Wiki and Composition Theory
We make three assertions to begin:
Writing is messy.
Writing is a socially collaborative act.
Wiki technology is a tool that enables writers to get into the mess and the social nature of writing.
We believe all of these statements are true. But as writing teachers what do we really do in practice that shows we believe these statements? Let's contextualize for a minute about the history of composition theory and illustrate how we got to this point:
In 1972, Donald Murry told us, "Instead of teaching finished writing, we should teach unfinished writing, and glory in its unfinishedness. We work with language in action." He also emphasized "rethinking, redesigning, rewriting" as important parts of the writing process (p. 4).
In 1984, Kenneth Bruffee explained that "if we accept the premise that knowledge is an artifact created by a community of knowledgeable peers constituted by the language of that community, and that learning is a social and not an individual process, then to learn is not to assimilate information and improve our mental eyesight. To learn is to work collaboratively to establish and maintain knowledge among a community of knowledgeable peers..." (p. 646).
In 2000, in an essay entitled "Composition and the Circulation of Writing," John Trimbur pointed out the lack of attention to the “means of production and delivery” of writing. Trimbur’s argument is that “writing instruction has isolated delivery” from “invention, arrangement, and style,” which “has led writing teachers to equate the activity of composing with writing itself and to miss altogether the complex delivery systems through which writing circulates” (pp. 189-190).
We seek to build on Trimbur’s discussion as we share our experience with using wiki as a writing tool for what we refer to as the act of producing writing, although our focus is a bit different from Trimbur's focus on means of production. While Trimbur defines the means of production using Marxist theory and focuses mainly on the circulation and delivery of completed texts, we will utilize his concepts in the context of the process of writing in order to help us connect the practice of online writing with composition theory. We focus here on what we call the act of producing writing, and we view collaboration, which we discuss at greater length in another section, as being one of the “delivery systems through which writing circulates.”
The process of the circulation of writing that Trimbur brings to our attention is easier, quicker, more dynamic in online environments through the use of tools such as wiki. Wiki takes teachers a step further in understanding writing as process, and in making it a reality in our pedagogical practices and our students' experiences. Michele Tepper (2003), in "The Rise of Social Software," describes "new collaborative work tools, such as Wiki," that "because of their familiarity to regular Web users, and their informal accessibility ... serve as a gateway to other new ways of working together" (p. 5). Among other tools that she mentions, wikis are described as a "next-generation syndication standard" (p. 6). Wikis, she continues "are better for working out process...are easy to set up and maintain, and have a relatively short learning curve" (p. 6). She acknowledges the collaborative and social nature of these new tools: "By building tools that allow people to come together and find each other's ideas, it makes it easier for new ideas and new tools to circulate, which in turn will bring even more collaboration, cooperation, and conversation online" (p. 6).
How is the production of writing and the circulation of writing different in the wiki environment? Rather than having students' writing processes limited by a word-processing program that functions in ways predetermined by the structure of the program, wikis allow the user to define the process of production itself. Instead of the program leading the process, the writer leads the program and develops the process. Instead of opening a page and filling the screen and then naming the file, writers have to name the page before it can be created. The act of naming the page means that the writer is not just putting words into a space; the writer is already involved in issues of structure and organization. The writer determines/creates the structure/organization rather than having to be confined within predetermined structures/organization. As such, wikis are representative of open-source software, as compared with proprietary, closed-source, software.
Clay Spinuzzi and Mark Zachry (2000), in "Genre Ecologies: An Open-Source Approach to Understanding and Constructing Documentation," discuss the limitations of closed-source ideologies as compared to open-source ideologies within the context of producing technical documentation. They illustrate how working under the assumption that documentation functions as a closed-system creates systems that are, at best, marginally useful and do not meet the needs of users who function in an open environment; "a perpetually open-ended, dynamic, shifting, and always unfinished ecology of resources encompassing a variety of media and domains" (p. 170). They argue that "the closed-system assumption limits in important ways how ... software documentators plan, develop, design, write, test, and understand documentation" (p. 170). We argue that the same can be said of our systems for teaching and producing writing. A closed-system approach to writing, which depends on standard word-processing programs and course-management tools (such as WebCT), limits, in important ways, how writers plan, develop, design, write, test, and understand the act of producing writing. Course management tools, for example, recreate the in-class practice of writing what we call a "rough draft" to share with other students, but in reality we know that these sharing events rarely mirror the real process of writing, and the students end up writing for the teacher. On another level, we can look at how the structures/the template design of software programs create limitations on what the user can do. Fagerjord, in his discussion in this issue of "prescripts," a term he uses to label "that which is written before you begin," illustrates how these prescripts "reduce the mean of expression available" and "lock the creation to a certain genre." Prescripts are "rigid" and users can become so familiar with the formats that they become blind to the effects these limits can have on the creation process.
Compared to such closed systems, Spinuzzi and Zachry (2000) advocate for open systems because "human interactions with complex technologies are inevitably mediated by dynamic and unpredictable clusters of communication artifacts and activities," clusters they label as "genre ecologies" (pp. 170-171). Open source approaches are necessary because "genres are not static forms: they are organic, dynamic, and messy" (p. 173). We believe these terms best describe the act of producing writing. Writing is messy, as we stated at the beginning of our text, and dynamic and unpredictable.
Spinuzzi and Zachry (2000) offer alternative methods for developing open systems - contingency, decentralization, and stability. These methods are useful as well to our description of the act of producing writing. Contingency is described by Spinuzzi and Zachry as the act of "making connections that were not planned by the system's designers; it entails opening a closed-system documentation set by coordinating it in unpredictable ways with materials at hand" (P. 173). Wikis, as open-source systems, follow this principle and allow writers who use the tool for the act of producing writing to make their own connections and coordinate in unpredictable ways. Wikis allow writers to focus on the messiness of bringing ideas together to make sense, and wikis allow writers to build their own scaffolding systems for this meaning making.
Whereas in a closed-system word-processing program we are constrained by the models the developer designed for making connections, in a wiki system we can connect and build in ways that are as numerous as our ideas. For example, in a wiki we can create a new page on the fly. To do this, click on the edit button at the bottom of this page, then type what is known as a WikiWord, which is a set of two or more words run together where the first letter of each word is capitalized, sometimes known as "mixed case" or "camel case." WikiWords are used as link and page titles in a wiki. In other words, a user can string any sequence of words together and capitalize the first letter of each word to make a valid WikiWord. For example, type "NewPage" anywhere within the edit box, then click Save below the edit box, and you will see NewPage?. By clicking on the ?, you instantly create a new page. So as our ideas take shape in multiple ways and through multiple paths of meaning making, the wiki system allows users to easily follow those paths. A user can create and share new pages and links in a closed-system word-processing program but has to take more steps and more time to do this, so the dynamic nature of interacting with the program and our ideas are easier to lose sight of. In a word-processing program, after following all of the steps to create, name and save a document, we still have to go through the steps to send the file to another reader to share the work. If we are using a web page development program, after creating, naming and saving the page, we then have to transfer the file into a server space before we can share it with others, and depending on the program, we have to follow other steps to create the linkage to lead the reader to the document. In Wiki, we only have to create a name, click open the new page and write, and then save and the document is written and available to other readers. Because the act of producing writing is complex and unpredictable, where the context is almost constantly changing - which Spinuzzi and Zachry said is how open systems function; as complex, unpredictable, and constantly changing systems as well (p. 174) - wikis are an ideally designed, open-source space that takes advantage of the messy, dynamic nature of writing.
Spinuzzi and Zachry's (2000) second method, decentralization, allows for the "contingent interconnections between genres" that are "complex, spontaneous, and dynamic" (p. 174). Because writing is not done in isolation, open-system methods better serve the needs of writers. Rather than equating "the activity of composing with writing itself," as Trimbur warned us not to, wikis present a visual and physical representation of the decentralized nature of the act of producing writing. Individuals can use the wiki system to develop their own acts of producing writing and use of the program to fit their processes; the processes that make sense to them. Wikis allow writers to add layers of meaning as they move through the writing process. We can choose to develop writing as a continuous stream of ideas on one page, or we can easily create links on one page that lead to the many ideas we are dealing with as we write. As we continue through the process we can easily move and connect ideas. And if we're collaboratively writing, we can choose many different ways to talk to the other writers, including IM or the asynchronous method that we used here and called " PublicationChatPage."
While some might view open-source systems as being unstable and having the tendency to remain messy because of the many options for production, these systems are "dynamic enough to respond to contingency" and can "achieve relative stability - a dynamic equilibrium-over time" (Spinuzzi and Zachry, 2000, p. 175). Even what we term finished writing products are stable only within a specific environment at a given time. We can take almost any document and easily find ways to continue the process, to continue to circulate the writing. The dynamic nature of wikis encourages writers to become more involved in the messiness of writing, to better understand the social nature of writing, to more easily and comfortably engage in the act of collaboration, and to produce better documents as a result. This dynamic nature also encourages writers to find stability in an end product that has been well developed. The open-system nature of wikis more aptly mirrors the dynamic nature of writing.
Trimbur (2000) introduces his discussion by saying that “it is hard to think of many visual representations of the activity of writing” (p. 188). We argue that wiki is a tool that presents a visual representation of the activity of writing. What is behind the screen? When we look at closed-system approaches to writing using word-processing programs, most of us have no conception of how connections are made, and our usage of those programs is shaped by our understanding of what the programs will do, which is often limited. As teachers, we personally are consistently surprised each semester at how many students don't know about the Style functions in word-processing programs. Style functions in wiki, however, are developed by the user, are evident on the edit screen, and require more active production on the part of the writer/user. A user decides what she needs the program to do and then manipulates the system to make those functions happen. Rather than clicking on a pull down menu and choosing a style/format without giving it much thought, users have to label each style change, which means the user is in charge of more of the process of making these decisions.
The look of the wiki screen is messy and changes quickly. Just the act of putting text into the wiki space makes the activity public and thus open to immediate social interaction. And writers shape the wiki space to fit their own writing styles and purposes. (InfoWorld has an animated, 8.5 minute screencast reviewing the changes that have occurred on Wikipedia's "Heavy metal umlaut" page since it first appeared in April of 2003.)