies in the possibility of others viewing it. The public nature of Wikipedia content also means that, in theory, students would be less likely to reuse others’ material as their own.

In short, Wikipedia is a good place for students to publish their work because it encourages students to write beyond the teacher, it encourages revision/peer review/collaboration, it shows the importance of citation, and it makes writing public. Sound familiar?

Now, don’t get me wrong– I think what Groom is doing here is great, and I think there are lots of reasons why this would be a fantastic activity for fy comp or other research writing classes. But I always have some involuntary eye-rolling when someone in another discipline discovers something about writing pedagogy (e.g., “hey, let’s get students to write something not just for the teacher!” or “hey, let’s get them to collaborate on their writing!”) that folks in my field have known for decades.

One thought on “Innovative Wikipedia assignment kind of smells like comp/rhet pedagogy”

  1. As a longtime fan & part-time contributor to Wikipedia… I was kind of horrified by this, actually. I think it’s great that the students got to produce something for a wider audience than just the professor. I think it’s great if they got a first-hand lesson in how important it is to cite sources and be objective.

    But. That’s really not what Wikipedia is for. It’s intended as an encyclopedia, compiling the best of knowledge that’s already been established. As the IHE article pointed out, this is the second time Groom’s tried this kind of “experiment”. In the first case, her students’ articles were either “deleted or merged with existing articles”. (I’m guessing much the same thing happened this time around.) In either case, it’s more work to incorporate a term-paper length essay into a good WP article (or set of articles) than it is to write them from scratch… And yes, I’ve tried to recycle some reviews I’ve written into WP contributions, so I know what it’s like.

    Compare it to the reaction of a journal editor getting a box full of their term papers in the mail – what, you want me to waste my time dealing with this? forget about it!

    Hijacking (on however small a scale, and even with the best of motives) a public work for one’s own purposes isn’t really the best scholarly example.

    All it takes for a class – or a department – or a college – to set up their very own wonderful space for collaborative public writing is a low-end computer and an hour to set up the (free) Mediawiki software. No harm to the work of others, and good material can always be recycled into WP or other public projects.

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