Earlier this semester, I discussed a planned first-year composition assignment that would require students to analyze the construction of a Wikipedia page in order to determine the online encyclopedia’s relevance as a source of information. In short, the assignment required students to select a Wikipedia entry, to look at the entry’s discussion page and history and to make an argument about whether the site’s openness made it a “better” source than other encyclopedias (or other sources of information). Students were required to cite (preferably quote) at least three contributions to the discussion page and at least one other secondary source on Wikipedia. After reading the students’ papers and reflecting on other projects I’ve assigned this semester, I’ve decided that I like the project quite a bit and may try to teach it again, albeit with some minor tweaking.
What worked about the assignment: The assignment helped frame the conversation their papers were entering. Because the paper assignment was fortuitously timed alongside Robert Mackey’s NYT blog post on “Wikipedia’s reaction”* to Joe Wilson’s outburst against Obama, we had a familiar case study that students could use as a reference point. Students had heard other instructors warning them against Wikipedia but knew little about the site other than the fact that “anyone” could edit it. After completing the assignment, many students could talk critically about how they would use a source such as Wikipedia in the future.
On a more subtle level, the assignment provided students with helpful models for incorporating sources in a fairly sophisticated matter. They could use quotations from Wikipedia to illustrate a point and then turn to authors such as Benkler, Parry, and Mackey as secondary sources commenting about Wikipedia. In that sense, the assignment helped to support our department’s turn toward encouraging “information literacy” approaches that helps students to think critically about sources and to use them in their papers.
What didn’t work: The assignment was initially fairly intimidating for many of my students. This may not be a negative, but I was a little surprised at their initial resistance to the assignment. The papers ended up taking an either/or position on Wikipedia (it should/should not be used as a source). Students still treated Wikipedia as something “out there” that they could use/analyze/look at, not as something that could allow them to participate. I realize this is a difficult step, even for media studies scholars, but it’s still difficult to convey the significance of the idea that the “anyone” capable of editing a Wikipedia page includes them (or you, for that matter).
In the future, I’d like to find a way of framing the assignment slightly differently so that the range of thesis statements/arguments about Wikipedia are somewhat broader. That being said, the Wikipedia papers were much stronger than the traditional research paper I assigned as the final assignment of the semester, which may be due to a number of factors (competition with other end-of-semester assignments, a narrower project with more clearly defined parameters, continued problems on my part in teaching how to find and cite sources, etc). But it’s definitely a project I will use again in future composition classes.
* I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of treating Wikipedia as a singular entity capable of a homogenous, non-contradictory reaction. If anything, the discussion on how to represent Wilson’s actions display a remarkable lack of consensus. Still, it is possible to treat Wikipedia “institutionally” to some extent.