Risky Writing in Unsafe Spaces: Wikipedia as a FYC Venue

Jennifer Haley-Brown
The University of Arizona

Risky Writing

Beyond recognizing and preparing for students’ unsafe encounters in public digital spaces, we should also recognize the potential benefits of risky writing, of asking our students to practice public forms of composing while they have support from their peers and guidance from their writing instructors. One benefit is that of increased engagement: Students frequently find public, online writing to be risky precisely because they also find it to be meaningful. As Carra Leah Hood (2009) wrote, “Wikipedia creates a rhetorical setting that first-year writing classes can, at best, only simulate” (n.p.). Rather than writing a paper that would be read by just a few people and then filed (or thrown) away, my students took seriously the knowledge that their writing would represent an established truth about their topic for an unknowable and untraceable public audience. At the end of the semester, students frequently mentioned that they had shared their Wikipedia articles with family and friends, that they had posted their articles to Facebook and MySpace pages, and that they were proud of the lasting consequences of their first-year composition efforts. Like many composition instructors, I routinely work to cultivate a sense of meaningful engagement in my assignments, and students' excitement about their projects led me to believe that this assignment successfully fostered student engagement.

Another benefit of asking students to engage in risky writing is that we can mentor them to negotiate with an unknown audience (or adversary, in some cases) about matters of research and writing. At the outset of the semester, I was not fully prepared to give this form of guidance; thus, students responded to their critics with varying degrees of success. Some students simply ignored the comments with which they disagreed. Other students acquiesced to or actively argued against every suggestion they received. In some respects, the students’ revisions mirrored what I frequently see during traditional in-class peer review sessions. Almost all students made surface revisions to their articles in direct response to comments by Wikipedians. When it came to larger revisions, though, students frequently argued against their critics, preferring their own writing choices over the unproven authority of their unknown readers.

These negotiations led to a variety of outcomes, some of which carried high stakes for the students' writing. On the one hand, the student who respectfully requested more time to complete her Mustache Rock article ended up with a deleted article. On the other hand, in response to the proposed deletion of their article on the Berkeley Riots, one team of student writers crafted an assertive, almost strident response to their anonymous readers (Figure 1):

Figure 1 Student Response Screenshot

Figure 1. A screenshot of students' responding at length to several proposed Wikipedia edits.


Ultimately, while they made minor revisions to the language of their article, this student group rejected their critics’ protests and stood vehemently by their original work. They claimed more than once that their sources are “legitimate” and “make sense.” In addition to writing the adamant defense of their project, they also made several minor revisions to the article’s language and sources in response to Wikipedia’s requirement for an unbiased, “neutral point of view.” Their choice to push against reviewer comments worked: The article remains active on Wikipedia three years after the students posted it.

At the outset of this assignment, I hadn’t thought to account for the fact that students would want and need to respond to the larger Wikipedia community as they drafted their articles. Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether their work would receive any attention outside our classroom, and I was as surprised as they were to discover how quickly most of their articles received some form of response. Because I hadn’t anticipated such frequent responses, my assignment did not include any discussion of when or how to respond to Wikipedian criticism. This part of the project developed more organically within the course, through our class discussions about how to handle various comments and situations. Our course discussions led to one line in the scoring guide, under the category of “Understanding Discourse Community,” calling for students to demonstrate an “Adequate and respectful attention to commentary on discussion/history pages.” Because learning how to respond to their Wikipedian critics was such an important part of many of students’ experiences, greater emphasis on talking with students about how to successfully participate in the Discussion pages would benefit writers in future Wikipedia-based assignments.

By focusing on when and how to engage in dialogue about their writing, instructors have a great potential to encourage students to understand the responsibilities that come with writing in public spaces. In the end, I think such engagement might be the most important benefit of risky writing. Asking students to write in and for public spaces challenges them to negotiate through real discourse with real people who hold real stakes in the outcomes of those conversations. While none of my students made grand arguments for broad social change, they did navigate potentially volatile conversations with actual consequences: the life of the article in question. This kind of small-scale public negotiation is one way that digital public writing can prepare our students for the higher stakes negotiations they will encounter after they leave our composition classrooms. In the Public Space Pedagogy section, I discuss the ways that working with Wikipedia encouraged me to cultivate this type of public space pedagogy.

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