What is a wiki for?

Many of you have asked for an update about my wiki experiment of last year, and I held off on responding because it didn’t go very well, and I don’t really blame the wiki itself as a medium.

To review, what I did with my British Literature survey wiki was to ask students to research a topic of cultural, political, sexual, or economic history in Britain between 1600 and 1800. They were supposed to find a few good sources and sum up what they found in a brief and informative wiki article with citations, so that their peers could easily glean a great deal of interesting information about, for example, Restoration fashion, the Gunpowder Plot, or the social position of Jews in London in the mid-18th. If we had time, we could have revised, sharpened, and interlinked the articles to create a very interesting and useful resource.

I chose that assignment because I had done something similar when I was taking Nigerian Lit as an undergrad. The course was so packed with novels and plays that the professor did not really have time to lecture on the entirety of postcolonial Nigerian history and culture, so each member of the class developed a one-page annotated summary of a particular topic, which we briefly presented and provided for our classmates. It was an excellent wake-up call to me as an English-centric student that What We Do is so deeply tied into matters of history, political science, religion, and philosophy that we have to be able to do research in other fields just to be able to understand what we’re reading. We can’t just wait for a professor to give us all the context we need.

With a similar purpose, I asked my students to go to the library and look up things about their topics. I gave them names of books I knew might be good. I helped them get access to primary sources from the special collection I worked in. As far as I knew, everything was going swimmingly.

But when the time came for me to check in on the wiki, I was dismally disappointed to see that only a handful of them followed the directions. The ones who did produced interesting, lovely little summaries, often with visual aids and excellent sources. But most of them cited only websites (which I’d explicitly banned so they’d go to the library), simply copied paragraphs out of encyclopedias (again, banned, and, well, plagiarism), or did not do the assignment at all.

Grades plummeted. What happened here? I gave explicit directions, which several people were able to follow without incident. But when 2/3 of the class simply cannot do an assignment at a passing level, I have to assume that there is something wrong with the assignment. Because the resource they created was so poor as a whole, none of them read their classmates’ work, and no one bothered to create links between articles. As a wiki, it was not functional.

The following semester, I made this assignment extra credit, and, again, several of the articles I received were excellent, but many received no extra credit at all. In the end, the extra credit only ended up benefiting those who were sure to receive A’s anyway, which was proof enough to me that it was a failure as an assignment.

I asked, both semesters, what had gone wrong. The main answers I got were that they had no idea how to summarize (not surprising, given that an analytical summary is a pretty sophisticated rhetorical skill most students aren’t asked to do until grad school) and that they had no idea how to skim sources. I got many emails asking the repeated question, “Are you saying I have to read three 500-page books???” I’d say, no, you have to look in the index or table of contents, find the relevant information, and figure out what would be important for your classmates to know, regarding your chosen topic. Many of my students did not know how to find information in non-fictional texts. They are English majors, and they’re used to reading every word.

In addition, I fear that asking them to post to a website was just one more hassle on top of scholarly/rhetorical hassles that created an inappropriate amount of stress. All of these skills are important, and I wish I could say that I could teach all these skills in my class, but in the context of a Renaissance-to-Modernism survey, I just don’t have time to teach rhetoric, research, and reading at that level.

When I taught the class this summer, I dumped the wiki assignment, which was clearly going nowhere and was not helping the students it was designed to help. I refocused my efforts on getting my students to practice analytical summary (which, by hook or by crook, I’m going to teach them) and research. This time, I asked them to write a three-page summary of a significant critical article on a poem or poems from the syllabus, and another one on a prose work from the syllabus.

This assignment got them to isolate for themselves (a) what literary criticism is, and (b) what a literary-critical argument does, as well as (c) how that relates to their own reading of a work. I know this sounds very basic, but I’m not sure it’s something they think about when they’re writing run-of-the-mill research papers. Many of my students have somehow gotten through most of their coursework without really seeing that literary criticism is not about “facts” and “opinions” but about arguments that open texts up for more interesting and engaged reading.

The responses I got from this assignment were, on the whole, really magnificent. My students said they struggled with the summary mode, but the assignment was do-able, and they were happy to see how this would improve their research papers at the end of the semester. A few students turned in summaries of study guides on the literature, which was depressing, but depressing things in isolation are not as depressing as an entire class of depressing things. Most of them found really fascinating articles, and many of my more excellent students developed a strong attachment or aversion to the article they found, which often became the basis of a fabulous paper at the end of the semester.

This is where the wiki comes in. I was so thrilled by the work they were doing this summer that I’d like for them to turn their summary essays in to the wiki. This would create a genuinely useful resource for the class, helping them to see what kinds of literary-critical work is out there, and what a broad range of journals they could dip into. Of course, there is the mild concern that they will merely read a fellow student’s summary of an article and not look into the article itself, but there are easy ways of making sure they know that is not sufficient.

The point of a wiki, after all, is to get my students to have an attitude of collaboration, rather than competition, which is extremely difficult to instill in a population like Queens College, which doesn’t have dormitories or a “campus” mentality. I often fear that many students show up to school every day thinking about how they can beat out another student for a grade, as if it worked that way, mostly because they then get in their cars and drive home, out of the city. I feel like much of my work as a teacher, throughout CUNY, has been trying to convince my students that the sea of camaraderie raises all ships, and that I’m not interested in just focusing on a few brilliant students in the front row and leaving the rest behind. With the wiki, I’ve been hoping to allow them to see their classmates not just as personalities, but as other minds in the classroom who have something to offer them.

We shall see, we shall see. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m not ready to abandon the idea of my class producing content for one another, so I will keep trying.


6 responses to “What is a wiki for?

  1. Thanks for the update on the Wiki-project, Carrie! I can imagine that you didn’t particularly want to write a post about a project that didn’t work out the way you wanted it to, but for me, as someone who has never used a Wiki in courses before, it is really useful to know what didn’t work.

    I used a similar assignment to your last one in my literature class last year, but we had students post their summaries and their own reactions to the argument of their article on Blackboard. I think it is a great idea to publish all summaries in a Wiki. I guess it would be much better organized than a discussion board, and students would also have the possibility of cross-linking between summaries.

    I was wondering, how do you encourage your students to read each others’ material on the wiki? Will they do so by themselves, or will they be able to use the summaries as a starting point for an essay, or do you discuss the articles in class?

    Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Hey Carrie,

    As a general practice, I think I learn a lot more from posts like this, which is honest about your and your students’ struggles, than I do from the usual “I had my students read 15, 000 pages and compose their own interpretive dance–and it all worked fabulously”-style teaching post.

    This passage of yours is key, and I’m definitely going to use this in my 3301 class:

    “Many of my students have somehow gotten through most of their coursework without really seeing that literary criticism is not about “facts” and “opinions” but about arguments that open texts up for more interesting and engaged reading. ”

    These are really good and useful distinctions, and they should help students, meaning your students, figure out more quickly what you want from them, which is not simple facts, nor uninformed opinion, but informed arguments about these texts and what they might mean.

    So it sounds like you’re already figuring out some effective ways to reach your students. I think working on their information literacy BEFORE plunging into the technology makes the technology more pedagogically effective. And maybe we should do a whole post on the “commuter student”?


  3. No, Kristine, unfortunately, I found out that they really will not read one another’s wiki articles unless there is a quantifiable benefit to them. You could make reading or making links somehow a graded item on the syllabus, but I fear this would seem not in the spirit of the thing. (I, for one, can’t bring myself to do things like grade Blackboard conversation participation, if only because I hated compulsory pro forma camaraderie activities myself as an undergrad.)

    But I think it will work as a useful wiki if students feel like reading another’s work will benefit them in an obvious way. By having students post summaries of critical articles, I am hoping this will create a real, useful resource that will make students realize that their classmates’ work is a real commodity to be traded and invested in. With all my fingers crossed, I hope to see that posting these summaries will allow them to mine one another for good resources for their final papers, and everyone’s work will end up better for it.

    I realize that a lot of my language about teaching tends to sound dangerously capitalist, and it’s no accident. I talk about contracts and commodities and so forth, when I know many of my colleagues prefer to use the language of intellectual communities. Partially, this comes out of my own middle-class Protestant upbringing, but I hope it also comes out of the conversion I experienced as an undergraduate. I had used to think that “competition” in the classroom was about each student working for her own ends, “beating” one another out. As I matured as a thinker and as a student community member, I realized that no success I have as an individual is ever as impressive as the successes my colleagues and I can have when we’re thinking and working together. That is, even sticking within the economic model of success, my class will get far greater returns on their efforts if they collaborate, combine resources, and compare investments. And “success” is something that matters a great deal to my students.

    My inner Marxist is lunging for me now, so I’ll cut this comment off here.

  4. I agree, Dave, about the blogging-the-problems thing. One of the dangers of blogging under one’s own name about academic questions is, as I’m writing in my paper for the conference, the fear of seeming incompetent (and Googlably so) when thinking about future appointments. On the other hand, I think there has to be a safe space of some kind for talking about things we’re all hammering out. As we all know, teaching is one of those things everyone wishes we could be more effective at, and I can’t be too ashamed about knowing what works and what doesn’t, since one of you kind, helpful folks may have good experiences to share. (That’s a nudge, for anyone out there who wants to post anything in the Teaching Confessional corner.) I’ve gotten wonderful advice here and elsewhere in the academoblogosphere.

    I do worry about the information-literacy stuff, even regarding web skills. I know we’re all supposed to be doing more work on the web, because it has the potential to be a great place for getting students to collaborate, but it’s also a place some students treat exclusively as a playground. If I walk into a sandbox and tell the four-year-olds to build a castle and I want it to have twelve turrets and seven flags, I’ve just drained all potential fun from the experience. Is making our students’ playground into a “productive work atmosphere” really a healthy thing to do to them?

    I think, possibly, yes, but we have to proceed with caution!

    I also worry here about creating class boundaries where there weren’t any before, as computer literacy is something that always splits the student body. Some of them own computers at home, and others are really encountering them for the first time. My non-traditional (returning) students often feel deeply stressed about being called upon to use skills that they already feel so much pressure to figure out.

    In the long run, I feel this is all good, on the whole, as giving them experience in the classroom is what eventually smoothes out some of those class and age distinctions, but it is hard to see the look on some of their faces. Some of them say, “I became an English major in part because technology freaks me out!” Unfortunately, you can’t even enter English-related professions without computer research and production skills anymore.

    Yes, we should write more about commuter students. I don’t know how many readers here have taught at primarily-commuter colleges, but it is amazing how different the class environment can be. There are benefits, in that it tends to be far less “clique-ish” (fewer dorm and Greek alliances), but the social environment can be a little chillier for the first few weeks.

  5. dave mazella

    My general impression is that the kind of people who would hunt around for embarassing information on a candidate’s courseblog would probably not stop there for reasons to turn you down. Most of the people I know who take the time to blog their teaching give plenty of evidence of their professionalism and concern for students. But yes, sometimes it is helpful to remember who could be out there, as long as it doesn’t paralyze you completely.

    Certainly, it’s best not to give “them” ammunition for shooting you down, but for some folks, even caring about your teaching puts you into the category of the Unscholarly, and for others, your failure to sign on with this or that pedagogical doctrine will be a sign of your lack of commitment.

    I think the answer is to devise a fairly consistent approach, one that works for you as a scholar and as a human being (i.e., don’t pretend that you’re an entirely different person in the classroom), so that you can develop a clear and articulated rationale of what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what kinds of behavior you’re seeking from students. What else can you do?

    Lots more to discuss on this topic, but it’s time to turn in. But it would be nice sometime to have a substantive (meaning uncondescending and unstereotyped) discussion of the Commuter School.



  6. Mikeharvey

    Hey from Toronto, Canada

    Just a quick hello from as I’m new to the board. I’ve seen some interesting comments so far.

    To be honest I’m new to forums and computers in general 🙂