Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Cummings, Robert E. Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia

Cummings, Robert E. Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2009.

While many instructors still deplore the use of Wikipedia by students (because such use often leads to overreliance on it as a source which in turn often leads to plagiarism and sloppy research in student writing), Robert E. Cummings has found a way to use “the free encyclopedia” to improve student writing. In his book Lazy Virtues, Cummings argues that using Wikipedia, and wikis (electronic documents open to modification by various users) in general, can provide students with a sharp sense of audience in the rhetorical sense, which can inspire greater care in their writing overall. As he points out, “Once writers care about making the audience understand something important, they are invested in spelling, punctuation, and style. Writing on wikis provided my students with that audience trigger” (9). Much of the book concerns various historical and theoretical discussions of computer programming, economics, and literacy, which are interesting, but the most essential portions of the book for our purposes are the more prosaic sections in which Cummings discusses how he utilized wikis in his writing assignments. The sample assignment described in the second chapter concerned students creating and editing Wikipedia entries on various films, but it could easily be adapted to other subjects. Though most of the book concerns how to use what Cummings calls a “Commons-Based Peer Production” (CBPP) approach to writing in the classroom, he also offers other useful advice for writing instruction such as his discussion of portfolios, which he claims “have the advantage of encouraging student reflection about the value of what they have learned in the class and how the course has impacted their development. This encourages quicker transference: students who leave a portfolio class are more aware of the skills they have acquired and are more likely to use them sooner” (98). Ultimately, Cummings found using the CBPP approach to writing assignments useful since students received almost instant feedback from other users who would not hesitate to delete or modify contributions to the entries that they found not relevant. He writes, “The CBPP composition experience thrusts upon writers the full weight of making meaning for a discourse community and ultimately calls upon them to employ sound techniques of persuasion to defend their contributions” (141). Students also seemed to respond positively to the CBPP assignments as well, though Cummings cautions that a gradual approach to using them is best since some students may be resistant to such an assignment (122). At the very least though, such an assignment will likely encourage students to think twice before they instinctively turn to Wikipedia for information! The book is available through OhioLINK.

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