Risky Writing in Unsafe Spaces: Wikipedia as a FYC Venue

Jennifer Haley-Brown
The University of Arizona

Safety Inside/Outside the Composition Classroom

As Philip Burns (1999) argued, the “electronic public sphere” is a contact zone in which our students can practice “democratic deliberation,” and this contact zone is at least as diverse—and probably more so—than our typical composition classrooms (p. 130). Like many composition teachers, I also consider the composition classroom to be a version of what Mary Louise Pratt (1991) called a “contact zone,” in which no one is “safe” from the tensions that emerge from participants' differences in background, understanding, and culture (p. 39). bell hooks (1994) argued against the idea of the classroom as a safe space, “especially for students of color, [who] may not feel at all ‘safe’ in what appears to be a neutral setting” (p. 39). Pratt and hooks defined safety in terms of how students’ experiences from outside the classroom are valued inside the classroom—and both view the classroom as a place where inequalities of race, class, gender, and experience are frequently replicated. For Pratt, bringing these issues to the classroom can feel unsafe: "One had to work in the knowledge that whatever one said was going to be systematically received in radically heterogeneous ways that we were neither able to nor entitled to prescribe” (p. 39), whereas for hooks these issues of non-safety are intrinsic to every classroom but must be revealed through discourse.

While Wikipedia writing does not typically provoke open discussions about diversity the way that Pratt and hooks advocate, it does destabilize students’ understanding of their authority as writers. The type of “non-safety” students experienced when writing on Wikipedia was different from that discussed by Pratt and hooks for several reasons. One important difference is that students wrote their encyclopedic entries using a screen name rather than engaging in face-to-face conversations about their writing. Admittedly, writing anonymously to an equally anonymous public audience feels different from—perhaps, in some ways, safer than—writing for a critical, possibly even judgmental, audience of one’s peers and writing instructor. While in this respect Wikipedia writing felt somewhat safer than writing for a classroom-only audience, the assignment traded one sense of safety for another. Because it is built on a system of mostly anonymous or pseudonymic peer review, Wikipedia offers a vivid example of the unpredictable interactions our students might have when writing in public digital spaces. Students visibly reacted to the sense of risk they perceived in writing for a larger, more public, and less moderated audience than they were accustomed to. From the moment a student posted an article to Wikipedia, that article was subject to debate, editing, and even deletion from the wider Wikipedia community. Students were surprised to note that almost all of their articles received at least some level of attention within twenty-four hours of posting their articles. In the following examples, I’ll discuss two of the more volatile interactions students had with their Wikipedia audience.

The most extreme case of Wikipedia readers challenging a student’s work occurred early on the morning of the final project deadline. About two hours before one student turned in her project, she checked her Wikipedia page to find that her article, a piece on the musical sub-genre of “mustache rock,” had been deleted. The process of deleting a Wikipedia article is oligarchic: Members can “vote” to keep or delete an article by making an informed argument and citing specific Wikipedia policy. After a specified time period, a Wikipedia administrator makes the final call. The deletion wasn’t a surprise: The article had been nominated for deletion almost as soon as it was posted. However, the author was upset by the deletion, and members of the class were all surprised to see the extent of oversight that is held by unseen Wikipedia editors. In the case of the Mustache Rock article, at least two other students in the course fought to keep the article alive by casting votes in the Talk Pages to keep the article, but the feedback was extensive and mostly in favor of deletion.

My student also made a plea to let the article remain, at least until the final project deadline for our class. She attempted to mollify readers' concerns regarding the reliability of her sources, and it was painstakingly polite (in yellow in Figure 1, click for complete transcript). In response, a Wikipedia user referred my student to the Wikipedia policy on ownership, implying that she was improperly seeking to control the article's content (in red). My student responded evenly, with an invitation for other users to edit the article as they saw fit (in green).

In the end, the article was deleted and has not been revived. Wikipedia users cited an inadequate number of resources and a lack of evidence that the genre exists as primary reasons for its deletion. The specific policy cited was that the article was "WP: CB," which stands for Wikipedia Policy: Complete Bollocks.

Overview of Wikipedia Correspondence
Figure 1: The transcript of the complete correspondence can be seen here.

This exchange and the eventual deletion of the article highlight just how unsafe it can be for students to practice composing in highly public spaces, even when their personal identities are masked and they are not writing about highly personal topics. The Mustache Rock author was understandably upset by the deletion, which occurred even before she had the chance to post her rationale for the genre’s existence. Because I had required students to save offline copies of their work, the student was able to turn in a final project for a grade, but by that time her energy wasn't focused on the grade. Instead, she was frustrated by the fact that another person—somebody she didn’t even know, a nameless, faceless person known only through a screen name—could claim that her research was not valid. This student’s experience exemplifies just how unsafe it can be for our students to write in digital public spaces. However, this sense of risk also offered a valuable learning experience about effectively establishing credibility in a highly public writing space. Without the threat of deletion, the student may never have been compelled to argue so strongly for the reliability of her research. Moreover, learning from a group of readers that her research was not credible was likely more meaningful than it would have been to read it in one of my endnotes on her paper. I believe this student's experience exemplifies both the sense of unsafety and the positive potentials for learning that come from such risky writing.

As instructors move toward developing writing assignments that require students to compose in unpredictable and unmoderated digital spaces, we need to build strategies to prepare them for the varying kinds of unsafe encounters they may experience. For me, this meant holding an impromptu session to consider the kinds of responses students received from the Wikipedia community. We started with an open discussion in which students shared (and often complained about) the feedback their articles were receiving. Then, beginning with the most extreme cases of critical feedback, we discussed how to filter, understand, and respond to that feedback and why some articles received more (or more negative) feedback than did other articles. Students were surprised that their articles on what they considered to be obscure topics—dengue fever, Merope, the Moor Frog—received immediate attention from highly interested Wikipedians. (Frequently, active Wikipedia users set an alert for any major changes within their area of interest; students were shocked to learn that their often randomly chosen research topics held sufficient meaning to make it on another user’s watchlist.) Although it was not part of the officially graded assignment, many students chose to respond to their reviewers; I discuss a couple of these responses in “Risky Writing.” Based on the various success of students’ responses, I learned that preparing students to respond effectively to public feedback should become part of any public digital composing assignment.

Return bar menu Home Crump and Verzosa Fodrey Archer Haley-Brown Holmes Juarez Martin Vinson