Classroom Wikis and Reflective Practice

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to get students more invested (read: motivated) in the courses we inhabit together. I know why I show up everyday, but I’m still not sure what drives the bulk of my students to pursue a degree.

My guess–because of my own background, and probably because of the types students who tend to garner my attention—is that their decision has much to do with class mobility and social pressures. I’m not sure, though, that this is the most productive perspective to take.

One thing that I do know is that it is difficult to organize (control?) a course in a way that works for the bulk of the students. I’m not even sure that this is what I should be trying to do. Should all my students in the course be subject to the same objectives and outcomes? My old habits say yes, definitely, but I wonder if there’s a way to challenge that. I’m not saying that I think the classroom should be a democracy. And I’m not suggesting that a teacher should decenter the power in the classroom. I don’t know enough about those pursuits to see then as anything other than leading to anarchy, and little student learning. So what to do then?

Experiment, I guess.

In the spirit of George Hillocks, I’d like to engage is a bit of reflective practice. First, a overly-compressed summary of Hillocks’s explanation of structured reflective practice:

1.How are things going at the moment? (context)
2.What would I like to see changed? (goal)
3.What strategy might accomplish the change? (instrument)
4.How will I enact that strategy in my classroom? (plan)
5.To what extent was the strategy successful? (assessment)
6.How did the success/failure operate and why? (reflection)

It’s not that my classroom experiences are negative; in fact, they’re really rewarding. But I want to keep improving as an instructor. I’ve sensed for a long time that many students are resistant, skeptical, or even alienated by impulses toward a unified classroom. I think those positions warrant consideration. I often find myself inhabiting them as a student in my own graduate classes.

So how might an invested writing instructor respond? Let everyone define their own objectives? Writer their own assignments? Articulate idiosyncratic academic standards? Nope. I see big problems there. Now that I’m looking back on these last few sentences, I’m starting to see that what I’m trying to address are negative student responses to senses of sameness.

I’d like to see students work within the same space, with varying levels of collaboration, on projects related to writing. I’d like to see students carve out a space for themselves within this space. To mark out their own identity as they align with and oppose the work of other students. To define themselves not in terms of other people, but in the context of other people. I don’t know exactly how to go about doing this.

My sense is that a course wiki might be a useful tool to look into. My sense is that students will have a chance to contribute to the work of other students and learn from the contributions of others. But what seems to make wikis special is the the paradox of shared space as both collaborative and contested.

So I’m going to introduce a course wiki as part of the set of classroom practices for my Business Writing course this summer. I’m still figuring it out, but most likely participation on the wiki will be largely non-mandatory. I think I’ll start with a set of static documents (schedule, policies, assignment descriptions), and let students comment on them, offer advice to their classmates or ask for help, share resources, post successful examples, get peer-reviews, etc. I’d also like to see studens offer suggestions about ways the assignments might be improved. If it is going well, I might even allow students to redefine some of the assignments so that they more closely meet their own goals as a group of students (in ways I didn’t understand or predict) and as individual writers. Maybe their participation will begin to have an impact on the class in ways that they care about and respond to. (This utopian rhetoric makes me pretty skeptical, but I’m trying to identify as many ways as possible for this strategy to be successful.

In terms of assessment, I’m not sure what the data will look like, and I don’t really know that setting benchmarks would be all that useful. I’ve still got some thinking to do about that.

This post has gotten way out of hand. It’s time to quit. I’m going to track down some research on wikis in the writing classroom, and I’ll be sharing that throughout the term. Look for it… Wait for it… okaygoodbye.