Apr 11

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 32: Another Wikipedia Assignment

Last semester, in a seminar on Charles Dickens, I assigned students to update a Wikipedia page for a Dickens character. I briefly discussed the assignment on this blog in December, putting my own assignment in the context of other professors who have used Wikipedia in their classes in various ways. The exercise worked well for the course, not only teaching students how to contribute to a website they use every day but also giving their hard work a public audience. And so I incorporated a similar idea into a course-long assignment I had developed for my Romanticism course this semester. I won’t say a lot about the assignment itself (Wikipedia is just one small piece of it), but since this blog allows me to use embed a Juxta comparison, I want to talk about the Wikipedia portion and share a collation set (if you don’t know what Juxta is, I give a brief explanation in an earlier post).

First some background. Wikipedia has glossary of literary terms page, which has been around since 2006. The page’s value has been contested since it was created, and in October it was nominated for deletion. The consensus was to keep it (you can view the discussion on the talk page), but when I encountered it in December, as I was putting the class together, it was mostly empty. It had terms, but almost no definitions.

I already had an assignment planned for my Romanticism course, designed to help students talk more precisely about poetic form. As part of the assignment I gave each student a couple terms, and they were responsible for looking up the definitions in multiple sources, then writing one in their own words. I put the terms together to create our own course glossary, which I distributed to students, including the names beside each definition. Since the glossary of literary terms page was mostly empty, this seemed an opportunity for the class to make a public contribution together. I asked each student add their definitions to the Wikipedia page. Here is a Juxta collation showing their progress, with January 15th (the day I gave them the assignment) as the base text:

[I’ve taken this out, and the one below, as Juxta’s been giving an error — I’ll add them back if and when it’s fixed]

And here is the same collation, with April 8th (by which time they’d entered their definitions) as the base:


On the juxtacommons website you can also view a side-by-side comparison, like this one comparing the page on January 15th with April 8th. As you can see, the glossary is extensive, covering much more than poetry terms (which have their own glossary, in a different format). But the students still made a significant dent. Most (but not all) of the updates are from my class, and some students even added definitions for terms that weren’t on our list (like “novel.”) Overall I think the exercise was  success, even more so than last semester’s version. Next week I’ll discuss this assignment a bit more, in particular a couple of pitfalls, some I anticipated and a few that surprised me.

Have you used Wikipedia or a similar project in your class? Did you take Wikipedia’s own suggestion and have students write a long-form article, or did you develop your own assignment? How did it work? Tell me about it in the comments.

Feb 26

Wikipedia, the Oscars, and Juxta

Like millions of other people, Kate and I watched the Oscars this week. As Daniel Day-Lewis walked towards the stage to accept his Academy Award for Best Actor, the voiceover informed us that he was the first male actor to win the award three times. Wondering what the first two awards were for, we turned where everyone in the twenty-first century turns: Wikipedia. Kate had the page open before Day-Lewis was more than a few sentences into his speech, and of course we learned the answer to our question (My Left Foot [1989] and There Will Be Blood [2007], if you’re wondering). But Wikipedia also told us what we’d just learned from the announcer: that Day-Lewis was the first male actor to win the award three times. That’s right: Day-Lewis’s Wikipedia page was updated almost before he began his speech.

I’ve shared this anecdote with a few people, and many others have had similar Wikipedia experiences (often with celebrity deaths). Information moves quickly. But since I’m working on an article about Wikipedia — specifically, about an assignment in my Romanticism class — I wanted to use this opportunity to test juxtacommons, a web-based collation tool, currently in beta. Developed by NINES, Juxta allows you to compare multiple versions (“witnesses”) of the same text, and visualize the differences between them (you can do this on Wikipedia too, but only two at a time). About a year ago, as a NINES fellow, I wrote about using Juxta to compare different versions of the Wikipedia entry for Digital Humanities. At that time Juxta was desktop-only and I entered the data by hand, but the new online version has the capability built into it: you just select the versions of the Wikipedia page you want to compare. It’s very user-friendly.

What’s more, Juxta Commons also lets you embed the collation directly into WordPress. The heat map below compares the first 15 edits following the Academy Award announcement (15 is the max Juxta can handle at one time). All occurred within 8 minutes. Note the absence of changes in the citations (which Wikipedia supposedly requires).

If you’ve never used Juxta before, the blue highlighting represents the difference from the “base text,” in this case the most recent version. The darker the highlighting, the more this version differs from the others. We can also view the comparison from the other direction, setting the base text to be the version of the page right before the announcement:

If you view the comparison in Juxta Commons (here), you can get into the data even more: you can compare versions side by side, choose different base texts, or see it in a histogram.

Juxta is a powerful tool, and while it was created for literary uses (early examples compared versions of poems by Rossetti and Tennyson), it’s since found new audiences: another NINES fellow, Emma Schlosser, looks at the Wikipedia page for the Benghazi attacks; Dana Wheeles, project manager for NINES, has compared versions of itunes and Instagram terms of service; and Juxta has even been used on Broadway, to compare versions of Tennessee Williams’ “Masks Outrageous and Austere.”

So, do you have different versions of a written document you’d like to compare? Or are you interested in tracking versions of Wikipedia pages? Juxta Commons is for you. And check back here for more about using Wikipedia as an assignment.

Nov 09

Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 12: Research and Institutional Support

I don’t teach on Thursdays, and early in the semester made the decision that I would spend that day working on things that don’t relate to teaching: research, when possible, but thus far mostly job market stuff (and not incidentally, most blog posts have been on Thursdays). I’ve  stuck to that, generally, though I’m sure I’ve spent some Thursday time grading.

I’ve been thinking about research a lot this week. Almost by definition, graduate students come from big research universities, with lots of resources — and VAPs are often at smaller colleges, without them. I’ve been lucky that my contract includes money for research travel, and the college subscribes to the major databases like Project Muse and JSTOR. While the library isn’t huge, I still have access to anything I need through ILL. And while the department isn’t big enough to have multiple faculty in my field, I’ve been participating in an interdisciplinary reading group, and so still get some of the conversations I’d been missing. I also signed up to give a talk next semester, part of the college’s Interdisciplinary Scholarship Series. So while I’m at a “teaching college,” it’s one that is committed to faculty research as well — even for VAPs.

I’m becoming increasingly aware, though, just what a privilege this is. I rely heavily on Project Muse and its ilk, not just for research but also for teaching: in composition courses or upper-level literature courses I assign articles or sections of articles. Yet as Dino Felluga has cogently argued, these are commercial products:

corporatisation is transforming the university, profit margins are dictating what scholarly presses can publish, and commercial entities have been quick to capitalise on the Internet by selling back to our cash-strapped libraries our own knowledge in the form of password-protected online databases (from, for example, Gale Cengage, ProQuest, InteLex, SpringerLink, and Elsevier). If we do nothing, others will decide—have already decided—what we as Victorian scholars are allowed to research and publish

Felluga is talking specifically about Victorian studies (of particular interest to me), but what he says is true of all fields. The internet has the potential to increase access to everyone, but that potential won’t be realized if the materials we need are behind a prohibitively expensive pay wall.

I bring this up here because it’s an issue of particular concern to VAPs, and to tenure and tenure-track faculty at smaller colleges. It’s not the big, Ph.D.-producing universities that will be most affected (they have the resources to provide access to their students and faculty), but the smaller and more teaching-focused colleges. Which also means that an even bigger wedge could be driven between research and teaching — another issue close to my heart (I firmly believe the two are interrelated).

This isn’t meant to be doom-and-gloom. An initiative sparked by NINES, NAVSA, and Felluga “to fix the problem of access to commercial databases by helping to set up a mechanism by which scholars can gain access to the databases through their scholarly societies” is already underway. This kind of collective bargaining would leverage the influence of big research schools, and help all members of the scholarly societies like NAVSA. Felluga discusses the initiative in an article that will appear in Critical Inquiry in the next year — which you can read if you have access to the journal or a subscription to JSTOR.