Many Thoughts about Wikipedia

Back from LOEX, and it was pretty great.  I was pretty sure I knew what to expect from LOEX, but I had no idea what to expect from Columbus.  What we found was a highly walkable downtown, that didn’t shut down when the working day ended, good things to eat, wrapped up in a fair helping of City Beautiful.

Broad Street was broad, parks and commons were grand, and cultural institutions were majestic -

science and industry museum seen from across a river

And the conference was pretty good too.  One of the highlights was Char Booth’s opening keynote:  Reframing Library Instruction: Advocacy, Insight and the Learner Experience. 

(For the record, my favorite part was the “Advocacy” part)

So my definition of a great keynote is one where I have Many Thoughts throughout, and this one qualified.  Here are some of them.

Near the end, she was discussing an assignment of the type that was frequently discussed as something awesome that could be done, but which hasn’t turned out to be done all that often despite the fact that most people who hear about it think it’s a good idea — the “have the students write an article for Wikipedia instead of a traditional paper” assignment.

Here’s a 2007 article from Inside Higher Ed talking about one professor’s experience with this type of assignment.

And here’s a 2010 article from USA Today talking about the Wikimedia Foundations proactive effort to get professors to assign this type of project.

This was a particularly cool example, because it focused on topics and concepts related to elections.  And I suspect it was a particularly effective one — in part because it wasn’t a gimmick – this was NO “let’s engage the students by using one of their things” thing.  It was designed by people who understand Wikipedia’s culture — not just that is has one, but the ways that culture can make it hard for students trying to put stuff up there.

At first glance, a college term paper and a Wikipedia entry appear to have little in common.

So what do we think – is that quotation (from the IHE article linked above) true?

Here are my thoughts.

Char said, while talking about this assignment that she’d never seen students so excited about research.  Now, on my campus, I’m involved with lots of students engaged in undergraduate research.  Giving students a chance to work closely with faculty on brand-new, important research – in the field and in the lab – is one advantage a big, research university has over our smaller counterparts when it comes to undergraduate learning experiences, and we are working hard to give as many students as possible that kind of experience.  So, my first thought was – well, that’s not true.  I see students super excited about research all the time, and probably more excited than they would be if they got to write a Wikipedia article.

But the thought immediately following that was that Char Booth has obviously seen that too – she went to Reed, which has this annual celebration of undergraduate research every year – the Thesis Parade

So, that led obviously to the next thought – but do they get this excited about what we would call “library research” ?

Okay, probably not.  Even in the context of these theses and capstones, I’m not sure the lit review is what people are excited about.  (And increasingly, I’m coming to believe that the lit review is the piece they’re least ready to handle independently, and that those who get the most out of it don’t handle it independently but in very close concert with their mentors, but that’s another post for another day)

Which brings me to that quotation above – because the next thought was, “of course, Wikipedia writing is probably the closest real-world analogue to the type of writing we ask in many, many, many beginning comp classes.”

Isn’t it?

stick figure cartoon of a figure behind a soapbox holding up a sign that said "citation needed"

I’ve been talking about using Wikipedia to dig into what we mean by synthesis or attribution for a long time.  I was so happy when this cartoon appeared because it just captured that idea – an idea that first-year students frequently have a lot of trouble with – when do I need a citation and when don’t I?  Or, on a bigger scale, “how can these be my ideas if I have to cite everything?”

And Wikipedia is a pretty great example of how one can take a bunch of secondary sources and synthesize them into a coherent, meaningful, narrative that meets a set of externally-defined standards of quality — which is pretty much exactly what we ask people to do in first-year composition (at least part of the time).

Where my thoughts went next pretty much had nothing to do with the specific assignment Char Booth was describing – it was fantastic.  It was all about the idea that there are editors at Wikipedia and they have standards and knowing that audience, and those standards was the key to success in the assignment.

That’s a fantastically useful concept for students to learn, and a foundational set of rhetorical skills for them to master.  And Wikipedia, because it makes its rules and standards so transparent, IS an easier place for them to learn that than scholarly discourse which, let’s just say, does not.

No, what this post has to do with is the fact that I’m having a really hard time coming up with ANOTHER “real-world” place where the kind of synthetic, based on secondary sources, make sure you’re totally neutral, writing exists?  I’m sure it does, and it’ll come to me as soon as I hit “post,” but right now I’m not coming up with it.

Other encyclopedia writing doesn’t count.  Journalism has some things in common, yes, but I’m not sure that’s a great example either.  There are so many kinds of journalistic writing, that’s a hard one.  Anything else?

Because here’s the thing — Wikipedia’s standards and policies — and the fact that it IS an encyclopedia — really do have some negatives for students struggling to make the shift from report writing to academic writing.

It’s bad enough that there are so many unwritten rules to knowledge creation in the different disciplines and that these rules are so obscure and hard for new students to see, much less understand.  It’s hard enough to help students made the jump from “original means no one ever thought of or said this before” to the idea of originality grounded in or based on a body of existing knowledge.

Barbara Fister summed up these problems this way – (emphasis added)

I hate it when students who have hit on a novel and interesting way of looking at an issue tell me they have to change their topic because they can’t find sources that say exactly what they plan to say. I try to persuade them otherwise, but they believe that original ideas are not allowed in “research.” How messed up is that
?

And now I am finally to the main thing.  Original ideas AREN’T allowed in Wikipedia articles.

Wikipedia has a strict “no original research” policy when it comes to their articles — you base it on the published record, not your own (or anyone else’s) original knowledge creation.  And, it’s an encyclopedia, its raison d’être is something different than “originality of thought.”

So to sum up- I buy that students find writing for Wikipedia to be so much more meaningful and real than writing a term paper — it’s a tool they use and value, and it’s public — there’s lots of reasons why I think this is engaging.  I agree that it’s a better option, for those reasons, than the traditional research paper (with the important caveat that the person designing the assignment and guiding the students through the assignment has to really “get” Wikipedia if it’s going to work).

But I’m wondering if the very factors that make Wikipedia “better” as a platform for student research aren’t highlighting some of the problems with the ways we’re currently trying to get students engaged in academic writing, knowledge creation, and meaning-making in our composition and library classrooms?

See?  Many thoughts.  That’s the mark of one great keynote.  Thanks, Char.

One thought on “Many Thoughts about Wikipedia

  1. Wow, this is awesome, thanks! Sorry that I couldn’t get to LOEX, all this is just my cup of tea. Thanks for sharing.

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