Writing for the World / A World of Writing Skills: A Wikipedia Project

The following blog post is written to explore why and how I had my students writing articles for Wikipedia. It’s a somewhat long read, so I have broken it into the following sections:

RATIONALE

Writing is one of my favorite skills to teach, especially at the advanced level. However, I always feel like I am cheating the students. They spend hours planning, drafting, revising, and polishing. I read their work several times during drafting and for assessment – maybe 30 minutes total. After that, I their work never sees the light of day again. Rarely do I look at their work again unless I am building a student corpora. Rarely do students return to their own work. Their hard work, their effort, the audience (i.e. me) all of it is so disposable. Peer editing and peer review was not really an audience, and even student blogging offers an imaginary audience (no one really reads the posts except me and other students if they are required to do so). So, even these types of assignments feel disposable. This is not only something I have noticed. I first came across this concept in this article by Christina Hendricks called “Renewable assignments: Student work adding value to the world” (see also this blog post).

The idea of renewable assignments – something that was authentic, had an audience, and had a persistent quality that could be revisited time and time again – appealed to me. However, such an assignment was hard to design, hard to figure out, especially for the types of writing my students have to do: paragraphs, essays, research papers.

Earlier this year, I happened to stumble upon just the solution to my conundrum: “Writing for the World: Wikipedia as an Introduction to Academic Writing” by Christine Tardy writing in English Teaching Forum. The article argued that writing a Wikipedia article is the perfect context in which to teach and practice academic literacy and writing skills. These include the ability to find research, evaluate sources, summarize, paraphrase, and avoid plagiarism while writing from a position of “expertise”. In addition, Tardy touches on concepts of genre awareness as another skill such a writing project would require students to develop. Being able to understand and then join an academic discourse community is a vital skill. Beyond the benefits that Tardy mentions, there are several others that become clear when thinking this project through. It allows students to have a greater focus on considering audience, writing for an authentic audience who may actually read their work, and having the ability for themselves or others to return to their work to edit or improve upon it in some way, making this Wikipedia writing project a very renewable one indeed.

I recently had the chance to employ this project in my own class. This blog post will detail what I did and offer some reflections on the process, benefits, and student reactions.

PROCEDURE

Context

This project was included as part of an advanced 8-week writing course. Whereas Tardy promotes this project as one that teachers important academic skills such as the research process, I used this project as a capstone after group and individual research papers, which was where a majority of the academic skills students would need for a Wikipedia article were taught.

Genre Analysis

Before beginning any writing or even learning the details of the assignment, I followed Tardy’s advice of examining Wikipedia. We did this by first discussing what they knew about Wikipedia, what they knew about encyclopedias (very little), discussing the various meanings of free in Wikipedia’s subtitle “the free encyclopedia”, and general guidelines of what Wikipedia expects.

Next, I select a few topics that were roughly of the same genre (e.g. coffee, tea, beer) and had students analyze the article following genre analysis questions similar to what Tardy presents:

  • What kind of information is included in the article? What kind of information is excluded?
  • Using several sample articles in your category, look for any patterns in the organization of the articles.
    • How are the articles organized?
    • What information is typically included first? Next?
    • If there are sections in the articles, do you notice any that are commonly used?
    • How much background knowledge of the topic do readers need to understand the article?
    • Is any specialized language used? If so, is it defined?
    • What kind of information has citations?

This allowed for a great discussion of what Wikipedia articles contain and how different topics might suggest different information to be included. This was my students’ first attempts at analyzing genre. Incidentally, it was also my first attempt at teaching genre analysis.

Next, I told students about the assignment and gave them the task of selecting a topic for homework. We met in a lab the next day and I gave them a “Wikipedia Article Analysis” assignment for which they had to select several topics similar to theirs and answer analysis questions like they had the day before. The goal of this assignment was to allow students to examine how topics such as theirs are written and to gather ideas for their own article’s organization, including any specialized language or even formatting they would have to include.

Assignment and Topic Selection

The assignment was to write a Wikipedia article on a topic that has not been written on before. This assignment was to include at least 3 sections of text beyond the basic background information. Because so much is already included in Wikipedia, and because some students still struggled with basic English mechanics such as grammar and spelling, I gave students the option of using either regular English Wikipedia or Simple English Wikipedia. The benefit of Simple English Wikipedia is that there are far less topics written about, making topic selection much easier.

To help students choose a topic, I gave students a few tips. First, they could choose a topic they already knew well (many of my students are former professional athletes, so sports was a natural topic) and follow articles until they find red links (i.e. Wikipedia articles without content) they could write about. Another method was to choose an aspect of their own culture to write about. If it was not included on Wikipedia already, it would make for a great article. In the end, I had a combination of both types of topics.

Drafting and Publishing

Students brought their laptops to class for the drafting process. I broke the writing into several different stages of analysis followed by writing. As students worked on each stage, I visited with each student to give feedback. This lessened the amount of feedback I would need to give later. We didn’t move on to one stage until a majority of the students had finished the first.

We began the way all Wikipedia articles begin, with the topic sentence, which consists of a definition that follows a formulaic pattern: “[Topic] is a [definition].”

Examples of topic sentences from Wikipedia:

Students’ first jobs were to write a clear definition of their topic. Writing a straight-forward definition turned out to be harder than thought and some students struggled with this more than any other part of the writing process. To help students, we drafted a sentence about our institution, including definition, together. This, combined with the Wikipedia exemplars, were very important in giving students a framework for composition.

Next, we looked at several full paragraphs from Wikipedia articles in order to determine what kind of background knowledge was needed. Students made a bullet-point outline for their background, to which I gave feedback. We also planned and wrote one together, using the definition we had written earlier about our institution. And then spent the rest of the class time (~20 mins) writing that section. Like the topic sentence, writing the background information was quite challenging, as students really had to divorce themselves from their own knowledge in order to see their topic the way a reader may see it. As I was unfamiliar with many of their topics (especially cricket), my feedback was crucial here. Students were expected to finish their background paragraphs for homework.

The next day, we met again and began looking at sections from different Wikipedia articles. We also looked at the differences between section and subsection. I had students write a list of sections and subsections that could be included in their articles. I then had them choose two or three to focus on for this particular project. I gave feedback on their section selection and then gave them the rest of class to research and write their sections.

I read each of their articles and provided content and grammar feedback. We met again to work on revising their work. In the next session, I introduced them to the Wikipedia Visual Editor. I showed them how to sign-up, use the sandbox (a practice writing area), and create a page. I also showed them how to write, link, and cite. They were very impressed with what the visual editor could do, and loved the fact that Wikipedia automatically looked up internal links to other Wikipedia articles, and that citation only required inputting information and not formatting in-text citations or a reference list (these are automatic). They also liked the ease with which you could create sections, and that the Wikipedia content box was also automatically created. I demonstrated all of these features by including my own practice article based on the paragraph we had written previously. I then gave them the remained of class time to work on their own pages.

We met in the lab one final time to clean up any formatting or language issues and finish the publication process. Some students were surprised to see warning boxes (such as issues of clarity, the article being an orphan, missing links, etc.) already on their articles. I showed students how to see the history of their article, explained that the changes could be from a person or from a bot (I honestly did not know), and that once they make the edits, they can delete the boxes). We spent the rest of the class time working on their articles. Finally, when they were satisfied and felt it was finished, students shared a link to their page with the rest of class.

REFLECTION

Tardy, author of the original article that inspired this project, meant for this to be an introduction to research. However, I used it as a capstone project. After completing this project, I feel I made the right decision. The genre analysis, very technical writing, and a new publishing environment already made students apprehensive of this project. If I had to tack on teaching about how to research, evaluate, summarize, paraphrase, and do citation as well, students would have definitely been overwhelmed. Academic writing, especially of the encyclopedic nature, requires a world of writing skills. Having this project at the end of the course allowed students to apply the skills they had already learned (and in the case of citations, modify) while being able to put more focus on genre analysis and even model text analysis. By foregrounding those skills in other assignments, students were more prepared for the challenges of writing for Wikipedia and could easily assimilate new ideas into existing conceptions of composition.

A definite major benefit of this approach was the emphasis on audience. Not only did writing for a real audience of potentially millions serve as a motivational (and stress) factor, but being able to consider their audience’s ability to understand their topic forced students to rethink clarity, background information, and conciseness. Many students struggled with this at first, which shows me that notions of audience had not been dealt with much in their writing experience.

Students also struggled with the semi-technical nature of the writing, that is, the very matter-of-fact, straight forward, just the facts ma’am, encyclopedic style that  Wikipedia requires. Many students struggled with not interjecting their own opinion into their topics, while a few more had issues with the lack of prose of a Wikipedia article. They had wanted to add the little flourishes of language that make things like essays interesting to read – things they had been taught to use time and time again. I truly believe this was their first non-essay assignment in English ever. Conveying the idea that this was not an essay was difficult because that is much of what we teach in our institute. This emphasizes an important point, one that is not new to many: that the essay is but one genre of many and that a well-rounded EAP students should have experience writing in multiple genres (e.g. essay, summary, literature review, case report). For my own teaching, and perhaps my own program, this also highlights the need for moving beyond an essay focus and branching out to other genres, especially at the upper levels.

Finally, the idea of genre analysis in general was new to both my students and myself. As I stated above, my program focuses mostly on essays, as did my previous university. However, there are other genres of importance that students should learn about. Genre analysis, the reading of multiple exemplars of a text and then striving to write one’s own text that fits within the discourse community being studied, is, as Christine Tardy mentioned during a workshop of hers that I attended, “…complicated and nuanced and it takes a lot of time”. (At this point, I’d like to say that I just realized the author of the Wikipedia article and the speaker at this presentation I attended were the same person, but I had no clue. I literally had a “Holy shit” moment as I looked at the workshop flyer and saw the speaker’s name!). Both my and my students’ lack of experience with it did present a challenge, but given that the encyclopedia/Wikipedia genre isn’t such a deviation from the essay genre, we were able to understand its different features. Like the above reflection regarding the need for multiple genres, this also shows that not only do students need more exposure to multiple genres, but they to learn a framework for analysis. Likewise, instructors need to not only offer opportunities for genre analysis but to better learn how to deliver such opportunities in the classroom. In other words, they need more training in genre analysis.

Finally, my students themselves regarded this project as very interesting and worthwhile. I could tell many of them were motivated to explain the topics that interested them. In a follow-up survey, I asked students several questions about the project. Here is how they responded:

  • Do you think it [this project] was beneficial to you? All students answered “yes”.
  • Do you think a reader will find it useful? Every student but one answered “yes”. The other students answered “maybe”.
  • Are you satisfied with your article? Same results.
  • Will you tell other people about the article you wrote? All students answered “yes”.
  • Any comments about the Wikipedia project? Only three students left comments:
    • “It was very difficult to me, I don’t know how to use technologies I guess but I know I need it and it was challenging but at the end you feel ok with things you did”
    • “It was really interesting project, but I am still not sure that what I wrote is really useful ^^;;;;”
    • “It was very useful and good experience.”

The survey questions themselves show me that this was a positive and beneficial experience. The open-ended questions lead me to believe students did not really feel finished with their work. “At the end you feel OK with things you did” actually sounds quite negative, but I’m not sure if it can be interpreted like that. “I am still not sure what I wrote is really useful” shows me the student is still considering their readers, and although they may not feel it is useful, what they wrote adds to a greater body of knowledge in the world, which is something I think all students who completed this project should realize. They not only wrote something and put it online for the world to see, but they actually added knowledge to the world in some way. Perhaps this was something I should have stressed more in class.I learned a lot from the topics that they wrote about, things I would not have learned or heard about otherwise.

All in all, I feel that I have learned so much from this process and from the students. I feel it was extremely beneficial to both of us and it is a project I will definitely repeat in the future.

 

Links to Student Articles

Below are links to my students’ actual Wikipedia article. I consider many of the articles to be of very good quality, though there are several that need to be cleaned up in terms of their grammar or citations. At least one needs more clarity and clarification. The nature of Wikipedia, however, is that, because it is free and open, others can come along and add, subtract, and rework what my students have done, reaffirming that this Wikipedia project is truly renewable.