The wiki project is off to a solid start, and students seem to like it. My fears about basic site maintenance–can I run the tech for this project on my own?–have also faded. Things are stable and work. That said, my initial goals for the project have been radically revised: what I imagined this project would be about is not what I’m dealing with and so my goals and what I’m trying to teach are changing. Fast.
Linking as Literacy
The most substantial change is in my literacy goals. As it turns out, markup and the distinction between content and formatting is not difficult. Linking is. Creating links (as opposed to following them) requires working at a level of abstraction that is quite difficult for my students to handle. You must hold bits of text in your head, juggle them, and always read (and write) with an ear turned to hear echoes of other things that you could search for and link to. Or at least, you need to see places that ought to link to something and mark them with a link, even if that link is just pointing to a blank page in the wiki for the moment.
Linking also invites confusion. Links can be arranged as a kind of file hierarchy that duplicates a finder or explorer structure. Which is fine and some of my students have fallen back on this strategy. But links can also (more profitably?) be arranged in a web that resembles, when things go wrong, a knot or, when things go right, a line thrown blindly out into the darkness that you hope will grab something useful on the other end. Building a webbed structure requires faith in the process, faith in the idea that good work connected link-by-link will slowly develop into something useful and insightful in the end. But that kind of faith is hard for overworked students to muster. They don’t want to waste their time. And of course: are the links graded?
From Revision to Note-taking
Linking now seems more important to me than revision. I would like students to learn both to make links and to “make links.” And so, I have shifted my expectations and have adjusted the assigned work. I am now encouraging students to take notes on the wiki rather than to create finished texts there. I want this note-taking to be experimental, personal, idiosyncratic; I want it to be a process where they notice, collect and select info and then mark its importance by formatting and arranging it and by drawing links between their various collected tidbits. In order to allow them to experiment in private, I have set up a private group space for each student where they can post pages that only they can access. It was laborious to do but worth it.
A principal assignment for the wiki is now going to be an annotation of a poem. I will assign everyone a poem. They post it correctly formatted and then add explanatory and interpretative annotations as footnotes. These annotations will be sourced and will connect to additional resources on the wiki or the web. It’s a new kind of task. I’ve never done it before and it is only possible online.
What I like about it is that it encompasses both aspects of the course content: literary analysis through close reading and hypertextual, online writing. In this, it moves completely beyond my initial conception of the project, which was mostly just a repackaging of my normal class as an online activity. With this assignment, the wiki project creates something new and useful that changes how I teach my course.
Surprisingly, I’ve had only one major problem so far this term.