by Marissa Brostoff
View the PowerPoint from the workshop here.
Every semester for a long time I encountered the same problem: some text on my syllabus—a novel, a work of literary theory, whatever—was just too difficult to teach in the time I had allotted for it. You might know the feeling. But what is to be done? There’s other material to get to, and there’s no way of making Bleak House shorter or an excerpt from Orientalism less dense.
And yet, I’ve discovered, while some course content may be irreducibly long or difficult, students’ experiences of it can alter dramatically if we change the structure of the class assignments that address it. The default class assignment for many of us is the short paper. But asking students to write four to six pages making an argument about some aspect of Madame Bovary, as I had done in the past, may be an inherently lost cause. Students typically overreach and make a vague argument about the whole text instead of a focused one that concentrates on one thorny element of it. You can try and persuade them to narrow their focus, but I think some of the resistance this meets comes from an understandable sense of indignation—“We read a 400-page novel and you want me to ‘unpack’ two lines?” When grasping the whole text, even at the most basic level of comprehension, is a major challenge already, choosing one revealing element of it may be a baffling task.
I want to propose an alternative kind of assignment: ask your students to create a Wiki about the challenging material. (I’ve been using literary texts as an example of what this material looks like, but it might alternately be a unit in the course, like “Theories of Child Development,” or even the topic of the course itself, like “Organic Chemistry.”) So: what is a Wiki? And what can it do for us here?
Wikipedia, the world’s largest Wiki site, defines a Wiki as “a type of website that allows users to add, remove, or otherwise edit and change most content very quickly and easily.” There are dozens of Wiki platforms available on the internet and free to the public, or at least to educators, including Wikia, PBWorks, and Wikispaces. (Blackboard has a Wiki-building tool as well.) Many college instructors use these platforms to build class Wikis for a range of purposes: posting syllabi, hosting a class blog that students can post to, hosting portfolios of student work, creating a space for students to collaborate on group projects, and so on. Here’s a great example from a specialized writing course at City College that does several of these things.
Because Wikis, unlike most websites, are designed to be collaboratively edited, they are particularly useful for collective knowledge-gathering. Wikipedia’s scope, like that of a traditional encyclopedia, is almost limitless in breadth, but there are tons of Wikis out there devoted to smaller but still complex worlds, from Gravity’s Rainbow to Game of Thrones.
Wikis are therefore ideal as a platform for students to construct a world of knowledge around any complicated text or topic. Each student or group of students only has to be responsible for one small piece of the site, but together these add up to something more comprehensive. This is especially true if students are asked to explore each other’s Wiki pages and create links between them (i.e., in a Wiki about the world of Jane Eyre, the student writing a page on Mr. Rochester might link to a classmate’s page on Bertha Mason when Bertha’s name appears, and vice-versa).
Here are two beautiful examples of what this kind of content-based class Wiki can look like: one from a humanities course at the University of New South Wales called “Censorship and Responsibility” that students used to map philosophical perspectives on freedom and liberty, and one from a chemistry course at the University of Illinois in which students were asked (brilliantly) to create entries about phenomena like the greenhouse effect in a way that would be legible to middle schoolers. If you’re worried that you and your class won’t be able to build such a professional-looking site on your first try—that’s okay too! There are plenty of more amateur-looking class Wikis out there, and they get the job done just as well.
If you’re ready to get started, here are some things to think about:
-What Wiki platform will you use? I think PBWorks is particularly user-friendly; a video tutorial for it is here. But you might want to check out a couple of platforms to see what works best for you.
-What are the parameters of your classroom Wiki? Do you want to create a Wiki that will carry you throughout the semester, from posting your syllabus to having students turn in final work, or a dedicated student space for the kind of project discussed above?
-Do you want students to create their own pages and link them together at the end of the process, or do you want them to work in groups throughout the project?
-Do you have a Smart Board to demonstrate to your students how the Wiki platform works, or (ideally) access to a computer lab where everyone can experiment and troubleshoot together?
-What do you want each student-authored Wiki page to include? If students are required to cite their sources, what format should they use? Should each page include links? An analysis section? Wikipedia may be a good model for questions like these.
-What criteria will you use to evaluate students, or groups, on their contributions? One thing to consider here is that you might use the Wiki project as a jumping-off point for a writing assignment where students are asked to write a more traditional argumentative paper that draws on the knowledge they’ve curated on their Wiki page.
One final word for using Wikis this way: a student-authored Wiki does not need to be put to bed forever just because the semester has ended. If you are the site’s administrator and you teach the same material in a later semester, your new students can further develop the Wiki that your former students began. Unlike a paper, a Wiki has no ending, and if the material it covers is sufficiently complex, it can just keep growing. This is a unique opportunity for your students to create knowledge that will have an audience beyond you and beyond their classmates.