Risky Writing in Unsafe Spaces: Wikipedia as a FYC Venue

Jennifer Haley-Brown
The University of Arizona

Public Space Pedagogy

Much of the Spatial and Visual Rhetorics graduate course focused on space in relatively tangible terms: the ways we occupy space on a print page, on a web page, in a classroom, in a city. While the Wikipedia curriculum I developed for the SVR course engaged some of these concepts—I developed handouts for analyzing Wikipedia as a space in terms of visual design, for example—my theoretical approach to space was less materially grounded. As I designed this curriculum, I considered spaces of knowledge and the ways that space can legitimate or invalidate certain types of knowledge. For example, in spite of studies that suggest Wikipedia might be more reliable than most academics had assumed (Fallis, 2008), many teachers tend to dismiss Wikipedia as a reliable space for knowledge making. And Wikipedia’s policies—no original research, neutral point of view—recognize that it does not attempt to occupy an academic knowledge space. Therefore, the goal of my Wikipedia curriculum was not to champion the online encyclopedia as a viable space for exchanging scholarly knowledge, but rather to challenge the negative stance that many academics adopt toward Wikipedia—a stance that frequently leads students to conceal their less academic research sources rather than to learn how to use those sources responsibly. Such an avoidance policy has led to one of the most common complaints about our wired-in students’ research skills: They rarely know how to evaluate the legitimacy of digital sources (see Achterman, 2005). James Purdy's (2009) discussion of Wikipedia as a frontrunner for public knowledge-making in a Web 2.0 world encapsulates many of the ideas I hoped to teach with my Wikipedia curriculum.

My original goal with this curriculum was to teach students to critically analyze online and offline knowledge spaces. Underlying this goal was an understanding of space in the sense of Michel De Certeau’s (1984) definition: “space is a practiced place” (p. 117). (For an excellent discussion of De Certeau's use of space and place, see Jenna Vinson's webtext.) Digital spaces, particularly wikis, perform this definition well because the content of a wiki is always changing, pushed along by the transitory, pluralistic intents of its many contributors. The Wikipedia curriculum asked students to compare different spaces in which knowledge is shared, from traditionally scholarly spaces, such as academic journals and books, to public spaces of knowledge, such as organizational websites and blogs. The course sought to show students that the spaces of public and academic knowledge collide, intersect, and inform one another. Moreover, the spaces in which we produce and present academic research are increasingly overlapping with public spaces of knowledge. We have online journals, academic wikis, professional blogs, listservs that frequently turn up in article citations. Likewise, methods for conducting and teaching research increasingly correspond with the ways we search for non-academic materials: We find and even read library texts online. It’s no wonder that our students have trouble discerning the line between a public space of knowledge and an academically protected site of knowledge. Considering Wikipedia as a space questioned its reliability and validity as a source of knowledge.

But more importantly, teaching this course provoked me to consider how we teach students to write in the way Michael Warner (2002) defined “a public,” meaning a group of readers that “comes into being only in relation to texts and their circulation” (p. 50). Just as space is a shifty term, the readerly public shifts in response to the production of texts. Digitality often broadens the size of the public for a given text. And Wikipedia introduces two publics: the general public’s reader searching for a quick answer, and the more specialized public of Wikipedians, who safeguard the content of Wikipedia through discourse and, sometimes, brutal editing. Teaching this course taught me that the intersection of public writing and wiki writing requires a delicate process of negotiation, revision, compromise, and resolve. The next time I teach the Wikipedia sequence, I’ll spend more time working with students about writing for real, invested readers. We’ll analyze Wikipedia as a space of knowledge, but we'll also spend time considering the Wikipedia discussion boards as spaces of peer review and negotiation. James Purdy's (2010b) excellent textbook chapter guides students through the Wikipedia editing process, and I'll certainly draw from this resource the next time I teach this course.

As this webtext demonstrates, public digital writing is risky, particularly since we can't fully anticipate students' experiences when they publish their writing. As scholars of computers and writing suggest, students will continue to work in digital spaces long after they leave the university. Both James Porter (2010) and Purdy (2009, 2010a) have noted that Web 2.0 writing exemplifies the types of digital literacies necessary beyond the composition classroom. Purdy (2009) has written about the ways that Web 2.0 writing in general, and Wikipedia writing in particular, mirror the kinds of peer review discussions and challenges that we undergo in scholarly writing by making “more visible the complex, rich, messy processes usually kept behind closed doors of the academy” (p. 352). Practicing this kind of writing in the classroom helps students to think rhetorically about public digital writing. Moreover, public digital writing also affords students the chance to write with a network of supporters represented by their instructor and their peers. As Pratt (1991) and hooks (1994) have shown, all writing situations—all contact zones—carry a sense of risk. However, the composition classroom offers a relatively safe space for students to practice risky public writing, a skill they’ll need to cultivate to successfully engage in the many spaces of writing they encounter in the world outside the classroom.

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