Yesterday, I went to my teaching orientation at Queens College, where the acting Director of Composition (who also serves as a general English-requirement-course assignment czar) Jamie Bianco encouraged us to consider new ways of introducing web writing into the classroom. Of course, the usual suspects (Blackboard, email, blogs) were on her list, but she also suggested creation of a wiki.
A light shone over my head and a voice spake unto me: A wiki will solve all your problems!
You see, in my extremely crowded BritLit syllabus, there is not an inch of room for class presentations. They take up a lot of valuable classtime that could be spent in open discussion, which is always (okay, usually) productive. Besides, I don’t like undergraduate presentations and never have, since the “presentation” is artificially formal, usually low in actual content, and not useful to the other students because they can’t access the information when they need it. And yet presentations seem to be the only efficient way to get students to share their expertise.
One of my early assignments for this semester is what I’m calling a “historical context memo.” Each student must do some light research into a particular aspect of social or political history in the 17th-18th centuries, using reliable sources, and provide a brief on that topic that organizes the information clearly and arrives at a few ways in which this information is relevant to the literary texts being discussed. I do a little lecturing on these things on my own, but I can’t reasonably fit a satisfactory explication of the 17th century English succession into my fifteen-minute preambles. It’s not fair to them, and they need to learn how to find and organize this information themselves.
The idea came from an assignment my CWRU Nigerian Lit professor Tom Bishop (better known as a Shakespearian) gave us. It would be impossible, he explained, to cover every aspect of Nigerian cultures, religions, languages, and political history in lectures, so he had each of us cover different topics for the whole class. It was a class of eight or ten people, so it wasn’t too taxing to spend ten minutes each explaining the memos we’d prepared for the class. I worry that with 25 students in each of my two classes, if I had them provide copies to one another on paper without presentations, what’s the likelihood anyone would read them?
The creation of a wiki, though, would render these memos in an attractive, interconnected, easily browsable format that would ensure that they don’t get lost or forgotten in the bottoms of bookbags, or, if emailed, somewhere down there in the Inbox. We could incorporate pictures, hyperlinks to good sources, and suggestions for research, while raising the stakes of the quality somewhat by publishing it online. Editing could be ongoing and communal, even reaching out beyond the class itself after the end of the semester. With two classes of 25 students each, we could cover 50 different topics, all in one space!
Some of you are shaking your heads. Wiki? you ask. Many of you are familiar with (and angry about) Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia edited by any person who wants to add or edit an article. The format has its flaws, of course, in that, without requiring editors and authors to be well-respected scholars in the field, it can introduce errors (or, more commonly, exaggerations) that many of us find at best distasteful and at worst reprehensible. The best Wikipedia articles (to me) are those that cover up-to-the-second internet happenings and television shows. (I don’t watch TV, but I find Wiki articles about TV rather fascinating.) I’d argue the real problem with Wikipedia is not its corruptibility (which is part of its charm, I think), but the way students rely on it for “facts” simply for the speed and do not verify them later. But Wikipedia is not the only wiki in existence.
A wiki is a set of interlinking articles surrounding a particular subject, authored and edited by a group of people, rather than overseen by a single editor. This can provide a nearly unique prompt for writing because it forces a writer to think about the communal tone and voice of the group. Many wikis produce detailed information about nonexistent things, like this fan wiki for The Great Outdoor Fight, an event mentioned in a comic strip called Achewood, or this wiki for a nonexistent role-playing game called The Elemenstor Saga, mentioned in the gaming strip Penny Arcade. The point of this style of writing is to yield detailed, consistent content that informs and interprets without making arguments. In the case of my class’s wiki, this information should be “real” and easily verifiable.
Another wonderful thing about assigning a wiki article is that it removes the artificiality of “due dates” and turns continual contribution into its own reward. Yes, I will probably have to enforce some kind of production timeline, but the important thing is that producing the content should be fun, mildly competitive, interesting to classmates, and useful, hopefully, to other literature students seeking some pre-digested background on an era of history that can be overwhelming to a new student.
What do you think, O more experienced ones? Will this wiki thing fail miserably, or will it go well? Has anyone here used wikis in the classroom before?
UPDATE: I’ve started creating the wiki for this class here, which has allowed me to set up an interactive syllabus and readings packet as well as a page of suggested topics for the historical context articles. I’m very excited, and hoping that this might make this extremely demanding class easier for my students to keep organized. Whether the article thing will be difficult for them or not is yet to be seen; I am regularly amazed at the vast gulf between my more tech-savvy and tech-clueless students. PBWiki provides an easy-to-learn editor, lots of fun tools, and extremely helpful tech support. So far, I recommend them highly.