Digital Humanities Pedagogy: Practices, Principles and Politics
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16. Teaching Digital Rhetoric: Wikipedia, Collaboration, and the Politics of Free Knowledge

Melanie Kill


The vast majority of the undergraduates we teach will not become professional scholars, but all will be educated citizens with a responsibility to put their knowledge and abilities to use for the common good. Our work with them, then, is not only about exposing them to the critical methods and modes of thinking that are central to knowledge-making in our fields, but also about helping them to map humanist questions and approaches onto an always complex and changing world. Wikipedia ( provides students with a range of opportunities to work as intermediaries between the disciplinary expertise they are studying, a public system of knowledge curation, and a global audience of readers. In this chapter, I present a case for Wikipedia as an environment not only for the collaborative compilation of knowledge, but also for collaborative inquiry into knowledge-making practices and resources across disciplines and cultures. We can engage students in humanist thinking about the technologies through which digital communities and collaborations are supported by involving them in Wikipedia content development and by directing critical attention to the ways that established institutions of knowledge inform and interact with the tools and resources of the digital public sphere. My focus here is not on descriptions of specific assignments,1 but rather on expanding attention to the wide range of pedagogical affordances presented by the resources and interactions that Wikipedia’s texts, tools, and community make available.

On their way toward the greater responsibilities of educated citizens, students in the humanities need experiences and opportunities that will help them to develop both understanding of the collaborative nature of knowledge-making and skill in learning and working collaboratively. These are not just marketable traits that will serve graduates in the work force; they are also essential skills for citizens as generative producers and critical consumers of cultural products.2 The analytical lenses of digital rhetorics open up a range of possibilities for prompting students to see the humanities as allowing them to make meaningful interventions in the world and lasting connections between their humanist training and public engagement. Wikipedia in particular provides opportunities for investigation of, and participation in, public knowledge curation with attention to the ways particular community norms and values are encoded in its discourse practices and digital tools. This kind of work stands to help college students to integrate their generally well-developed understandings of writing as a platform for individual expression with their often still developing understandings of writing as an arena of social action. By designing assignments that engage students in complex collaborative composing processes with civic-minded goals and public audiences, we teach digital rhetoric and we offer motivations for writing far beyond that of a grade.

As one of the ten most-visited websites in the world, Wikipedia is a well-known success story of the web. As the only site among that top ten built by volunteers and backed by a non-profit,3 it is also an important reminder of early visions for free networked information exchange on the web. It is generally a revelation to students that, as Tim Berners-Lee articulated in his 1991 newsgroup announcement of the WorldWideWeb, “the project started with the philosophy that much academic information should be freely available to anyone.”4 Understood in this context, Wikipedia represents a powerful vision of knowledge sharing that can be passed along to grow in the hands of students working as intermediaries between academia, other institutions of knowledge-making, and the diverse publics to which they belong. Moreover, classroom discussions of free knowledge and information open space to address with students the politics of the web as a complex generative space for negotiating social progress built on shared resources—that is, a digital public sphere—rather than simply a set of proprietary tools and products for business and social activities.

Making visible to students the various forms and functions of rhetoric online can pose challenges. The rhetorical tradition itself benefits from a very long and complex history rife with definitions, redefinitions, and various institutional politics, as well as re-mediations from the oral tradition to writing, print, and now the digital. When presenting digital rhetorics to students I begin with the idea that studying rhetoric is about exploring the ways that people use symbol systems to establish and maintain shared social realities, and so it addresses all manner of texts as well as the issues of identity and power at stake between the individuals, communities, and institutions that produce them. I then explain that rhetoric pays attention to both analysis and production—it insists on both interpretation and intervention as critical moves. Finally, I add the digital, which has not only expanded the formal range in which we compose, but has also both blurred the boundary between medium and text and reengaged questions of intention and agency as programmers write programs that become others’ rhetorical environments and sometimes produce unforeseen and humanly unforeseeable actions.

In the sections that follow, I begin with an introduction to the rhetorical situation Wikipedia presents as an encyclopedia developed on a wiki by a community of volunteers. Next, I turn to the ways that the New London Group’s multiliteracies pedagogy along with ideas about genre awareness can be used to structure assignments that include varying degrees of attention to developing content for Wikipedia and studying Wikipedia’s knowledge curation practices.5 In conclusion, I suggest that this type of teaching involves our students as agents in questions of the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity by asking them to learn by drawing on research resources available to them while they are on college campuses, and sharing some of that privilege with the networked world. By no means an answer to the inequities of life chances, such an approach to this work is a motivator for our students, and us, and it has some positive potential at the global level.

The Rhetorical Situation of Wikipedia

In her foreword to the edited collection Rhetorics and Technologies, Carolyn Miller describes rhetoric and technology as “arts of design,” pointing out that they are “both in the business of balancing innovation with tradition,” that is, of “initiating change and then compensating for it.”6 Described by Yochai Benkler as “a radically new form of encyclopedia writing,”7

Wikipedia is a fascinating example of such rhetorical and technological change taking place on computer screens in front of us. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia; its all-volunteer community of editors works hard to see to that. But, while strongly Diderotian in genre norms and values, its wiki-based creation and free distribution under a Creative Commons license are decidedly born of internet culture. The genre, wiki, and license together are the mechanisms that coordinate, support, and motivate people to participate in the encyclopedia’s collaborative creation, and so they are a careful balance of tradition and innovation that have made Wikipedia by some measures astoundingly successful and by others wildly controversial.

Wikipedia is by far the most visited wiki on the web, but it is by no means the first. The wiki concept of allowing users to collaboratively create and edit web content online using only a web browser was created by Ward Cunningham, who wrote the first wiki software and put the first wiki application on the web in 1994. There are now hundreds of wiki programs, and countless wiki applications online for all kinds of purposes. The wiki software on which Wikipedia runs, MediaWiki (, has been designed and developed specifically for Wikimedia projects and so provides both common and tailor-made wiki affordances. Unlike most wikis, Wikipedia pages separate user discussion from page content with a separate “Talk” tab on which contributors plan and discuss an article’s development. More common to wiki software, in addition to the option to click “Edit,” is the “View history” tab on which all revisions to an article are archived and available for comparison so that users can see a detailed record of every change made.8 Wikipedia not only makes content creation interactive but also makes editorial process transparent. These common and uncommon wiki features are non-traditional as encyclopedic features, but they allow Wikipedia to represent the process of arriving at a consensus in an open and clear in a way that print media simply could not. In this way, Jonathan Zittrain points out,

Wikipedia has… come to stand for the idea that involvement of people in the information they read—whether to fix a typographical error or to join a debate over its veracity or completeness—is an important end itself.9

Wikipedia provides the digital tools that make such interventions possible and by making them possible, encourages a mode of thinking and engagement that moves beyond critical thinking to critical engagement in producing solutions.

Operating alongside this technological infrastructure for developing and distributing free content is a legal one. Wikipedia works on a model that respects copyright for legal reasons, but generates and circulates free content for global ethical reasons, and so provides an opportunity to educate students about both systems. Wikipedia’s content was distributed under a GNU General Public License until 2009 and so inherits many of the ideals developed through the free software movement. As software became corporatized and copyrighted, Richard Stallman, a product of MIT’s hacker culture in the 1970s and 80s, fought for the right to collaborate freely with other developers by founding the GNU project and authoring the GNU General Public License, the first copyleft license which used copyright to reserve the right to share and to require that users of a work do the same. As Stallman explains, “Free software is a matter of liberty, not price.”10 His free software definition specifies four freedoms:

Freedom 0. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.

Freedom 1. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. (Access to the source code is a precondition for this.)

Freedom 2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.

Freedom 3. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. (Access to the source code is a precondition for this.)11

Central here is the idea of access to source code, and while an encyclopedia is not a computer program, there are clear parallels in source code in editable text and cited research sources. Also useful if your goal is not simply to adapt prior work to your individual purposes, but to improve work to meet the needs of a broad audience, is the record of discussion among contributors and all prior revisions to the article content. The echoes of the free software movement within Wikipedia call for liberty, reuse, adaptation, and the affordances of the wiki buttress transparency, community, and collaboration.

But far from being all technology and licenses, Wikipedia is first and foremost an encyclopedia developed by a dedicated community of volunteers. The project has an extensive and proliferating set of help resources covering policies and guidelines. However, you can get a long way knowing Wikipedia’s three core content policies—Neutral Point of View, Verifiability, and No Original Research—and five fundamental principles, known as the “five pillars” of Wikipedia.12 These policies for practice and declarations of purpose coordinate contributions in clear relation to both the tradition of the encyclopedia genre and the new possibilities of networked collaboration. The first pillar begins, “Wikipedia is an encyclopedia” and so explicitly identifies the project with its genre tradition. The second begins, “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view” and thus reinforces Wikipedia’s genre identity with a difference. Rather than aiming for objectivity, Wikipedia strives for neutrality, and as Benkler points out, it does so “within the limits of substantial self-awareness as to the difficulty of such an enterprise.”13 In other words, editorial policy aims to frame articles that offer a fair representation of the current state of knowledge, rather than presenting an explanation that has been pared back to a simplistic point of agreement.

The remaining pillars address the license and medium, the community, and the spirit of the project. The third begins, “Wikipedia is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify, and distribute.” This principle identifies characteristics of the project made possible by the wiki-foundation and release of content under a Creative Commons license. The fourth pillar begins, “Editors should interact with each other in a respectful and civil manner,” and so declares a behavioral ideal for the community. The final, and certainly most curious, pillar begins: “Wikipedia does not have firm rules.” I find this final declaration particularly remarkable because it parallels a dynamic, rhetorical vision of genre. It suggests that rules coordinate practices but won’t necessarily help writers achieve the purposes of a genre more effectively than thinking through the genre’s aims and figuring out how best to meet them.

This openness to the possibility of innovation fits well with the academic approach to genre studies developed in rhetoric and writing studies over the past few decades. In 1984, Carolyn Miller broke new ground with her article “Genre as Social Action” and her effort to determine a rhetorically sound basis for analyzing texts, grouping them by social function rather than by formal regularities.14 This approach allowed others to see the ways that genre organizes communities, aligning individual purposes with social motives so that writers are what Anis Bawarshi has called “double agent[s],”15 and genres offer what Anne Freadman has called “rules for play,”16 but all with very real ideological and material outcomes. As John Frow writes, “[f]ar from being merely ‘stylistic’ devices, genres create effects of reality and truth, authority and plausibility, which are central to the different ways the world is understood.”17 Catherine Schryer has offered two influential definitions of genre, first in 1994 when she described them as “stabilized-for-now or stabilized-enough sites for social and ideological action,”18 and then in 2000 when she defined genres as constellations of “regulated, improvisational strategies triggered by the interaction between individual socialization and an organization.” 19 David Russell has contributed that,

Genres are ways of recognizing and predicting how certain tools (including vocalizations and inscriptions), in certain typified—typical, reoccurring—conditions, may be used to help participants act together purposefully.20

This re-conceptualization of genres as dynamic, socio-cognitive frameworks present genre as a concept with tremendous potential for exploring how texts shape, organize, and perpetuate modes of human interaction, especially in discourse-based contexts like many of those we find online.

As Benkler observes,

The important point is that Wikipedia requires not only mechanical cooperation among people, but a commitment to a particular style of writing and describing concepts that is far from intuitive or natural to people.21

This “particular style” includes that of the encyclopedic genre, but it is also the case that Wikipedia depends on “self-conscious use of open-discourse, usually aimed at consensus” in its editorial discussions and community processes to make decisions about what innovations might be appropriate.22 The interesting thing is that, for Wikipedia, this balance between attention to genre and openness to potential innovation results in a community that is aligned both by its genre tradition and by the public, communal processes of modifying that tradition. Having no firm rules does not result in chaos or anarchy because anyone wanting to break with established best practices must articulate their reasons for doing so and seek consensus before they proceed, which means writing reasoned and well-argued statements of their positions and engaging with any who disagree in a “respectful and civil manner.”23

Depending on the pedagogical goals of a given course, Wikipedia assignments can be designed to focus primarily on small improvements to or significant development of articles in areas of course content knowledge, but perhaps the richest and most unique opportunities of Wikipedia assignments are concerned with also engaging in the culture of Wikipedia. For success with any significant interventions, students will want to understand the values and ideological assumptions informing common practices in order to participate with deep effectiveness, rather than just working to follow the rules. In the next section, I will sketch out a structure for facilitating such participation that blends the New London Group’s multiliteracies pedagogy with a genre awareness approach to writing pedagogy advocated by scholars in the field of rhetorical genre studies.

Beyond Received Knowledge: Learning Through Argument and Genre

Students are generally familiar with Wikipedia as readers, but few are likely to have given much thought to Wikipedia from the perspective of its writers. While it is true, as Wikipedia’s tagline asserts, that “anyone can edit,” much can be learned from understanding the ways and means of the Wikipedian discourse community and the variety of genres and tools through which its volunteers work. Participation can vary from simply clicking the edit button and fixing typos, to copy-editing well-researched but untidy prose, to learning how to integrate not only one’s research and writing but also one’s editorial input into the vast body of work and community of volunteers already dedicated to the project.24 Deciding how to lead students into this experience is not without challenges, but I have found the structure offered by the New London Group’s multiliteracies pedagogy to be flexible enough to address the needs of a wide range of courses with small and large Wikipedia-based assignments.

Developed in response to the question, “What constitutes appropriate literacy teaching in the context of the ever more critical factors of local diversity and global connectedness?,”25 the four central components of multiliteracies pedagogy are situated practice, overt instruction, critical framing, and transformed practice. The New London Group is careful to point out that these are neither stages nor a linear hierarchy, but rather that “elements of each may occur simultaneously, while at different times one or the other will predominate, and all of them are repeatedly revisited at different levels.”26 One of the primary challenges of multiliteracies pedagogy is that it represents a distinct break with much contemporary education in the United States. While its conclusions and goals resonate strongly with those dedicated to teaching toward progressive social change, it is a demanding task to reflect for these students a vision of themselves as “active designers of meaning” and “designers of social futures” as they step beyond a K-12 education currently characterized by standardized testing and back-to-basics curriculums. But while multiliteracies pedagogy may not overlay readily onto US students’ prior educational experience, it does resonate at a very significant level with everyday experiences of language diversity and new media technologies, and so I see tremendous potential for instructors in higher education to draw creatively and consistently on the range of relevant skills and knowledge that students develop both inside and outside the classroom.

Situated practice draws on students’ expertise and discourses and it involves “immersion in meaningful practices” with both experts and novice experts, that is “people who are experts at learning new domains in some depth.”27 On Wikipedia, the environment for making use of currently developing and existing areas of expertise and immersing students in a new discourse community is readymade. The instructor can take on the role of novice expert, learning as she introduces students to editing tasks and facilitates interactions with expert Wikipedian editors. As discussed above, Wikipedia offers students both hard and soft infrastructure through which they can work as intermediaries between areas of disciplinary expertise, the specialized discourse community of Wikipedia, and a potentially massive general audience of readers. Incorporating research, translating across Wikipedias, editing prose, linking to the digital resources of cultural heritage organizations, participating in editorial discussions and in community processes, and so on—all provide environments for participatory production and rhetorical skill building with potential to enrich student learning across the humanities while at the same time improving humanities content on Wikipedia as a free, global resource.

Overt instruction includes the range of “active interventions” on the part of the instructor and experts that (1) scaffold learning activities, (2) focus students’ attention on the features of their experience and activities that are most central to their learning, and (3) give students access to explicit information “at times when it can most usefully organize and guide practice.”28 One of the initially astounding things about Wikipedia is that other editors will give students feedback on their efforts. At times, it will be almost instantaneous, but it will also be uneven. Some students will receive thoughtful, supportive, and detailed feedback. For others, the feedback will come in harsher forms; for example, they may submit edits in good faith only to find them reverted without explanation, or with only a boilerplate warning left on their user talk page. Essential here, and called for in multiliteracies pedagogy, is the development and use of meta-languages, both within Wikipedia and in the classroom. Wikipedia is structured to allow editors to leave explanations of their actions. If students leave edit summaries—brief notes that show up on the article history page indicating the nature of each edit—and explanations of major revisions on the article talk page, other editors are far more likely to engage with them and be respectful of their efforts. In the classroom, because students tend to have a variety of experiences with different editors on Wikipedia, shared reflective writing excercises and class discussions can be essential to knowing what kinds of overt instruction an instructor might offer to complement that of expert editors. Help to ensure that everyone benefits from the most supportive expert feedback and can understand productively any feedback offered without adherence to the Wikipedian guideline commonly expressed as “Don’t bite the newbies.”29

Critical framing opens up a wide range of possibilities. In writing courses or those interested in disciplinarity and knowledge construction, I find it useful to explore the overlap and resonance between multiliteracies pedagogy and pedagogies of genre awareness developed by scholars in the field of rhetorical genre studies. As students first engage with Wikipedia, or any new discourse community, the types of writing and ways of interacting on the wiki may seem very natural or they may seem very strange. This will depend largely on their prior experiences and is an important discussion to raise because learning to write in particular ways is not purely instrumental; it involves participation in ways of thinking and understanding. As Charles Bazerman puts it, “[i]n perceiving an utterance as being of a certain kind or genre, we become caught up in a form of life, joining speakers and hearers, writers and readers, in particular relations of a familiar and intelligible sort.”30 In Thomas Helscher’s words, “[t]o do business within a specific community, we occupy the subject position offered by the genre or genres at hand.”31 And, as I have written elsewhere, “[i] t is by engaging in the generic actions and interactions that are valued in particular communities that we perform and develop identities appropriate to the places and spaces we want to occupy.”32 The goal of critical framing in multiliteracies pedagogy is to denaturalize the skills students have mastered through situated practice and the conscious control and understanding of that learning they have developed with the help of overt instruction. With very similar aims in mind, rhetorical genre theorists have tended to emphasize that it is crucial not to teach students genres per se but to teach them to be aware of the ways that genre conventions structure expectations between writers and readers and to think through the implications of these expectations.

Genre scholars Ann Johns, Charles Bazerman, and Amy Devitt, among others, have proposed genre-based approaches to teaching writing that combine practice in manipulating genres with smart awareness of generic power.33 Johns has explored the challenges posed by contradictions between theoretical understandings of the dynamic nature of genres and the classroom tendency “to emphasize regularities and to search for stability.”34 She concludes simply, yet insightfully, that this tendency should be resisted, as “student genre theories need to be destabilized, enriched, and expanded” if they are to be flexible and adaptable.35

Bazerman has contributed to this vision of the teaching of genre awareness by pointing out that if we take into account the important role of student motivation in student learning, it is perhaps less important to identify ideal antecedent genres already in students’ repertoires than it is to tap into students’ interests. He observes, “[o]nce students learn what it is to engage deeply and write well in any particular circumstance, they have a sense of the possibilities of literate participation in any discursive arena.”36 The critical framing offered by rhetorical genre theory provides ways of talking about writing and discourse as historical, social, cultural, political, and ideological, while Wikipedia offers an opportunity to look at the genre of the encyclopedia article as it has been, as it has changed, and as it could be.

In 1993’s The Electronic Word, Richard A. Lanham suggests that while the computer is traditionally associated with logic and reason, it in practice “often turns out to be a rhetorical device as well as a logical one.”37 Now that the computer is well established as an everyday tool for communication in a vast array of forms, the challenge we are negotiating is how we might use the logical capacity of the device to aid in our identification of digital textual patterns significant to the interpretation and understanding of rhetorical effects. From this perspective one might also approach critical framing by drawing on any of a wide range of analytical methods.

Wikipedia is a windfall of text. It offers big data in the form of XML data dumps,38 as well as a wide range of more familiar types of digital texts—articles, editorial discussion, policy, community deliberation, etc.—that can be compiled into small human-readable datasets. Using Wikipedia as an heuristic, we can teach not only methods of textual analysis, but also the ways that we arrive at questions and the ways we select texts for analysis, and then also the kinds of claims that we can and cannot make about what our evidence shows. Perhaps the greatest pedagogical possibility of this variety is that we can customize questions and datasets for particular purposes, or invite students to do the same. I suggest that involving students in the methodological issues of devising questions, constructing datasets and conducting analysis as elements of an iterative process helps to demystify what research is in the humanities. Helping students think through why we ask the kinds of questions we do, why we look to texts at all, even most broadly defined, and why we look to particular texts to make particular arguments, not only teaches them about our disciplines but about the ways those disciplines construct knowledge.

For students working on Wikipedia, then, the ability to recognize patterns across larger bodies of texts and to connect and correlate those patterns with additional contextual information offers new ground to develop research questions and interpret results in ways that account for larger and multiple resonant patterns. The goals of analyses are always to focus attention in different ways to see new patterns, connections, and resonance. As always what matters is the strength of the questions one asks and the interpretations one offers. Rhetorical analysis is enhanced by computing, not replaced by it.

This work of thinking through the implications of existing practices, of knowledge curation on Wikipedia and in knowledge-making methods in academia, and the possibilities of innovation brings students to the point of transformed practice. Ideally, we have helped them develop skills such that they have both mastery of practice and enough critical distance to make decisions about when change is called for and how they might advocate for such changes. Key to transformed practice in multiliteracies pedagogy is the idea of juxtaposition and integration of different discourses, and in a Wikipedia assignment this has been essential from the start as students must reframe expert knowledge and expert discourses for public audiences and new genres.

One of the major rewards is that the exchange-value (work for grade) dynamic that characterizes many classroom assignments is altered by the public audience and the use-value (work for purpose) of the work that students produce. Some students, though admittedly not all, are able to transform their understanding of the activity from grade-making into knowledge-sharing and so to genuinely see themselves as designers of meaning.

In a larger frame, we as instructors and researchers have something to learn as well. Collaboration is among the major promises, lessons, and challenges of work in the digital humanities today. The complexity and scope of problem-solving as well as modes of project presentation made possible by networked computing have inspired humanists not only to read and draw on scholarship across disciplinary lines but also to draw other scholars and technologists into cooperative efforts that cross boundaries of disciplinary and professional communities, discourses, and knowledge-making practices. The challenges involved in the planning and execution of such work involve learning to listen for new possibilities in ways we would not have thought to do things and to communicate our ideas to those who don’t share our backgrounds. We don’t need to be neo-Sophists to recognize that our fundamentals vary: we analyze different types and sizes of datasets, ask different questions, select and define key terms differently, argue from different types of evidence, and present different stakes and goals. We rarely see our own assumptions and expectations except when they are offset by those of others.

The lessons we learn about collaboration through our research and scholarship clearly have a place in our classrooms. Fortunately, even if it doesn’t make sense to involve students directly in our own research or to invent classroom-scale projects, students can learn a great deal about effective collaboration in practical and real world terms, and reflect on the diversity of contemporary knowledge-making methods and practices, by participating in existing public digital humanities projects like Wikipedia.

Final Considerations: Creating Knowledge and Designing Social Futures

On his satirical news program, The Colbert Report, US comedian Steven Colbert declared, “Wikipedia is the first place I go when I am looking for knowledge, or when I want to create some.”39 The joke reflects a common concern about the collaboratively written encyclopedia: namely, by making the representation of knowledge an explicitly collaborative project, that truth is put up for negotiation. It is often the case that Wikipedia is among the first places students end up when they are looking for information, but seldom do they imagine they might be in a position to curate knowledge. This lack of recognition of their ability and responsibility should be the real cause for concern. Clearly, we do not want students spreading misinformation about elephants online a la Colbert,40 but we do want to educate students as citizens capable and responsible to share what they know about the world around them. In the humanities, we know that what counts as knowledge is the result of complex social negotiation, not on the result of whim, but responsive to social change and shifting cultural and technological contexts. To engage students in the midst of this negotiation is a pedagogical feat and a gift that Wikipedia enables.

In teaching digital rhetoric, there is a strong connection to be made between our humanist roots and our digital daily lives that we can yoke creatively in our pedagogy and pass on to our students. The encyclopedia is a humanist reference genre, and students pursuing higher education, whatever their background, are in a position of privilege in relation to the millions of the world’s inhabitants with variable access to educational materials. In engaging Wikipedia, they have authentic and practical opportunities to act as humanists in an arena of digital humanities that is nudging forward the vision of Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, of “a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

Our work is not to educate students to reproduce the specific genres in exchange for which they might expect to make a living; the fact of the matter is that we cannot possibly anticipate what they will need to know even a few years in advance. What we offer is the long view of the humanities and the critical skills of analysis and communication. In aspiring to the transformed practices of multiliteracies pedagogies for ourselves and our students, in thinking through the value of engaging with Wikipedia, I like to recall the advice of the New London Group: “Our job is not to produce docile, compliant workers. Students need also to develop the capacity to speak up, to negotiate, and to be able to engage critically with the conditions of their working lives.”41


1 For a detailed description and discussion of a Wikipedia writing assignment sequence, see Robert Cummings, Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009). A range of resources is also available at

2 For a critical discussion of the place of digital humanities in teaching, writing and composition, see Olin Bjork’s chapter, “Digital Humanities and the First-Year Writing Course.”

3 Wikipedia, along with nine sister projects, is supported by the Wikimedia Foundation, a non-profit with the stated mission to “empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.” The Foundation asserts that it will “make and keep useful information from its projects available on the Internet free of charge, in perpetuity.” Wikimedia Foundation, “Our Projects,” Wikimedia Foundation, “Mission Statement,”

4 Tim Berners-Lee, “WorldWideWeb: Summary,” alt.hypertext (August 6, 1991),

5 New London Group, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures,” Harvard Educational Review 66, no. 1 (1996): 60-92. See also Amy J. Devitt, “Teaching Critical Genre Awareness,” in Genre in a Changing World, eds., Charles Bazerman, Adair Bonini and Débora C. Figueiredo (West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2009), 337-51, and Writing Genres (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004); Anne M. Johns, Genre in the Classroom: Multiple Perspectives (Mahwah: L. Erlbaum, 2002); and, Charles Bazerman, “The Life of Genre, the Life in the Classroom,” in Genre and Writing: Issues, Arguments, Alternatives, eds., Wendy Bishop and Hans A. Ostrom (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1997), 19-26.

6 Carolyn R. Miller, “Foreword: Rhetoric, Technology, and the Pushmi-Pullyu,” in Rhetorics and Technologies: New Directions in Writing and Communication, ed., Stuart A. Selber (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), ix-xii (x).

7 Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 70.

8 Exceptions include rare cases of removal of “certain defamations and privacy breaches” deemed to be “grossly improper.” See Wikipedia, “Revision Delete,” Wikipedia,”

9 Jonathan Zittrain, The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 147.

10 Richard M. Stallman, “Free Software Definition,” in Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, ed., Joshua Gray (Boston: GNU Press, 2002), 41-43 (41).

11 Ibid., 41.

12 Wikipedia, “Five Pillars,” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, “Core Content Policies,” Wikipedia,

13 Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, 70. Wikipedia’s core policy on neutral point of view currently states that editors must represent “fairly, proportionately, and as far as possible without bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources” (Wikipedia, “Neutral Point of View,” Wikipedia,, my emphasis) and so has more carefully articulated this policy such that it no longer suggests editors must represent “sympathetically all views on a subject” (Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, 71, my emphasis).

14 Carolyn R. Miller, “Genre as Social Action,” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70, no. 2 (1984): 151-67.

15 Anis S. Bawarshi, Genre and the Invention of the Writer: Reconsidering the Place of Invention in Composition (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2003), 50.

16 Anne Freadman, “Anyone for Tennis?” in Genre and the New Rhetoric, eds., Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway (London: Taylor & Francis, 1994), 43-66 (47).

17 John Frow, Genre (New York: Routledge, 2006), 2.

18 Catherine F. Schryer, “The Lab vs. the Clinic: Sites of Competing Genres,” in Genre and the New Rhetoric, eds., Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway (London: Taylor & Francis, 1994), 105-24 (108).

19 Catherine F. Schryer, “Walking a Fine Line: Writing Negative Letters in an Insurance Company,” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 14, no. 4 (2000): 445-97 (445).

20 David R. Russell, “Rethinking Genre in School and Society: An Activity Theory Analysis,” Written Communication 14, no. 4 (1997): 504-54 (513).

21 Benkler, The Wealth of Networks, 73.

22 Ibid., 70.

23 Wikipedia, “Five Pillars.”

24 There is practical guidance available for new contributors not only on Wikipedia’s help pages but also in books like How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It by Phoebe Ayers, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates (San Francisco: No Starch Press, 2008) and John Broughton’s Wikipedia: The Missing Manual (Sebastopol: O’Reilly Media, 2008).

25 Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, “Introduction: Multiliteracies: The Beginnings of an Idea,” in Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and the Design of Social Futures, eds., Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis (New York: Routledge, 2000), 3-8 (3).

26 New London Group, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies,” 85.

27 Ibid., 85.

28 Ibid., 86.

29 Wikipedia, “Please Do Not Bite the Newcomers,” Wikipedia,

30 Charles Bazerman, “Genre and Identity: Citizenship in the Age of the Internet and the Age of Global Capitalism,” in The Rhetoric and Ideology of Genre: Strategies for Stability and Change, eds., Richard M. Coe, Lorelei Lingard, and Tatiana Teslenko (Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2002), 13-37 (13).

31 Thomas P. Helscher, “The Subject of Genre,” in Genre and Writing: Issues, Arguments, Alternatives, eds., Wendy Bishop and Hans A. Ostrom (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1997), 27-36 (29).

32 Melanie Kill, “Acknowledging the Rough Edges of Resistance: Negotiation of Identities for First-Year Composition,” College Composition and Communication 58, no. 2 (2006): 213-35 (217).

33 Amy J. Devitt, “Teaching Critical Genre Awareness,” in Genre in a Changing World, eds., Charles Bazerman, Adair Bonini and Débora C. Figueiredo (West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2009), 337–51, and Writing Genres (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004); Anne M. Johns, Genre in the Classroom: Multiple Perspectives (Mahwah: L. Erlbaum, 2002); and, Charles Bazerman, “The Life of Genre, the Life in the Classroom,” in Genre and Writing: Issues, Arguments, Alternatives, eds., Wendy Bishop and Hans A. Ostrom (Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1997), 19–26.

34 Johns, Genre in the Classroom, 238.

35 Ibid., 246.

36 Bazerman, “The Life of Genre,” 26.

37 Richard A. Lanham, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 31.

38 Wikimedia project database dumps are available at

39 Stephen Colbert, interview with Jimmy Wales, The Colbert Report, Comedy Central (May 24, 2007),

40 In his interview with Wales, Colbert admitted to changing the Wikipedia entry for “Elephant” in 2006 to read that “the population of elephants in Africa had tripled,” only to note that the entry had been corrected shortly after.

41 New London Group, “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies,” 67.