Last semester I decided to throw myself into the wiki. You’ll remember how excited I was about this tool, which would, theoretically, encourage my students to become experts on various topics of historical interest and thus decentering the authority in the classroom. The idea, as KW sums it up here, is a nice one:
“[H]er wiki assignment strikes me as an excellent way to meet the learning needs of a certain kind of ‘C’ student: the ones who are willing to make an effort but who (for whatever reason) write poorly and have trouble figuring out how to do the interpretive close reading that gets rewarded in the literature classroom. Asking all students to produce a chunk of information on schedule seems like a great way to use and reward the skills that these ‘C’ students bring to the course.”
That’s what I hoped it would do, anyway. The literary-interpretation parts of my course ended up requiring such a great amount of abstract reasoning and an ability to make and remember fine distinctions that about a third of the class was apparently at sea. I thought, by providing some easy points through the wiki assignment and the multiple-choice section of the final, I could give a leg up to students who struggle with explicating concepts like “Romanticism” and “apocalypse.”
As I graded these “easier” tasks, though, I found the grade spread to be even greater than on the more difficult assignments, with the same students getting A’s, but the students who usually got B’s or C’s were now getting D’s and F’s. If a student writes a poor poetry analysis, I can fudge the grade a little out of kindness, but for a student who misidentifies all the characters in Gulliver’s Travels, or who writes a wiki article about the wrong century and cites no sources, what can I do? On these easier assignments, it’s much more difficult to assign partial credit for effort. The very things that I expressly told them were created to give them a chance to help their grades ended up sinking them further.
I have, up till now, failed to mention just how very smart many of my fall students were. There were a few of the typical English majors with their charming prose styles and good ideas, but minimal research efforts. They remind me of me at that age, happy to get the lowest A possible, saving my efforts for Fiction Workshop. But I was surprised at the number of students I had who worked backbreakingly hard to wring every drip of knowledge out of the class. Some of them were inspired to do outside reading (!) and to combine their interests from my class with their favorite critical theorists for their final papers. I got two Lacanian readings of Dracula, an Althusserian reading of Wuthering Heights, and a discussion of the history of psychoanalytic readings of the anal function in Gulliver’s Travels. I read several very good feminist readings of Margaret Cavendish and Aphra Behn.
That is, as much as I have worried and fretted about the B, C, and F students in my classes, I have to remember that more than a third of each class received solid and well-deserved A’s. In fact, I fear that in trying so hard to offer “basic” assignments (which apparently turned out not to be so basic) in addition to the more difficult tasks, I merely threw an annoyingly easy obstacle in front of my hardest-working students and a deceptively simple one before the students who were apparently not going to put forth the effort to complete it anyway, and I wasted a lot of grading time in the process.
If I do use the wiki assignment again, I will definitely introduce a greater element of accountability into it. I am still fond of the form, and I think it’s terribly important for college students to practice many different rhetorical strategies. But without the social pressure of being graded jointly with a classmate, the rewards of hard work may have seemed too small.