Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 16: in which my students self-evaluate and add to Wikipedia

This will be my last post for the semester and, appropriately, I’ll use it to talk about finals, and one of the assignments I used in my upper-level class.

The major assignment for my Dickens and Childhood class was a pretty standard term paper. But I also asked students to contribute to Wikipedia, an assignment that, while less labor-intensive, was a little more interesting, for me and for them. I’m fascinated by Wikipedia for lots of reasons, including its history and theory and what it might mean for theories of knowledge. And lots of teachers have found ways to use it: I first heard the idea several years ago from Paul Fyfe, and the site now has a page devoted to school and university projects (covered here by Inside Higher Ed). Earlier this year T. Mills Kelly’s George Mason class got a lot of press (from the Atlantic and Morning News, among other places). His students create an internet hoax, which I think is fantastic but which rather pissed off Jimmy Wales et al. (Kelly, who’s done the course twice, responded a couple years ago).

My assignment wasn’t as daring (or as interesting) as Kelly’s. All I asked was that students either add to or create a Wikipedia entry for a character from one of the novels we’d read: examples include Mr. Dombey (from Dombey and Son), Sissy Jupe (from Hard Times), and Mr. Dick (from David Copperfield). My goal was for students to begin sharing their knowledge with the public, and Wikipedia provides an easy avenue for them to do so.

One snag I hadn’t anticipated: semi-protected pages. I knew that Wikipedia locks controversial pages, but I hadn’t considered that one of the novels from the syllabus would meet that criteria. Maybe I should have, in hindsight: the novel in question is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which does have a history. Next time I use this assignment — and I’ll be doing something similar in my Romanticism class next semester — I’ll watch out for that.

I used much more traditional assignments (exams and 5-page papers) in my British literature survey course. But as part of the final exam, I asked students to tell me one thing they learned this semester — what they can do now that they couldn’t do (or couldn’t do as well) in August. I’ve used this kind of exercise many times, and answers range from the banal to the truly insightful. One student pointed to a specific moment during discussion: she’d made a comment and I’d (apparently) responded with something like, “that’s good, a comment about content, but what about form?” In the student’s words, “an ocean of possibilities opened in front of my eyes: All this time I had been close reading poems focusing only on one aspect, which is content.” If every student could learn one lesson like this a semester, and be half as self-aware about their own learning, I’d be ecstatic.

One unexpected aspect of the students’ self-evaluations: the most common observation was that students felt they’d improved in their ability to read poetry. I’m very pleased, if slightly surprised — I think of myself as a fiction person, since that’s where the bulk of my research interests have been. But I’m glad to hear I can teach poetry too, especially as I prepare for my Romanticism class next semester.

It seems like a long time ago that I began this series. I still think the VAP is a weird position (I had dinner last night with a VAP from a different department, who shares the feeling), but publicly sharing my experience has been helpful. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back in January.

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