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At my institution, we moved the second semester writing class, which is usually about literature, out of the English department. Thus, each major decides what writing in their discipline looks like and what students need to know. The idea from research in the field is that students learn more about writing when they care about or are interested in the subjects about which they are writing.

In my department, Art and Art History, our disciplinary writing course introduces students to different forms of art writing: catalog entries for art history, exhibitions review from galleries for both studio and art history majors, and visual analysis pieces. We also have them spend some time on writing their resumes and cover letters, and if they are visual artists, an artist statement. Since part of the expectation of this course is the completion of a catalog of works that the students choose, I decided to add a piece on digital writing and included some pieces of the assignment that were web-based. While students were required to keep a digital portfolio for their work, they were also asked to take part in a Wikipedia editing session on the work of art that they were working on for our class catalog. [I also created an online exhibition of the works of art that they wrote about, but that is another post you can read here.]

The Wikipedia edit session was co-taught with the director of our Writing Center. He spent some time taking them through an exercise about what they knew and thought about Wikipedia going into the exercise. After that discussion, students were asked to start to edit their entry. To facilitate this session that was held in one of our computer labs, students were required to come with an account already established. The people at WikiEdu are great about support and help, and they helped all my students get registered for this edit session. https://wikiedu.org/teach-with-wikipedia/

Once the session began, one student began to fret. She realized she was writing for the public and that “people will be reading this!” This made me think about how we teach writing, and how the students are trained to think about how they are writing only for the instructor. Suddenly in this exercise they realized that they were writing for people that they did not know!

This was a great teaching moment. Not only did this student step up her game, but it initiated a conversation about audience, and how writing for people who would actually read the work made the students take it more seriously. They started thinking more about word choices, comma placement. It was eye-opening for me, as a professor, to see the shift that was taking place. It made me think that papers read only by me and written by them was a waste of time for teaching about audience.

A friend of mine was talking to me the other day about one of the things he loves about my classes is that I have them “doing things.” I totally agree. This was one of those watershed moments that made me realize that active learning in the classroom is very important.

But it can’t just be an engaging technique for the sake of engagement. There needs to be a reason for that engaging activity. In this case, the reason was teaching about audience and having the students realize that people outside of the institution would be reading their work.

In one case, a student had a very creative and evocative description of her work of art which is a panel painting of the Virgin and Child by the late medieval Italian artist Berlinghieri. The student felt her depiction of the painting was too flowery, and we spent time talking about ekphrasis, the art of description that is traced back to Greek aesthetics. She felt that her description was based too much in ekphrastic writing, and not based in more fact-centered prose of Wikipedia. As a lark, we have checked back, now over a year since she wrote her entry, and her eloquent description of one of his painting remains: “Her soulful eyes are large and intensely focused, lending her visage a particular elegance.”

When I teach this course again, which is coming up this fall, I will use this Wikipedia editing project again. I may even use it in a future art history class because the difference in audience – and for students to think about creating content for the web – is so important as they leave and enter the work force.

Writing on the web make students better writers and connects them with the outside world, providing them with an opportunity to impact the world, one Wikipedia entry at a time.

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