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Vetter, Matthew A. Editing Wikipedia as Pedagogy for Cultural Critique. CE, May 2018. Posted 05/22/2018.

Vetter, Matthew A. “Teaching Wikipedia: Appalachian Rhetoric and the Encyclopedic Politics of Representation.” College English 80.5 (2018): 397-422. Print.

Matthew A. Vetter writes about a study in a junior-level rhetoric and writing course in which he used Wikipedia as a focus for the course and as a primary teaching tool (399). He argues that designing a curriculum in which students actively participate in Wikipedia editing can serve dual goals of meeting general education and composition learning outcomes while also introducing students to cultural critique (400).

The course, which took place in a university in a region of Ohio that is considered part of Appalachia, used depictions of Appalachia in media and in Wikipedia to introduce issues of cultural representation while also allowing students to gain from the particular affordances Wikipedia offers (399).

Vetter notes that while Wikipedia is often excoriated by college and university instructors, scholarship in composition has credited the project with important qualities useful for teaching writing (397, 402). Scholars claim that Wikipedia provides an “authentic” writing environment that engages students with real, potentially responsive audiences in the collaborative construction of knowledge (397). Students working in this environment can “deconstruct authority in public and ‘published’ texts” and can gain firsthand experience in the process of editing and revision (397).

Vetter recounts as well critiques that challenge Wikipedia’s claim to provide “universal access and representation” (398). He cites statistics indicating that the “editorship” is “overwhelmingly make and homogenous” (398). Further, the site marginalizes certain geographic and cultural locations and issues through lack of representation and often through representation from an “outsider perspective” (398).

For Vetter, this disparity in representation affects the ways Wikipedia addresses marginalized areas of Western culture, such as Appalachia. Involving students with Wikipedia’s depiction of Appalachia, in Vetter’s view, gives them access to the ways that representation functions through media and rhetoric and allows them to see their ability to intervene through writing as a potential force for change (399).

Vetter found that a significant minority of his students considered themselves connected to Appalachia (407); 17 students participated in the study (401). The course design allowed all students to engage both with the issue of representation of Appalachia in media and with the rhetorical nature and “cultural politics” of Wikipedia as a source of information (416), with implications for how rhetoric and writing construct realities.

Students began by examining depictions of Appalachia in mainstream media, moved on to group genre analysis of Wikipedia articles, and finally chose Wikipedia pieces on Appalachia to edit, drawing on their research as well as their personal experiences as residents of an Appalachian region (400). Students also wrote two in-class “process logs,” one asking them to reflect on what they had learned about rhetorical treatment of Appalachia and one calling for consideration of how their engagement with Wikipedia had changed as a result of the course (401). Coding of the process logs allowed Vetter to detect themes shared across many responses.

Vetter explores scholarship on teaching with Wikipedia within composition studies, finding an interest in the ways using Wikipedia as a site for writing can enable a shift from consumption to production (403). He argues that Wikipedia is an example of a “[c]ommunity-based pedagog[y]” that, by offering “exposure to multiple authorities and audiences,” contributes to students’ rhetorical knowledge (403). In Vetter’s view, scholarship has tended to focus on the contribution to general learning outcomes enabled by Wikipedia-based assignments; he contends that this focus “should be expanded” to exploit what the site can teach about the rhetorical nature of representation and about the processes that result in the marginalization of “cultures and identities” (404).

The first class project, examining representations of Appalachia in mainstream sources, asked students to examine Appalachia as a “social invention” created through writing (404). This “symbolic construction” (404) of the region, Vetter argues, shifts attention from the “material realities” experienced by inhabitants (405). Study of these material realities, Vetter contends, can lead to more nuanced awareness of the diversity of the region and to a greater appreciation of a range of literacies that characterize individuals (405-06). Vetter’s course and study transcend the “denaturalization” that scholarship begins by encouraging a “method of critical praxis that contributes to the reshaping of cultural narratives” as students not only study how stereotypes are created and persist but resist these stereotypes by actively editing Wikipedia’s Appalachia sites (406).

Analysis of the first process log revealed that students recognized the effects of problematic representation of Appalachia; 88% also noted “the social-epistemic functions of rhetoric and writing” (408, 409). Their study of media depictions of the region also emphasized for students how reliance on outsiders for representation erased the realities experienced by people closer to the region (411).

Vetter notes that developers in Wikipedia are aware that work remains to be done to improve the depiction of Appalachia. Wikiprojects, “dedicated task forces” that strive to improve Wikipedia, list “more than 40 articles in need of development or major reorganization” within Wikiproject Appalachia (412). Students were able to draw on these articles and on resources and support provided in the Wikiproject’s “talk” page to meet the course requirements (412-13). Vetter discusses the need to move beyond word counts in order to assess student work, because Wikipedia encourages concision and because students must collaborate with other editors to have their work included (413).

The second process log suggested that genre analysis and exposure to Wikipedia itself had given students better understanding and familiarity with the exigencies of working in the site. Some students wrote that professors in earlier classes who had imposed “outright bans” on the use of Wikipedia for research failed to understand how a critical understanding of the site could make it a productive research source (415-16). Vetter contends that a more nuanced understanding of Wikipedia and a well-structured curriculum using the site could allow academics to encourage the kinds of improvements they believe Wikipedia needs, including an increase in the diversity of contributors (416).

Three of the 17 students reported difficulty getting their edits accepted, reporting that experienced editors served as gatekeepers on “popular” topics while more marginalized topics were hard to research because of a lack of well-documented information. Vetter contends that Wikipedia’s insistence on “published and verifiable sources” will always tend to exclude the important insights that come from the direct experience of those familiar with a region or topic (419). While the “distributed model” of “Commons-Based Peer Production” in place at Wikipedia does allow many users to “come together to collaboratively and incrementally build a global knowledge source,” this model simultaneously “deemphasize[s] and devalue[s] the place of local knowledge production” (419).

In Vetter’s view, student engagement with Wikipedia can alert them to the ways that various types of representation can misinform while empowering them to recognize their own writing and rhetoric as interventions for change.

 


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Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara. “Tellability” and Identity Performance. Sept. CE, 2016. Posted 09/18/2016.

Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara. “‘Keep the Appalachian, Drop the Redneck’: Tellable Student Narratives of Appalachian Identity.” College English 79.1 (2016): 11-33. Print.

Sara Webb-Sunderhaus explores the concept of “tellability” as a means of understanding how students in composition classes perform identities. She argues that these identities often emerge from the relationship between their individual experiences and public discourses validated by the audiences they are likely to encounter.

Webb-Sunderhaus’s specific focus is the construction of identity by people who designate themselves or are designated by others as “Appalachian.” Self-identifying as an “Urban Appalachian”—that is, as an individual who has moved out of a region considered part of Appalachia to a larger city (13, 31n5), Webb-Sunderhaus conducted an ethnographic study at two anonymous institutions in Appalachia (13). She examines the classroom activity, written work, and responses to interviews of six students in writing classes at these institutions in light of the students’ connection to Appalachia.

Webb-Sunderhaus presents contested definitions of Appalachia, including those of the Appalachian Regional Council and the Central Appalachian Network, both of which use geographical measures (14). In contrast, Webb-Sunderhaus cites Benedict Anderson’s definition of Appalachia as “an imagined community” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus14), and that of Appalachian Studies scholar Allen Batteau as “a literary and a political invention rather than a geographical discovery” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus14). Webb-Sunderhaus argues that efforts to define Appalachianness may miss the diversity of individuals who identify with the region; she stresses that this identity is “a cultural identity, rooted in the place of the Appalachian mountains, but not necessarily restricted to this place alone” (16).

Tellability, a concept used by scholars in social studies and folklore, involves the relationship between a particular narrative and widespread public discourses about a given phenomenon, in this case, Appalachianness (16). These public discourses determine which narratives accord with common assumptions and widely shared impressions of the phenomenon. A narrative that is tellable fits and reinforces the extant public narratives; accounts that resist these public narratives may not earn what Michael Kearns calls “the audience’s active validation” (16) and are therefore not tellable (16-17). Tellability, Webb-Sunderhaus maintains, is a function of audience. Writers and speakers are aware of the discourses their audiences expect based on the given rhetorical constraints; what is tellable in one context may be untellable in another (22).

This process of negotiating identities through astute choices of tellable narratives, Webb-Sunderhaus writes, accords with Judith Butler’s view of identity as “a performance that is repeated” by “a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already established” (Butler, qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 17). Tellable narratives provide what Debra Journet calls “tropes of authenticity” necessary to such re-enactment (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 21).

Webb-Sunderhaus interprets her study of how tellability influences students’ rhetorical decisions as they perform identities in a classroom setting as evidence that students exhibit considerable awareness of what kinds of narratives are tellable and that in a number of cases, these decisions were based on what the students assumed the instructor expected (29). In one case, a student “fabricated” details (23) to conform to what she saw as the teacher’s belief that affinity with nature is a feature of Appalachianness; in contrast, the reality of the student’s childhood did not meet this expectation and was therefore an untellable response to an essay assignment (23-24).

Drawing on Nedra Reynolds, Webb-Sunderhaus notes a distinction between “perceived” and “conceived” spaces as components of identity. A perceived space designates physical surroundings that can be apprehended through the senses, such as the landscape of Appalachia, while a conceived space is the way an environment is represented mentally, incorporating sociocultural components, attitudes, and values (20).

Students in Webb-Sunderhaus’s study, she writes, exhibited an understanding of this distinction, noting ways in which being born in or from Appalachia often contrasted with their relationship to Appalachia as individuals. One student acknowledged being physically linked to Appalachia but rejected even some of the “positive” stereotypes she felt were culturally associated with the region (25). Another specifically disconnected her Appalachian birthplace and subsequent experiences, arguing that tellable narratives of Appalachians as tied to place did not represent her own willingness to “explore the world” (“Gladys,” qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 26).

Webb-Sunderhaus sees in this type of resistance to common tellable narratives a form of what Ann K. Ferrell calls “stigma management” (28). Many tellable narratives of Appalachia focus on negatives like poverty, illiteracy, narrow-mindedness, and even criminality and incest (18). In Webb-Sunderhaus’s view, resistance to an Appalachian identity defined by such narratives can act as a distancing strategy when such narratives are invoked (28). At the same time, according to Webb-Sunderhaus, the student who rejected the “down-home” component of an Appalachian identity may have recognized that in the setting of a research study, her more cosmopolitan identity narrative would be tellable in a way that it might not be in other contexts (28).

Webb-Sunderhaus emphasizes the power of teachers in “inviting” and approving particular narratives (28). For example, she writes that by picking up on a student’s reluctant reference to moonshining in his family history and sharing a similar family history, she encouraged him to incorporate this component of the public discourse about Appalachia into his own identity (21). Similarly, the student who embellished her narrative was praised by the teacher for her “imagery and pastoralism” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 22); such responses, Webb-Sunderhaus contends, quoting Thomas Newkirk, reveal “the seductiveness of deeply rooted and deeply satisfying narratives that place us in familiar moral positions” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 24).

The power of this seductiveness, in Webb-Sunderhaus’s view, creates rhetorical pressure on students who are asked to perform identities in writing classrooms. While teachers hope that students will produce writing that authentically represents their views and experiences, the authenticity and “reliability” of a performance can easily be judged by its adherence to the common and therefore tellable public discourses in which the teacher may be immersed (28-29). Responding to Zan Meyer Gonçalves, Webb-Sunderhaus writes that the hope of making a classroom a place where students can “feel honest and safe” (qtd. in Webb-Sunderhaus 29) may overlook the degree to which students’ educational histories have led them to make strategic decisions (29) about how to “negotiate successfully [a] particular literacy event” (24).

In this view, the kinds of clichéd endorsements of popular discourses that teachers would like to see students overcome may be among the options the teachers are inadvertently inviting as they convey their own sense that some narratives are tellable in their classrooms while others are not (30).