While largely known up to the turn of the century as workspaces for IT professionals collaborating on the production of computer code and its documentation, wikis–web presences that allow asynchronous collaboration between multiple contributors–now exist to track everything from the location of transgender-friendly public restrooms across the United States, to compiling a comprehensive database of all known information about the Star Wars universe (Wookipedia), and, to bring the topic a bit closer to home, as sites for collaborative writing in composition courses. Indeed, over the past ten years, wikis have become an increasingly common sight in higher education writing classrooms (our own English Department began training new graduate instructors in teaching using wikis back in 2006), and many education publishing houses and academic course management systems now provide wiki functions in their online offerings.
The turn to wikis has certainly been a salutary one for composition pedagogy and praxis as a whole; encouraging collaborative writing and writing inside of digital environments have long been forwarded as emphases in contemporary writing instruction and wikis have undeniably made achieving both of these objectives much easier and with a much smaller learning curve than ever before. At the same time, however, it might be said that while the use of wikis as course management systems and collaborative writing platforms in compositions course has capture many of the affordances of the “open author” function of wikis, they have not, however, done as much to emulate and profit from what we might call the “open audience” function of such sites—the fact that for at least the larger and more popular wiki sites of today, large numbers of readers and editors actively review, critique, and respond to new entries. In other words, given that writing for “real audiences” and learning how to understand and emulate the common features of specific discourse communities and written genres have also long been prized learning objectives for higher ed writing programs, it seems strange that we haven’t been as successful in seizing opportunities to take advantage of these aspects of wiki presences.
In my own courses, particularly when teaching our ENG 3050 technical communication class, I have tried to harness these open audience affordances of wikis through a number of projects in which students use a course wiki for collaboration and data management, but contribute the final drafts of their projects to larger and more robust public wikis. For instance, for one of their first assignments, a technical definition (assignment description available here), students design and post their creations to Wikipedia, the (in)famous online encyclopedia. While I take it that the most popular conversation around Wikipedia in higher education English courses is its (in)appropriateness as research source, by asking students to write, rather than reference, a Wikipedia article, they learn firsthand how formal and robust its standards and style conventions tend to be, and how aggressive editors of the site are in policing these standards. Students in previous courses have created Wikipedia’s articles for such topics as piezolelectric accelerometers, the neuropeptide Orexin-A, and even Wayne State’s own Old Main building. In doing so, they have been forced to explore, on their own, the particular genre conventions of Wikipedia and also experience swift and specific feedback from writers outside of their course—a quick and instructor-independent way of fulfilling what I take to be two of the more pressing objectives for technical communication instruction (or really writing instruction as a whole) today.
Similarly, in retooling the “instruction set” assignment that is an old saw of introductory technical communication courses, I have assigned students to contribute their projects to wikiHow, the open-author “how to” manual (assignment description available here). While much smaller and less-known than Wikipedia, wikiHow has an active staff of professional as well as volunteer editors who actively review, critique, and correct new entrees to the site. The online and multimedia affordances of the site allow students to quickly create and add images, graphics, and digital video to their instruction sets, but the open audience aspect of the site has further provided students with immediate feedback (both positive and negative). These are, of course, just a couple of the large public wiki sites that might be appropriate for use in our writing courses as platforms for student writing. While over the past several years we seem to have at least started mastering the possibilities of “open author” capabilities made possible by new media, we might need to spend some time during the next few rethinking what we might achieve by leveraging its open audience functions as well.
Jeff Pruchnic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English specializing in New Media Rhetoric and Writing and currently serves as the Assistant Director of Composition–Technology. This Fall he is teaching the Pedagogical Practicum for new Graduate Teaching Assistants in the Department (ENG 6001) and an online iteration of ENG 1020. He also frequently teaches the ENG 3050 and ENG 5830 technical communication courses and the ENG 7065 “Writing Technologies” graduate seminar.