Risky Writing in Unsafe Spaces: Wikipedia as a FYC Venue

Jennifer Haley-Brown
The University of Arizona

Writing for Wikipedia

Among the many comments typically scrawled at the end of a student’s first-year writing paper, these comments rarely make an appearance:

  • “This article has been tagged for deletion.”
  • “Rated C-class, Low-importance.”
  • “This article’s neutrality or factuality may be compromised by weasel words.”

And yet, each of these were comments provided to students in my first-year writing course after they posted articles on the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. The students wrote their Wikipedia articles as part of a semester-long composition course designed around rhetorically analyzing and producing different types of “knowledge texts.” To learn more about the class and how it stemmed from the SVR graduate course, see this page: "Wikipedia Course Design."

Originally, I hoped my course design would encourage students to analyze how space rhetorically influences the ways that texts make knowledge. I wanted them to notice that spaces of writing—whether an academic book, a political website, a popular newspaper, or a free-for-all wiki—deeply influence how authors and readers approach a text. Wikipedia was an easy choice for this lesson, for, as James Purdy (2009) wrote, “Wikipedia (and wikis more generally) asks us to reexamine our expectations for the stability of research materials and who should participate in public knowledge making” (p. 352). However, as students and I fumbled our way through the process of “becoming Wikipedians,” I discovered that my original concerns about spaces of knowledge were eclipsed by the more immediate issues of Wikipedia as a writing space that includes real, unpredictable audiences.

The computers and composition community has long noted that public composing carries a higher-stakes feel than writing contained to the composition classroom. But students and I learned that writing for Wikipedia is a unique sort of online writing experience, one that deeply altered the way we approached writing and revision. These changes stemmed from a combination of Wikipedia’s layered audiences, the rapid public feedback posted on new Wikipedia content, and the indeterminate authorship afforded to Wikipedia writers.

Much online composing mimics the kinds of writing we promote in the composition classroom. Like academic essays, most online posts have a distinct author and a text that can be made stable, if not permanent. In these instances, all writing and most or all revision happens prior to the writing going “live.” Writing for Wikipedia, on the other hand, requires students to cede control of their own writing once it goes public, to the extent that other users can reverse or even delete their text. Most Wikipedia articles are the product of negotiation among multiple authors and editors, such as the discussion shown in Figure 1.

Talk Page screenshot. Click to see online version.Figure 1: A partial screenshot of different authors and editors negotiating over content on a Wikipedia article. (Click image to link to full Discussion page)

Any Wikipedia user can make changes to an article using the "edit" link, or she or he might offer suggestions and critiques on a public discussion page by clicking on the "Discussion" tab (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 Discussion Tab screenshot.
Figure 2: The "Discussion" tab is the second navigation item from the top-left, after "Article."

These discussion pages can become quite animated, with Wikipedia writers arguing passionately for or against certain changes. (See the “Heterosexualization” Discussion page for a vivid example of such dialogue.) Occasionally, an advanced editor will step in to resolve a dispute. On all Wikipedia pages, the history of changes made to the page is permanently accessible via the "View history" link. The multi-user nature of the wiki combined with the high profile of Wikipedia makes this writing not just for public consumption, but also for public (re)production. As James Purdy (2009) put it, Wikipedia is a writing technology that “provides an opportunity for rich knowledge making when viewed as more than a print encyclopedia” (p. 352).

While I knew the basics of wiki writing in general, and Wikipedia writing in particular, I wasn't prepared for the frequency of real-world engagements students would encounter during the writing and publication of their articles. Teaching the course compelled me to consider how the spaces we as instructors choose for students’ writing influence their writing experiences. These spaces are physical places, such as the notebook or the Web, and they are also contextual places, such as the classroom or the blogosphere. Whereas the composition classroom usually represents a relatively safe space for students to learn how to write, immersing them in public-space writing encourages real-time and sometimes risky engagement with their topics and their readers. The remainder of this webtext recounts some of the most notable risky encounters my students had with their readers while writing for Wikipedia. Along the way, I connect theories of space and place from the graduate SVR course that helped to shape this FYC course design and my response to the course.

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