Wikipedia Discussion Project

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:

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.

 Suggestions/context: This paper takes for granted the idea that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia and that it is not a proper reference for research papers.  Yet, people, including the very college professors who ban it from student papers, use Wikipedia on a daily basis.  Further, Wikipedia is also the location where the “first draft of history” is now being written, as users collaborate to make sense of and document events, often as they happen.  Wikipedia may also herald the emergence of new models of what Yochai Benkler (2006) refers to as collaborative, or “commons-based,” writing, encouraging authors to work together to create a more complete version of history, relying on the knowledge of many people, rather than a single individual.  As a result, many readers believe that Wikipedia serves as a potentially liberating alternative to current writing practices that could help people become more knowledgeable and more involved in the debates about history, politics, and culture.  Others, such as Andrew Keen (2007), argue that the internet’s emphasis on amateur collaboration is “killing” culture, in part because he considers the mass to be too uninformed to make such decisions.

 For your paper, you should consider using Robert Mackey’s (2007) New York Times blog post on Representative Joe Wilson’s Wikipedia page as a model (and you might consider citing him in your paper).  Note that Mackey first offers a thesis about Wikipedia, noting that Wilson’s heckling prompted a debate about the website’s role in reflecting current events before going on to analyze specific passages from the debate.  As you read the discussion, take note of what issues are raised and consider whether they are relevant and what the implications might be if those debates were included in the main page.  Also consider the challenges that are raised when we seek to identify an objective version of history (or whether an objective version of history is even possible).

 As you prepare for this paper, you should pick an entry connected to a topic that you know well.  This could be a controversial popular culture figure (Kanye West, Paris Hilton, or Alex Rodriguez), a political issue or personality (health care, Barack Obama, the 9/12 protests), or a historical figure connected to some controversy (James Earl Ray, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, McCarthyism).  (Re)familiarize yourself with some of the controversial aspects about that issue or person and look at the discussion page to see how those debates have been framed, what details have been included, and what details have been avoided.  From there, come to some conclusion about whether the Wikipedia “community” successfully or accurately conveyed information about your topic and what the implications might be if Wikipedia remains a major source of information or authorship.

 Requirements: You should produce a 900-1000 word (or longer) paper that tackles one (or maybe two) topics from Wikipedia.  You should cite a minimum of three different comments from the discussion page and at least one secondary source on Wikipedia (which can include any one of the four additional sources on Wikipedia I’ve assigned in class).  If you use any other external sources AT ALL (paraphrase, quotation, or summary), you must cite them or your paper will be considered plagiarized. I’ve decided to extend the deadline for this paper to give you more time to work on it.  The thesis workshop will now be scheduled for Friday, October 2. The rough draft will be due on Monday, October 12 and the final draft will be due Monday, October 19.

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://


  1. Chuck Said,

    October 2, 2009 @ 4:22 pm

    Quick note: another entry that played well in our class discussion was the debate over the entry on the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution. In particular, the debate over whether the 2nd Amendment was motivated significantly or even in part by a desire to control runaway slaves. I came across the entry somewhat randomly because I was looking for a “historical” text that would likely be controversial.

    The “slave control” issue, as it came to be called on the Wikipedia discussion page, was especially interesting because it opened up a debate about what counts as a “fringe theory” and again, given the student population here at Fayetteville State, raised a number of questions about why it might be important to include information about that theory.

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