At the request of several of my Twitter followers, here is an overview of the Wikipedia assignment I recently gave my students. The assignment is designed for first-year composition students and essentially asks them to take a specific Wikipedia entry about a controversial figure or subject–I’ll include the full text of the assignment below the fold–and to analyze the discussion page for the entry on that subject to see if Wikipedia “worked.” I very consciously left what that meant relatively open, so that students could take any number of positions on the site’s policies and procedures, inviting them to question whether the site should present controversies neutrally or objectively or, in some cases, whether the site is truly free from bias.
At first, students were skeptical. Most of them were warned not to use Wikipedia as a source. One even described the debate as a “dead issue.” But rather than lecture them on the perils of encyclopedia use, I hoped to complicate their notions of collective authorship (what Yochai Benkler and Helen Nissenbaum call commons-based peer production) and its implications for creating and sharing knowledge. I introduced the assignment by asking students to read and respond to a set of articles that take a variety of positions on Wikipedia and, in some cases, ask students to edit or author entries themselves. These articles included:
- Robert E. Cummings, “Are We Ready to Use Wikipedia to Teach Writing?” Inside Higher Ed, March 12, 2009.
- David Parry, “Wikipedia and the New Curriculum,” Science Progress, February 11, 2008.
- Noam Cohen, “A History Department Bans Citing Wikipedia,” The New York Times, February 21, 2007.
- Robert Mackey, “Wikipedia’s Rapid Reaction to Outburst During Obama’s Speech,” The Lede, New York Times, September 10, 2009.
The latter article, which focused on Joe Wilson’s notorious shout of “you lie!” during Obama’s health-care address was especially successful, both because of it being a recent event and because many of my students are black and were sensitive to Wilson’s racial politics. Mackey’s blog entry not only showed how to cite discussion pages but also how to process wide-ranging discussions and debates.It could also allow them to see–very quickly–the politics of authorship, the implications of depicting Wilson in a certain way based on past behaviors and comments (a quick glance at the Wikipedia debate about Obama’s citizenship clinched the deal).
There are, as @wiki_nihiltres reminded me,a significant number of projects like this that have been anthologized on Wikipedia. The entry that lists current projects helpfully lists guidelines for doing edits to wiki entries and a number of suggested projects, but because I wanted to complete the assignment relatively quickly (2-3 weeks), I felt that the meta-analysis would better suit my needs for the class. And so far, after seeing the thesis statements today, I think the project is working. Popular topics have included Michael Vick and same-sex marriage, but other students have shown that entries on current figures such as Britney Spears over-emphasize the gossip surrounding her personal life, often at the expense of a focus on her career. One of the more sophisticated analyses will look at the entry for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, arguing that the entry fails to conform to Wikipedia’s stated objectivity standards, drawing from a very rich discussion page to support his point. But, in general, students have reached a variety of conclusions about Wikipedia’s potential as a new model of authorship, which is precisely what I was hoping to see.
I’ll try to post a follow-up in a few weeks, but students are clearly mulling over the architecture of Wikipedia and coming to a wide range of conclusions about it. One student reminded us, for example, that you could easily compare archived pages under the history tab. Others were attentive to the various framing devices on many talk pages that called for civil discussion. But after this assignment, they should, at a minimum, have a better sense of how and why Wikipedia works the way that it does.
The full text of the assignment is below the fold:
Assignment: This paper will ask you to do something unusual, but hopefully valuable, in developing your skills as information literate students and citizens: You will be expected to analyze the discussion and history pages of a Wikipedia entry in order to come to some conclusions about Wikipedia’s place in contemporary culture. Essentially, you should pick a Wikipedia page on a controversial issue or figure (from either the past or present) and to analyze how the page’s authors and editors decided what content to include or exclude from the page. In doing so, you should cite at least two or three pieces of discussion to show the issues involved and to show the authors resolved them. In addition, you should cite at least one other source on Wikipedia and should take a position on what role (if any) Wikipedia should serve in our daily lives. These sources can include ones that we have discussed in class.
If you fail to submit a thesis by midnight on Thursday, October 1, your paper grade will be lowered by ten points. If you fail to submit a rough draft, you will also lose ten points. Paper grades will be lowered by one letter for every 24 hours they are late.
Benkler, Y. (2006). The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Keen, A. (2007). The cult of the amateur: How today’s internet is killing our culture. New York: Broadway Books.
Mackey, R. (2009, September 10). The Wikipedia battle over Joe Wilson’s Obama heckling. New York Times. Retrieved from http:// bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/the-wikipedia-battle-over-joe-wilsons-obama-heckling/