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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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VanHaitsma, Pamela. Student Inquiry through Archives. CE, Sept. 2015. Posted 09/08/2015.

VanHaitsma, Pamela. “New Pedagogical Engagements with Archives: Student Inquiry and Composing in Digital Spaces.” College English 78.1 (2015): 34-55. Web. 2 Sept. 2015.

Pamela VanHaitsma discusses an approach to involving students in archival research that she developed in first-year-writing classes at the University of Pittsburgh. Maintaining that students explore as well as create archives throughout their activities both in and outside of class, VanHaitsma hopes to connect the kinds of inquiry that archives make possible with the focus on student interest and lives that informs writing pedagogy. She also investigates how digital collection and dissemination options affect the process of using and building an archive (36).

She notes that the term “archives” might designate a range of collections, such as databases students use in research for classwork, broader collocations of information like Wikipedia, and even sites housing student material for plagiarism detection. VanHaitsma chooses to avoid resolving this definitional debate that, on the one hand, recognizes any collection of information as an archive, but on the other, insists on specific content and formal organization. Instead, she wants to “work between the . . . extremes of broad and narrow definitions” (35), drawing on the relationship between collections “from the past” as well as “present-day spaces” where archives might exist or be created (35). The specific assignment she presents calls on students to use collections that fit the traditional model while also developing their own collections in order to ground inquiry in their writing classes (36).

In VanHaitsma’s view and that of other scholars she cites, archival methods and research inherently encourage inquiry, simultaneously evoking critical attention to methodology (36-37). Practicing these methodologies has the added effect, VanHaitsma argues, of drawing both undergraduates and graduate students into the kind of scholarly work done and valued beyond the classroom: Students can “transform from thinking of themselves as students to seeing their insights and their work have value to an academic field” (Wendy Hayden, qtd. in VanHaitsma 37).

In her view, exploring digital archives has added benefits. She cites the collaborative work across areas of scholarly emphasis enabled by access to many different digital collections (37); she quotes James P. Purdy to stress that digital archives “eliminate many temporal and spatial obstacles” as students explore connections across disciplines (qtd. in VanHaitsma 38).

In particular, VanHaitsma points to scholarship that argues for the value of digital tools in helping students contribute their own collections to the growing universe of archives. Daniel Anderson contends that students’ ability to gather and store materials without expert technical knowledge makes them “producers and consumers, or ‘prosumers'” (qtd. in VanHaitsma 38). VanHaitsma provides examples of such “prosumer” behavior across communities and within classrooms, for instance the use of MediaWiki software to generate collaborative collections (38).

Her students explored the topic of “language use in romantic relationships” (40) through two traditional archives of nineteenth-century letter-writing instructions and then through materials available to them today that offered similar instruction. Her goals included encouraging comparison of these rhetorics while also asking students to consider how new technologies affected the dissemination and effects of the information they were examining (40, 42). Students concluded the project with an essay analyzing similarities and differences. Thus, for VanHaitsma, the assignment led to substantive inquiry at many levels. The students’ archives were collected in the Blackboard Course Management system in use at the university; the results were not made public 40-41).

VanHaitsma stresses that substantial learning resulted from her decision to allow students to develop their own archives rather than provide them with present-day materials of her choosing. Teachers, she argues, may not clearly anticipate what students will find useful or relevant; moreover, pre-empting students’ agency in choosing what to include in the archive stifles the kind of active inquiry the assignment is intended to promote.

VanHaitsma notes that students’ choices were not all “overtly instructional” like the letter-writing manuals; although how-to articles were included, students added other diverse options such as YouTube music videos, excerpts from novels, and film clips (43). She provides five examples of essay topics, for example, a comparison of a letter-writing manual to “present-day Chinese TV dating shows” that noted how both “focus on a man’s ‘wealth’ and a woman’s ‘appearance'” (student, qtd. in VanHaitsma 44); and an examination of the manuals through the lens of Jersey Shore, noting the shift from “courtesy” to “language and tactics . . . for hooking up” (student, qtd. in VanHaitsma 44). Two students noted that the earlier manuals did not admit the possibility of gay relationships (44-45).

VanHaitsma illustrates the critical analysis encouraged by the assignment: Students explored both the advantages and limits of both rhetorics as well as the effects of the media used. For example, a student analyzing a clip from the film He’s Just Not That Into You used the term “bombarded” to describe current-day techniques for creating relationships while other students noted that relationships today have been made “too easy” as people turn to online media to convey thoughts that were once written out with great care (46-47). Students also noted the limitations of the nineteenth-century process, contending that there are virtues to today’s more expansive options (47).

However, VanHaitsma’s ultimate focus is not on the content of the archives and essays themselves; rather, she hopes to foreground the degree to which the work of examining traditional archives while simultaneously creating related archives from materials of interest to students promotes “the sort of scholarly inquiry that teacher-scholars have emphasized as a potential for pedagogical engagements with brick-and-mortar archives. . . . ” (48).

VanHaitsma recommends that despite the ease of use of familiar platforms like Blackboard, students will benefit from trying out other systems, especially those like Archive-It and Omeka, which are specifically intended for the generation and dissemination of archives (49). While encouraging the option of taking student-created archives public, VanHaitsma cautions that teachers will need to address “questions about the audiences, purposes, and effects of such publication, as well as copyright issues relevant to archiving artifacts” (49).

Her final caution is for teachers to remember that when they provide archival materials for student study, they may come with “preconceived ideas” about how the materials should be valued. Again, she believes that student agency in selecting and evaluating collected material is paramount to the learning such assignments foster (50).


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Gruwell, Leigh. Wikipedia’s Gender-Gap Problem. C&C, May 2015. Posted 08/19/15.

Gruwell, Leigh. “Wikipedia’s Politics of Exclusion: Gender, Epistemology, and Feminist Rhetorical (In)action.” Computers and Composition 37 (2015): 117-31. Web. 28 july 2015.

Leigh Gruwell examines Wikipedia’s “gender-gap problem,” the fact that only 13% of its editors are female. Gruwell recounts interviews with three women who regularly contribute to Wikipedia to argue that a number of aspects of the Wikipedia process are not welcoming to women.

Gruwell reports that Wikipedia is widely used by both men and women and has earned the approval of a number of composition scholars who see it as “a collaborative site of writing and knowledge production that emphasizes revision and challenges traditional models of textual authority and authorship” (117). Compositionists have valued wiki technology in general and have incorporated Wikipedia into classroom assignments (119). Gruwell points to scholarship that casts Wikipedia as a way of showing how texts arise through a “socially constructed, ever-unfolding process” that does not stem from “a single, unified identity” (119). Scholars also value Wikipedia’s public nature and its message that knowledge is not limited to “credentialed experts” and is, in James Purdy’s view, “framed as up for debate” (qtd. in Gruwell 119). But Gruwell argues that Wikipedia, like any technology or text, emerges from its culture and encodes “biases and assumptions” that scholars should be alert to (119).

Gruwell examines Wikipedia as a discourse community; she notes that the scholarship on such communities demonstrates how, within the community, some modes of communication are sanctioned while others are discouraged or even denied. Gruwell argues, however, that members of one discourse community are also members of other communities and that these varied simultaneous memberships shape individuals’ relationships across communities. Wikipedia, she writes, does not acknowledge the diversity or multiplicity of the people who contribute; for example, the site does not ask editors to register and minimizes the information users have to supply. As a result, Gruwell states, “it is difficult to discern who these users are” (121). She contends that a user’s “standpoint”—his or her “allegiances . . . , politics . . . , [and] social positioning”—affect the knowledge that the user incorporates into the Wikipedia interface (121).

This dissociation from users’ lived experiences is further enforced, she writes, by the site’s style preferences. She demonstrates these preferences with a screen shot of the entry for “Feminist movement,” which is deemed unacceptable because it is “written like a personal reflection or essay” rather than in the mandated “encyclopedic style” (Wikipedia entry for “Feminist movement,” qtd. in Gruwell 118). Gruwell critiques this style choice through the lens of feminist standpoint theory, arguing that Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” requirement, which, according to the site’s guidelines, asks writers “to describe debates rather than engage in them” (qtd. in Gruwell 121), excludes writing from an “embodied” positionality reflective of the kind of “lived experiences” that shape knowledge and that characterize a feminist approach to discourse (119).

Gruwell details her own experiences with Wikipedia. After regularly turning to Wikipedia for “quick run-down[s]” when needed, she fulfilled a graduate seminar assignment by enlisting as an editor (122). Discouraged by the difficulty of the “idiosyncratic” mark-up language then in use and by seeing her edits revised, Gruwell returned to using Wikipedia solely as a resource. However, the discovery that only 13% of editors were women encouraged her to see her experiences as grounds for investigation (122).

After promised help from Wikipedia recruiting women study participants failed to materialize, Gruwell located a “Wikimedia Australia gender gap listserv” (123) populated by women who contributed regularly to Wikipedia. Participants took a short survey on their experiences and then responded to a request for a longer interview over Skype or phone (123, 128-29).

Gruwell focuses on three interviews that provide useful insights into women’s relationships with the Wikipedia community (123). The three women were “relatively privileged . . . , well-educated, [and] economically advantaged” (123). Gruwell posits that these women’s positions may have enabled them to engage successfully with Wikipedia because they had both the time and the skills to do so (123). The women cited their emotional commitment to Wikipedia’s goals or to the community, with one explicitly expressing a political purpose, calling attention to issues she considered important. Gruwell notes that all three wrote “about topics that mattered to them, as individuals and professionals” (124) and with which they had a personal connection.

Gruwell’s interviews suggest three reasons why women fail to thrive at Wikipedia. First, her participants note that even professional women are still burdened by traditonal women’s duties and thus cannot prioritize becoming expert users (124-25). Second, though Gruwell notes that Wikipedia is making its coding simpler (123n4), historically learning to edit has presented a considerable learning curve. Her participants suggest that because IT has generally been a male-dominated domain, people comfortable using the interface may well more often be male. Finally, Gruwell emphasizes the degree to which the discourse expectations at Wikipedia exclude the kinds of knowledge many woman may bring to the project (124-25).

Gruwell explores these issues by examining how her three interview subjects have succeeded as Wikipedia editors. Beyond bringing some IT expertise, as one participant does, the women exhibit “a sophisticated sense” of how Wikipedia operates that enables them to meet the rigid community requirements (125). They recognize the mandate to direct their work to “the widest possible audience” (“Lekha,” qtd. in Gruwell 125); they copy and develop templates to structure their work in formats that will be accepted (126). Gruwell especially addresses the epistemological standards the women must meet. Of particular note is the need for “sourcing” that will be considered “reliable” (126). The women’s experiences in academia, Gruwell posits, makes meeting this standard easier for these women than it would be for others. However, she provides examples of how this standard excludes individual and local knowledge, as does the site’s sense of what constitutes the “notability” necessary for inclusion on Wikipedia (126). In Gruwell’s view, such practices create a “homogenous” body of information that claims authority as decisive when it fact it excludes rather than enables debate (127). Moreover, citing Andrea A. Lunsford and Lisa Ede, Gruwell identifies Wikipedia as an example of “hierarchical collaboration,” in which differences must be smoothed out rather than acknowledged (127).

Gruwell cites Wikipedia’s recent efforts to address the gender issue, but argues that these efforts do not challenge the limiting epistemology the site endorses (127). She introduces #tooFEW, a feminist group hoping to change the Wikipedia culture rather than simply “align with” it, and notes composition journals that do similar work (127-28). She reminds composition scholars that academic fields also value the “‘objective,’ detached writing” privileged by Wikipedia, and urges feminist scholars to take the “risks” involved in resisting such standards (128). Teachers should bring Wikipedia into classrooms for examination of the assumptions underlying its concept of knowledge and driving its discourse conventions (128). Finally, teaching Wikipedia critically can identify other excluded positionalities in its depiction of reality (128).