Wikipedia and Student Writing

Contributed by Andrew Stuhl, Bucknell University.

The entire semester hung in that moment. Twenty-six college students and I had spent four months updating Wikipedia articles on the History of Ecology. Now, as their research went live on the web, we sat in our classroom, thinking about what all that work meant. What did students take from the experience?

The words echoed off the back wall. The room filled with anticipation. One student raised his hand.

“I feel like I finally have something to say.”

For me, this one sentence summarizes the value of teaching with Wikipedia. When we ask our students to write for Wikipedia, they think about their writing and themselves differently. They are accustomed to conceiving of writing as an assignment; they do it to earn a grade. Most unfortunately, students too often understand writing as something that will end up collecting dust on a desk.

Of course, not all students view writing in this way. Some take great pride in their work. These students are as diligent about their word-choice and argument as they are about their research and footnoting. But these stand-out students are exceptions that prove the rule. What do these exceptional students know that others don’t? They know that scholarship is a conversation, a long back-and-forth of ideas and interpretations and insights. Great students feel like they can enter the conversation because they have something to say.

Teaching with Wikipedia, then, invites our students to think and act as scholars. Below, I highlight two other moments from my semester with Wikipedia to continue reflecting on the value of this pedagogy. My aim is not to be comprehensive about how to use Wikipedia in the classroom. Rather, I want to showcase a few big, challenging questions about writing that Wikipedia opens up, and which can deepen student engagement.

Writing is a process. Where are you in that process?

While there are many possible components in your Wikipedia assignment, an indispensable one should be the “lead section as outline” exercise. After students have selected topics and built a robust bibliography, they are ready to start drafting. To get them to conceptualize the entirety of their piece and its contribution to Wikipedia, I asked them to write a new lead section for their article in the form of a capsule summary, where every sentence represents a section of the article. This idea came from our Wikipedia Ambassador, Sage Ross (User:Ragesoss), and it proved invaluable in helping students both meditate on and move through that thorny transition between research and writing.

The “lead section as outline” exercise was particularly helpful in terms of teaching writing as a process. So many students enter my classroom with the notion that writing is a talent, not a skill. To them, you are either born a good writer or you’ll never be one. As a result, many of them don’t nurture good writing habits, or even conceive of the various stages of writing. Many of them prepare all of their essays the same way: the night before.

The structure of the Wikipedia assignment helps move students past these simple notions. But the lead-section-as-outline exercise is especially transformative. In being forced to draft a capsule summary of their work for the lead section, students immediately see the important scaffolding work that an introduction must perform. They also anticipate the need for revisions. If every sentence of the lead section must correspond with a fuller section of the article, then once the article is drafted, those draft lead section sentences must also be adjusted.

Most importantly, though, in asking students to craft an outline in this way before they’ve fully written the article, students are put in that creative, uncomfortable place between their knowledge and their understanding. Do they really understand their subject, or have they just collected a bunch of sources on it? The movement from knowing to understanding happens keystroke by keystroke, as students plan what a comprehensive treatment of their subject will eventually look like.

In these ways, the lead-section-as-outline offers teachers wonderful opportunities to address the nature of writing—from researching to outlining to drafting to revising—and the various ways these stages loop together.

Writing requires an audience. Who are you writing for?

The first time a Wikipedia editor commented on one of my students’ contributions, my course ceased being a class. It became an experiment. I could no longer single-handedly control the stream of feedback they would receive on their writing. I became more of a coach to their individual projects and less a judge and jury of it.

This is as it should be. There are few venues or genres in writing that are meant for only one person (a letter and a dissertation come to mind). In all other forms, we write for an audience, not a professor. My students have a hard time grasping this. They have been taught, over time, that they write for the teacher. They will say things like, “I’m worried about writing in this class because I don’t know what you want from us.” This student is not being whiny. They just haven’t thought about what audience they should be writing for, or why an audience is necessary for writing in the first place. Maybe I hadn’t provided them an audience for their assignment.

The Writing Center at Bucknell University has a wonderful little diagram that represents the meaning of audience in terms of student writing. It is adapted from Ramage, Bean and Johnson’s “Writing Arguments: A Rhetoric with Readings.” A triangle connects three big words: Message, Audience, and Writer. Under the heading Message, the following question appears: “How can I make the argument internally consistent and logical?” Under the heading Writer, another question: “How can I present myself effectively?” And finally, under Audience: “How can I make the reader open to my message?” This diagram clearly shows that the readers of our work shape what information we present and how we present it.

Students can understand this diagram when they see it. They can repeat its components back to me. But they didn’t really feel the weight of it until they heard from their audience. Comments on their work from Wikipedia editors reminded them that audience is not merely a concept—it is comprised of living human beings just like them. When students shared with me what other editors had said, I was able to open up a discussion about the elements of high quality Wikipedia articles, especially balanced coverage, neutral content, and reliable sources. In turn, I could point to these elements as characteristic of both the Wikipedia audience and the encyclopedia genre. I could contrast them with other forms of writing and other audiences, turning “writing” from an assignment into a dynamic, multifaceted activity.

Not all students will have the good fortune of receiving comments on their work. But such feedback may not be necessary to foster good writing. At the close of the semester, students said that simply knowing that an audience of editors existed was enough to change how they wrote. They chose words more carefully. They double-checked their work for accuracy and reliability. And they began to think about how best they could communicate their scholarship to readers who were as curious, conscientious, and committed and as they were.

Saying Something More

These are just two questions about writing that Wikipedia helps us entertain. There are more, to be sure. Like any good tool, Wikipedia will wield its greatest power in the hands of the users. Now that students can envision the complexity of the writing process, what will they produce? Now that students think of themselves as scholars, what can they accomplish? Now that we can crack open big issues about writing, what will our students have to say?


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