Risky Writing in Unsafe Spaces: Wikipedia as a FYC Venue

Jennifer Haley-Brown
The University of Arizona

Wikipedia Course Design

Although I had been thinking about developing a research assignment targeting Wikipedia for about a year, I designed the full curriculum as my final project for English 696: Spatial and Visual Rhetorics. The assignment required us to create pedagogical materials for the specific audience of our Writing Program colleagues. I developed a semester-long Wikipedia sequence that could be integrated into the University of Arizona’s second-semester writing course, which emphasizes rhetorical analysis, controversy analysis, and public argument. Thus, students began the semester by writing a comparative rhetorical analysis of two types of knowledge texts, one scholarly and one popular. They then wrote a conventional research paper, in which I asked them to “develop a researched essay using reliable, academic sources in preparation for your third assignment, which will be to publish your article to Wikipedia.” Their final course project was to revise and publish their research paper into a Wikipedia article that met the writing and research conventions of the online “people’s encyclopedia.” The standard Writing Program essay assignments provided a strong foundation for the learning goals I identified for the Wikipedia sequence. These course goals included:

  • Providing a hands-on way to explore the distinctions between scholarly and non-scholarly sites of knowledge.
  • Exploring the distinctions between academic and non-academic writing conventions.
  • Learning that knowledge is produced, contestable, and contested.
  • Understanding that evidence for facts varies depending on context.
  • Learning how to evaluate and value information in a digital age that allows students easy access to texts of varying levels of reliability.

To meet these learning goals, we practiced rhetorical analysis during class meetings, specifically focusing on issues of authorship, purpose, and agency in different sources of information. We began working with Wikipedia as a text early in the semester. We used it as a sample text for rhetorical analysis, and students chose their topic for the Wikipedia unit in the first third of the semester. The online encyclopedia has long lists of topic stubs that include a paragraph or so of information but need expansion. I encouraged students to choose a research topic that had never been created in Wikipedia or that existed as a stub, so that students would be encouraged to learn about their topics; to assert authorial oversight when it came to writing their Wikipedia articles; and to hold a better chance of conducting friendly interactions with other Wikipedia users than if they significantly edited an existing article. Most of my students followed this suggestion.

The teaching materials I developed for the SVR2 event include:

Essay 3 handout

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