Wikipedia in Composition

The nature of the writing that takes place on Wikipedia, primarily a result of multiple contributors and value placed on achieving consensus over time, leads to the circulation of articles that, at any given moment in the writing process, “often have a choppy quality” (Rosenzweig 132) or appear “a lumpy work in progress” (Schiff). According to “Using Wikipedia as a Research Tool,” Wikipedia entries “are never finished….[and because] they are continually edited and (usually) improved over time…this results in an upward trend of quality, and a growing consensus over a fair and balanced representation of information” (Wikipedia: About”). Consequently, older entries are more coherent, more comprehensive, and more reliable than newly-initiated pieces. Unlike users of hard copy encyclopedias, those who consult Wikipedia can access information during the draft stage. That readers of Wikipedia can see entries in “a bad state” (“Wikipedia: Researching with Wikipedia”), does not invalidate the project. In fact, public seeing of drafts confirms what Anne Lamott considers writers’ best kept little secret, “shitty first drafts” (Lamott). The circulation of inaccurate information, one concerning result of seeing drafts, does not invalidate the project either; instead, it highlights the need for additional input as well as for college-level instruction, in particular, about collaborative writing processes and collective knowledge building practices that also supplies tools for reading articles written by multiple contributors over time.

Ultimately, Wikipedia delivers pedagogy, a pedagogy familiar to writers and to teachers of writing. The online encyclopedia values writing process, not to the exclusion of product, but as a respectable, long period of negotiation with words. As Lamott explains, it is crucial to “trust the process,” which means that “a self-indulgent and boring beginning [with] stupefying descriptions….[that is] long and incoherent and hideous,” and even all wrong, can end up “fine, sometimes even funny and weird and helpful” (Lamott). The process works, in other words, according to Lamott; more importantly, good writing requires a messy start and cannot emerge without it. Lamott does not share her drafts, though. She writes them confident that “no one was going to see [them]” but “[fearful] that people would find my first draft before I could rewrite it” (Lamott). Wikipedia entries, and other vehicles for public pedagogy, permit writers to display their confused first thoughts. Previous generations of readers knew that something mysterious took place between writer and text before publication; however, unless readers were also writers, they did not usually have access to that work. Wikipedia entries, though, render process visible; all users can see “shitty first drafts” in the process of becoming “fine” (Lamott), a possibility that addresses Trimbur’s concern in “Composition and the Circulation of Writing”: “It is hard to think of many visual representations of the activity of writing,” he regrets (188). In a world increasingly mediated by visual representation, the use of visual writing tools, like those offered by Wikipedia, can enhance classroom pedagogy.

To focus, then, on the accuracy or inaccuracy of facts, the biased presentation of information, or even the appearance of an obscene fragment of text in a particular Wikipedia entry is, quite simply, to miss the point entirely – as is to focus on the absence of a single author accountable for the information contained in individual Wikipedia entries. The entry “Writing” distinguishes the act of writing, preservation through inscription of characters, from authoring, “originat[ing] or giv[ing] existence” to a written text. Authors assume responsibility for their expressions or communications and, in academic writing, acknowledge contributors (“Author”). With this distinction in mind, Wikipedia becomes a container for writing. A singular, stable, identifiable author does not exist for Wikipedia entries; however the wiki software retains authorial functions: the “history” tab lists contributors, those responsible for particular edits, and identifies their changes, a form of acknowledgement, while the “discussion” tab chronicles contributors’ conversations on the way to consensus, a means to determine accountability, attribution, and reliability. The public arena of a Wikipedia entry-in-progress looks chaotic, but represents the contests that occur in any public space. Some contributors display petulance, timidity, anger, bias, stubbornness, thievery, paranoia, cowardice, jealousy, sloppiness, frustration, defensiveness, or power grabbing and others, sincerity, patience, thoughtfulness, judiciousness, enthusiasm, caution, diplomacy, neutrality, or articulateness. The result: ongoing revision, dynamic recursivity, and productive conversation about writing and ideas that any writing teacher could envy.

Wikipedia creates a rhetorical setting that first-year writing classes can, at best, only simulate. As Susan Loudermilk Garza and Tommy Hern insist in their wiki article “Using Wikis as Collaborative Writing Tools: Something Wiki This Way Comes – Or Not!” “theories of writing as process and of knowledge and language as social constructs become real when using wikis” (Garza and Hern). Trimbur’s article “Composition and the Circulation of Writing” provides Garza and Hern with critical “help…connect[ing] the practice of online writing with composition theory” (Garza and Hern). Trimbur’s attention to “the ‘delivery systems through which writing circulates’” (qtd. in Garza and Hern) can be demonstrated “dynamic[ally] in online environment through the use of tools such as wiki…[because] wiki takes teachers a step further in understanding writing as process, and in making it a reality in our pedagogical practices and our students’ experiences” (Garza and  Hern). Wiki writing does not eliminate the messiness of writing, in fact it “encourages writers to become more involved in [it]…[and as a result] to better understand the social nature of writing, to more easily and comfortably engage in the act of collaboration, and to produce better documents as a result” (Garza and Hern), the ultimate goal of writing instruction and writing production.

In addition to borrowing the language of writing pedagogy to describe its project, Wikipedia introduces consequences, other than grades, into the act of circulating texts: my primary motive for requiring students’ contributions to encyclopedia entries. Consistent with a collaborative writing environment, for instance, the Wikipedia “writing process becomes a recursive task”; contributors can “add, edit, and remove text” and “each change prompts others to make more changes” (“Collaborative Writing”). Peer review workshops have similar goals, and although they can result in productive revision, readers might not feel particularly invested in a student writer’s choices once the workshop has ended, and a student author might not feel committed to readers’ suggestions, either. In actual classroom experience, “we know that these sharing events rarely mirror the real process of writing, and the students end up writing for the teacher” (Garza and Hern). However, the opportunity to contribute to a piece of writing with potentially global readers and contributors exceeds the possibilities offered by a classroom, even an electronic one. Participating in the collaborative writing experience offered by wikis, therefore, “challenge[s] the very concept of authorship and readership” (Miller 38) as it also transforms the writer into a contributor who “understand[s] that the recording of information by any one of us really only builds on the efforts of all…who have gone before….[and prefers] the constantly-evolving-but-never-finishing to the static and rapidly obsolescing ‘product’” (Miller 39). Whether a professor designs a Wikipedia writing assignment for students or not, Wikipedia represents one, non-scholastic site for enacting what Kathleen Blake Yancey terms “new composition” (311). According to Yancey, new composition, “brings the notions of practice and activity and circulation and media and screen and networking to our conceptions of process” (320). Wikipedia does more than “bring the notions…to our conceptions”; Wikipedia provides the mechanism to write for an audience that really responds (see Note 5).

The democratic impulse informing wiki-writing, to strive for supermajority and consensus (“Consensus”), though, offers the means to achieve tyrannical mediocrity through process more often than excellence, as Alexis de Tocqueville observes about the practice of American participatory democracy generally (de Tocqueville, “Unlimited Power of the Majority”). According to Larry Sanger, a co-founder of Wikipedia who left to create Citizendium, Wikipedia suffers from “an anti-expertise bias” that he predicts “foreshadows the death of accuracy in scholarship” (Sanger). Eugene M. Izhikevich, Editor-in-Chief of Scholarpedia, oversees a wiki that works against instating mediocrity by assigning an expert to each article. Each expert, referred to as a curator, has either an M.D. or a Ph.D. and is affiliated with a research institution or organization. The curator, whose “reputation becomes associated with…content” of a particular article, “evaluate[s] all new additions and decide[s] which are worth public exhibition and which are not” (“Curatorship”).  Creating this role insures that “the best experts of today” authenticate and authorize Scholarpedia articles (“Curatorship”).

Mediocrity troubles Rosenzweig, too. Rather than to boycott, to ban, or to ignore Wikipedia, though, he urges professors to attend to it “because our students do” (136). After all, Wikipedia affects academic culture whether professors permit students to cite the reference or not. Rosenzweig suggests that Wikipedia will be less of a problem if professors “spend more time teaching about the limitations of all information sources, including Wikipedia” and if they “make better information sources available online” (137).  Like Yancey, Rosenzweig contends that professors “have things to learn” (138); I certainly did last May. Editing out that obscene fragment of text in the Wikipedia entry on thermodynamics provided me with the opportunity to envision (Yancey 320) teaching research in a new way and, consequently, has provided students in my courses with opportunities to view their research and writing as more than exercises for grades, but as parts of ongoing public conversations that they have continuing stakes in producing.

© Carra Leah Hood