Wikipedia and Student Writing

If you’ve read anything on this blog before, chances are you know that I’m pretty interested in Wikipedia. I’ve built Wikipedia-related assignments into a couple previous literature courses, and right now am teaching a first-year writing class for which our theme is “Wikipedia.” I’ve just returned my students’ second assignment, wherein they added to a Wikipedia page of their own choosing (topics ranged from the Peruvian indigenous people and European art trends to American cars and Puerto Rican rum).

As a teacher of writing who’s fairly active on social media, I heard a lot last week (while grading papers about Wikipedia) about two articles lamenting the quality of student writing. Slate blamed the SATs, while David Mikics at The Daily Dot targeted Wikipedia. The two reveal a wide gap in just what we mean by “writing.”

Matthew J. X. Malady, No test material on this pagewriting for Slate, chastises the SATs for training students to write B.S., boringly-structured five-paragraph essays with no thought to content, or evidence. That seems pretty dead on, and when Anne Ruggles Gere (whom Malady quotes) says that college instructors spend time undoing what students had learned in high school, this is surely what she means. In my view, good writing means thinking about someone else, and something else, and necessitates at least some attention to the real world — to evidence and to other people’s arguments. The SAT doesn’t reward that, and so students don’t learn it.

Mikics has different quibbles. In his view, the Internet has by and large been good for scholarship: we can turn to JSTOR or Google Books, rather than waiting weeks for Interlibrary Loan. This helps students too, since they can more easily locate the kind of evidence they need — once they un-learn what they studied for the SAT, of course. My students experienced this, and as they added to Wikipedia several commented that they actually enjoyed tracking down sources to make their points, in Wikipedia-lingo, “verifiable.

As Mikics notes, this abundance of resources brings its own challenges: “The Internet blends fact with fiction, the crazy with the conventional, and all too often the result looks like an endless—and tasteless—mass of information.”  He acknowledges this blending to be a bigger problem for students than for professors: because the Internet encourages us to jump between articles, students don’t usually spend much time evaluating their quality (this evaluation is one of the skills they must develop in their college courses). This is one major reason why I’ve turned to Wikipedia as a subject for a course: students in my class spend a great deal of time evaluating sources, and for these skills Wikipedia is, in its guidelines if not always in its execution, quite useful (even its failures provide a starting point for discussion).

But Mikics also identifies a subtler and, in his view, more pernicious quality to online reading in general, and Wikipedia in particular. “The worst effect of the Internet,” he claims “is its consequences for student writing.” He doesn’t mean to say that student writing is insulated or lacking evidence, nor does he refer merely to plagiarism and the sown-together nature of a student paper obviously lifted from Wikipedia and Sparknotes. Rather, he’s concerned with style:

even when students don’t plagiarize, the damage has been done. They knuckle under to the dull, one-size-fits-all version of knowledge that is embodied, more than anywhere else, in Wikipedia, [where] lumps of facts have been licked into shape by a thousand anonymous tongues, draining them of any vestige of personality.

For all its superiority to print encyclopedias (Maria Bustillos makes this point very well), Wikipedia lacks the personal style of its predecessors.

Fine. I certainly agree that the prose on Wikipedia tends towards bland mediocrity, and I wouldn’t want my students using it as a stylistic model, mimicking its sentences as Benjamin Franklin mimicked Addison’s from the Spectator. But Mikics’s solution seems something of a pipe dream:SteacieLibrary

I tell my students, to turn yourself loose in the library. Spend a long afternoon in the stacks and see what strikes you; look for the most intriguing, most quietly promising books on your subject, even if you have to work at them.

Suggesting students improve their writing by spending “a long afternoon in the stacks” is tantamount to suggesting they learn survival skills by being dropped off in the Amazonian rainforest. Sure, it’s possible for an expert (I’m sure David Mikics derives great benefit from the stacks, as Bear Grylls derives nutrition from jungle plants). But in the absence of some guidance, the advice seems almost cruel.

Of course, the dichotomy is a false one: it’s not “Wikipedia or the library.” If we want to talk about style instead of facts and evidence, we needn’t read Wikipedia articles. What about The Oatmeal? Or countless online news sites and quality blogs? The Internet is good for many things. Want to learn about style? A modern-day Benjamin Franklin can read the Spectator papers at Project Gutenberg, and all of Jane Austen’s novels are in the public domain. Want to know when Franklin was born, or the name of Jane Austen’s sister? Go to Wikipedia.

Adrienne LaFrance, a writer The Atlantic who wrote recently about fact-checking Snapple caps, offers this insight:

The Internet is lambasted as an abyss of lies, when really it’s a place to organize around the question of what’s real … a bottle cap with a one-liner on it might be the closest thing we have to the physical manifestation of the tweet. The real lesson Snapple teaches us isn’t about how many eyelids a bee has or the first food eaten in space, it’s that the Internet’s not inherently a place for lies any more than a bottle cap is a place for truth.

Wikipedia is no more a model for style than it is a place for medical advice (which I’ll talk about next week). But that doesn’t mean it’s pedagogically useless, or that it’s responsible for a generation’s bland writing. Like the rest of the Internet, Wikipedia is a tool, and it’s up to us to show students how to use it — and how not to.

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