Category Archives: web resources

Wikis in the classroom, 2012 edition

It’s been years now since I’ve written anything here, but a conversation today on the Eighteenth-Century Questions Facebook page made me realize I ought to update my reports from Wikiland. I’ve been using PBworks for wikis since shortly after they began the site in 2005. (NB: I have almost always participated in “private” wikis, not anything searchable, and I guarantee to students that, no, a future employer is not going to read their notes on Moll Flanders.) Some friends and I learned how to use the platform by playing a writing game called Lexicon and by developing an enormous recipe collection with over a hundred participants. In observing my friends’ use of the wikis, I wanted to find out how the platform could be used to encourage students to write more willingly, to read more critically, and to participate in class more enthusiastically.

As I reported back in 2007, my first few attempts to include wiki assignments in my classes were failures. The assignment to create a page providing well-cited historical context (from a list of suggested topics) for the British literature survey was extremely successful for the students who did well. I recall some beautiful, thoroughly researched projects from about a third of every class. Another third phoned it in so depressingly I had no idea what to do, and another third either plagiarized the entire project (“Why do I have to read books and write about them when it’s just on Wikipedia?”) or could not be convinced to do turn in anything at all (“You will get a zero for this assignment.” “Yes, I understand. I will not do this assignment”). As far as I am concerned, any assignment that a third of my students would rather fail out of the class than write is a bad assignment.

Wiki Rule #1: Wiki assignments should create a reason for students to read one another’s work.

That was the first discovery. Students who were self-motivated or interested in my approval did a great job, and no one else seemed to care. Why would anyone in the class want to read their page on coffeehouses in London or sodomy trials or economic conditions in Ireland? While these might be topics of obsessive interest for yr humble svt, students are unlikely to care about reading their classmate’s pages. So instead, I started having them post 3-page critical summaries of scholarly articles related to the primary texts we were reading, resulting in a class bibliography. Students were more motivated to write clear, intelligent summaries of the articles because students used the class bibliography to find ideas for sources for their research projects.

The drawback to this assignment is that, despite my attempt to get every student to choose a different article, students still tended to pounce on a few simplistic topics (if I never read another paper about how Dracula is actually a feminist novel because Mina knows how to type, I will die a happy woman), and students who do not know what to write about will gravitate toward whatever seems the most popular thing to do.

Wiki Rule #2: Participation in the wiki should encourage students to develop their own individual perspectives, rather than turning them into the Borg.

Here’s where I start sounding like an anti-authoritarian radical. The best class wikis, in my experience, have been ones I didn’t grade at all, but served some incredibly useful purpose for the students. One of the best classes I’ve ever taught, in part because of the wiki, was a six-person freshman writing course in which the students read Nabokov’s Pale Fire extremely slowly. I put up a wiki in which there was a page full of random-seeming words (Automobiles, Birds, Butterflies…), each linked to a blank page, and I asked the students to annotate any mention they find of any of these things, and to add pages for other patterns they noticed. They should consider what information their classmates would need to find their quotation, and how much of the quotation should be necessary for context. I said I wouldn’t grade it; I just know that it’s very hard to see connections on the first pass through the novel, so they may need one another’s eyes to spot things.

Within the first few days, these annotations spawned conversations on the wiki about how to determine whether details are significant, what constitutes the “real” for Nabokov and for his characters, how to interpret passages in Zemblan by breaking down the grammar, and so forth. One student became the class expert on linguistics, another on art history, another on satire and rhetoric. They were excited about posting drafts of their formal writing assignments because they wanted to read the other students’ work, and after doing so, they often developed their own revision plans. While I initially itched to demand more formal punctuation (“OMG… YOU GUYS!!!!”) and citation on the wiki, I held my tongue and they developed higher standards for themselves as they saw contributions from others. (To be honest, though, I got a kick out of seeing how excited they were.) That’s how I learned—

Wiki Rule #3: Wiki participation should be allowed to create positive peer pressure.

When you have a particularly quiet group, and there’s just one student with a hand in the air all the time, you have a negative peer pressure situation. No one wants to be “that person.” So you beg and plead, you firmly call on students with their heads tucked under their wings, you try to get them to talk to one another in small groups—sometimes something works and they loosen up a bit. That feeling of pulling teeth is truly miserable, though. There has to be some way to get them to see starting projects early, eagerly joining conversations, and having interesting, thoughtful contributions as the desirable, fun thing to do.

In several different classes, I’ve asked students to use the wiki to call “dibs” on a part of the text for an analysis paper. In a Milton class of 30 students, each had to write about a different speech of over 20 lines in Paradise Lost. Eager students called dibs right away, wanting Sin’s “Hast thou forgot me, then” or Satan’s “O thou that with surpassing glory crown’d,” and less-motivated students realized they needed to get their heads in the game, lest they get stuck with Belial’s defense of cowardly sloth. Meanwhile, they commented to share some of their ideas about the speeches they’d chosen, and this seemed to inspire struggling students to do some serious thinking. In turn, I could easily see who seemed to be on track to complete the coursework and who needed some encouragement or guidance from me.

Wiki Rule #4: The wiki can give you as much feedback about what you are teaching as it does about what your students are thinking.

I hope I am not the only instructor who has cringed upon hearing a colleague report what students say they are learning about the eighteenth century. That’s, er, not quite what… um. Or one thinks we are all happily on the same page until one begins reading responses to exam questions. What the hell is “amriss complaint”? In recent years, I’ve started asking for a volunteer every day to take extra-careful notes in class and post them to the wiki. This solves a lot of technical problems, such as having a repository in case someone is ill or at a sports tournament and providing a refresher about early-semester material before the final exam. It does two additional things that are far more important to me: (1) It tells me when I need to clarify or emphasize something. (2) It makes students see one another’s competence as a resource rather than the enemy.

In discussing this particular use of the wiki, I have found it’s the most controversial among my friends and colleagues, in that it may promote absenteeism. I certainly have not found that to be true, and, in fact, I think it encourages students to realize that a lot has happened when they were gone and they don’t want to miss class again. I get emails from students who know they will be out of town for a tournament asking if I would please thank the note-taker on their behalf, and promise that they will volunteer first when they return. I find it makes them more conscientious and civil, and I certainly still have a strict attendance policy. It seems to make them more aware that it’s a community they’re missing, not just a professor.

Wiki Rule #5: Wikis do not replace traditional in-class discussion; they supplement and provoke discussion.

I cannot tell you how many times I have had students who struggle with speaking in class, due to ability differences, anxiety, or a lack of fluency in English, who have expressed gratitude for the open-ended nature of the wiki discussions. For students who have a hard time initiating a spoken comment, it can be extremely helpful to plan ideas and organize thoughts in writing ahead of time. The wiki can also allow a student to develop and explore a critical persona that can then be tried on more publicly in class. Rather than giving quieter students an excuse for not raising their hands, the wiki gives them a low-stakes place to put words to thoughts in ways that make speaking about those ideas much easier.

This is the main reason why I choose not to grade the work they do on the wiki at all. I set it up with a syllabus and assignment sheets, log them in, and step back. If they ask me to facilitate note-posting, I will. Mostly, I will post extra-curricular events or create pages for them to post drafts for peer review, but this is very different from the kind of Blackboard-discussion-question stuff that I hated doing when I was an undergrad. I don’t want to assign points or take off points for what they do there. I want them to feel free to post a video of a cute lamb while we’re reading Blake, or comment that they’re frustrated and confused by Cr√®vecoeur, without worrying that Dr. Shanafelt is going to thump them for it. The wiki can only serve my nefarious purposes if it’s a place where they can be honest about how the class is going and what work they’re doing.

Over the 2009-2010 year, I worked with faculty from several departments at Medgar Evers College at City University of New York to develop new assignments and uses for wikis in different disciplines, and the most frequent question I got from new users was “How do you make them do it if you don’t grade them for it?” I don’t. I don’t want to make them do anything. And certainly I’ve had some classes use the wikis more than others. What I know, and what I can tell my students, is that the work I’ve gotten from students who participate actively in the class wiki is almost always better for it. They learn more, they get higher grades, and they enjoy the semester more. There’s your carrot.

Part of all of this has to do with who I am as a teacher and the kind of environment I feel comfortable teaching in, and certainly I have worked with professors who have used wikis in a more directed, graded way. Some departments I’ve worked in have used them as a resource for all of their majors to understand the progress of their coursework, and others have used them internally to discuss the curriculum, assessment, and planning.

Have you used them? Do you loathe them? Do you fear them, but are sort of excited about them? What kinds of assignments and assessment strategies have you tried?

ben pauley does it again

For those of you interested in getting better 18c resources up on the web for scholarly and student use, Ben Pauley (of C18 Booktracker) has just devised a very useful wiki to collect and discuss the standard editions for our authors. Here’s the link, which I’m also putting on the Long 18th blogroll.

Ben’s wiki emerged from a C18L discussion where the question was raised about where such information could be found, and the answer was, well, no one has done it yet. So here’s a screenshot of Ben’s sample edition of Fielding’s Wesleyan edition:

This is the kind of low-tech, high-value project that could yield a lot of benefit to scholars who used it, and encouraged their students to use it too.¬† Please consider visiting Ben’s wiki, signing up to become a member (for editing privileges), and using it for your own teaching or research.


ASECS 2009: March 28

So what were you up to on the third day of the conference?


ASECS 2009: March 27

Good news: the conference venue has free wireless Internet access.

Bad news (for me, anyway): I appear to have killed my laptop with a wee bit of spilled water. Luckily, my data is all backed up, my insurance will cover repairs or replacement, and my iPhone allows for some connectivity.

Update (03/28/2009, 5pm): The laptop lives!

I took conference notes on my laptop yesterday, but…

Perhaps some may wish to use the comments section of this entry to write about today.


ASECS 2009: March 26

Should contributors attending this year’s meeting of ASECS have tech enough and time, please use the comments thread of this post to record your experience of the conference today.

Text? Photos? Audio? Video? Share them, please.

[See “The Art of Live Blogging,” by Beth Kanter at BlogHer (26 July, 2006).]


Old Bailey Online: now from 1674 to 1913

Tomorrow it all goes public (and we kind of expect it to crash at some point), and today there is a pretty nice feature in the Observer:

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online 1674-1834 is now the Proceedings of the Old Bailey and Central Criminal Court 1674-1913.

This doesn’t only mean that you can now search for 200,000 trials held at the Old Bailey over a period of 2 and a half centuries. The other new set of goodies of special interest to 18th-century scholars is the full text of (almost) every Ordinary of Newgate’s Account between 1690 and 1772 (in the next few months this should expand to a full archive of every known surviving Account from c.1674 onwards).

I’ve posted before about these grimly fascinating pamphlets. They’ve been used by a number of historians, including Andrea Mackenzie and Peter Linebaugh, but the surviving pamphlets have been scattered across a number of different libraries and archives. From now on they’ll be together in one fully searchable digital archive. Plus, I’m in the process of completing a database that links every convict mentioned in the Accounts to their trial, providing it has a surviving report (perhaps 3/4 of the links have already been made).

This should make for some interesting research possibilities. For example, historians often argue that women who successfully ‘pleaded their bellies’, ie had their death sentence postponed on grounds of being pregnant, usually escaped hanging. In fact, we say that in our own background section. But I’m not so sure. Through the process of cross-referencing trials and Ordinary’s Accounts, I’ve already discovered several women whose sentences were respited for pregnancy but subsequently carried out (eg in September 1695. So what I’ll be asking (once I’ve finished making the damned links) is: how many were executed and how many were permanently reprieved? Have we historians been getting it wrong? Answering those questions wasn’t impossible before now, but it would have been extremely difficult. And there will, no doubt, be many more possibilities like this.


The other news, because I haven’t been plugging it enough and you’ve probably all forgotten, is that we’re holding a conference in July to celebrate the relaunch: The Metropolis on Trial, in the throbbing metropolis of… Milton Keynes. If you’d like to attend, registration is open and you can download a booking form at the website.

X-posted at EMN.

Johnson’s letters, scanned

I briefly pop my head up out of an excruciatingly busy semester to note that Harvard is in the process of scanning their collection of Johnson’s letters. From the OASIS website:

This collection consists of 746 letters and fragments written by Johnson between 1731 and 1784, and manuscript transcripts and reproductions of other Johnson letters which are unavailable elsewhere. It is the largest single collection of Johnson’s letters in existence, comprising nearly half of the known surviving letters. It includes 232 letters to Johnson’s most regular correspondent, his friend Hester Lynch Thrale (later Hester Lynch Piozzi), from 1765 until Johnson ceased his correspondence with her in 1784.
Other particularly noteworthy correspondents were actor David Garrick (1717-1779); the painters Frances Reynolds (1729-1807) and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792); and novelist Samuel Richardson (1689-1761). Regular correspondents represented most heavily in the collection include Mrs. Thrale’s daughter Hester (later Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith, 1764-1857); friend and protege Bennet Langton (1737-1801); stepdaughter Lucy Porter (1715-1786); and boyhood friend John Taylor (1711-1788).

So far, only a fraction of these letters has been scanned, but they appear to be working through their collection to make them available to the public. If you scroll down on their site, you’ll see links to color facsimiles from this collection. (I’m particularly fond of this one.) And I’ll also put a link in our resources sidebar, so if you’re looking for it later, it will be here.

-Carrie Shanafelt