Reviews of Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia
Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia is a March 2009 book from Vanderbilt University Press that explores the "Wikipedia movement" from the perspective of a writing teacher. Author Robert E. Cummings is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of First-Year Composition at Columbus State University, as well as the Writing Specialist for the university's Quality Enhancement Plan, in which he assists "teachers across campus in their efforts to maximize student writing in their curriculum." After a recorded group discussion about Wikipedia classroom assignments featuring Professor Cummings, three Wikipedians reviewed his book.
Review by Ragesoss
Scholars in traditional disciplines have only just begun trying to make sense of Wikipedia from an academic perspective. As they do so, each knowledge community will take its own ideas, theories, and methods and map them onto Wikipedia. A long browse through the catalog of academic studies about Wikipedia reveals just how fragmentary those disciplinary approaches are. The first scholarly book devoted to Wikipedia, unfortunately but not surprisingly, follows the established pattern: it explores Wikipedia from one specialized disciplinary perspective but does little to improve our broader understanding of the project.
Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia, by composition professor Robert E. Cummings, has a great capsule summary. Wikipedia assignments provide writing teachers the rare opportunity to have their students write for a realistic audience, about things that matter to them. Students are traditionally given assignments to write for imaginary public audiences, but inevitably tailor their work for the actual audience of one: the teacher. With assignments based on improving Wikipedia articles, students have a real, large, diverse audience. And in the hacker idiom, "laziness" can be a virtue when students edit Wikipedia articles of their own choosing: it takes less work, yet produces better results, to write about topics one already knows about and cares about. Based on the classroom experiences of Cummings (and many other teachers who have led Wikipedia assignments) and on the literature of composition studies, there is good evidence that writing for realistic audiences leads to better writing, with more care given to style and mechanics and better "buy-in" on the part of students.
What might have been a useful book for de facto writing teachers across the humanities and social sciences, however, is derailed by Cummings' narrow disciplinary focus. Most of Lazy Virtues is spent discussing neither virtuous laziness nor Wikipedia writing assignments; instead, Cummings treats commons-based peer production (CBPP) more generally, from the perspective of rhetoric theory and composition studies.
Cummings explores new applications of writing and rhetoric theory through analogy, drawing on economic theory and particularly the work of Yochai Benkler. Benkler, in his famous paper "Coase's Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm", describes three types of economic production: the "market model", where an individual interacts directly with the market, choosing what to produce based on price signals; the "firm model", where a firm decides what to produce and directs the work of the individuals it employs; and a new kind of production—exemplified by Linux and other open-source software projects and by collaborative knowledge projects like Wikipedia—that Benkler describes as "commons-based peer production", in which individuals evaluate for themselves what they might contribute to a common project, based on both the needs of the project and their own aptitudes and inclinations.
Cummings sees the traditional writing classroom as analogous to the firm model. Teachers take on the role of intended audience, in effect defining for students what the "market" (audience) wants—as managers do for employees in a firm. Writing directly for peer audiences in a collaborative environment like Wikipedia, Cummings argues, is more like the CBPP model. He proceeds to stretch the economic theory–rhetoric theory connection much further than it ought to go: the concepts of commodity and commodification, transaction cost, and modularization all find counterparts in rhetoric. Cummings even suggests that a theoretical understanding of rhetoric will be crucial as an information economy becomes dominant over the production of traditional physical goods, and that (per the arguments of rhetoric scholar Richard Lanham), we might even "anticipate a revival of arts and letters based on its value of capturing the audience's attention" (p. 40). The fact that amateurs have captured so much online audience attention in spite of professional competition suggests either: the entertainment and infotainment industries are, rhetorically speaking, doing something terribly wrong; or no amount of rhetorical insight can stuff social media back into the tubes.
The book might seem attractive to Wikipedians looking for a deeper understanding of collaborative writing. But the application of rhetoric theory to Wikipedia and similar collaborative projects often obscures more than it reveals. For example, in discussing Marx's concept of commodity fetishism as applied to online rhetoric, Cummings writes that "it is possible to consider wikis as tools of information commodification, acting as information decontextualizing machines—grinding thoughts into atomic particles [...] devoid of authorial and content context" (pp. 45-46). That seems an odd way of looking at wikis. Wikis' key features are complete edits histories—which provide levels of chronological and intratextual authorial context that are inconceivable in collaboratively written print works—and ubiquitous hyperlinks—which create unlimited potential for content context.
There are occasional hints of provocative insights that rhetoric theory might bring to bear on Wikipedia, but Cummings sticks too close to Benkler's work and the canonical examples of CBPP to explore the rhetorical differences between different online community-based projects. In discussing Linux and forking, Cummings notes in passing that "epistemic rhetoric teaches us that a stable consensus within large discourse communities is simply impossible" (p. 142). This bears discussion, given the central role that consensus plays in Wikipedia, and the difference between the working definition of consensus and the idealization articulated by the official Wikipedia:Consensus policy. While forking is relatively frequent in open-source software communities, forks have been a relatively minor issues and in the far larger community of Wikipedia; content forks are generally suppressed, and project forks (such as Conservapedia and Citizendium) have not drawn away significant portions of the community. In some respects, at least, Wikipedia seems to demonstrate just the kind of consensus that ought not be possible. Unfortunately, Cummings does not even provide a reference to follow up on the lesson of impossible consensus that epistemic rhetoric has supposedly taught us.
The most redeeming aspect of Lazy Virtues is the set of accounts of Cummings' own Wikipedia assignments, which he used in first-year college composition courses in 2005. The assignments themselves are designed specifically for composition courses, and thus will be of little use to those who teach writing in other contexts, and Wikipedia has changed so much since 2005 that even repeating the assignments for the same type of course might prove difficult. But even if they do little to improve our understanding of Wikipedia and its potential as a teaching tool, I found Cummings' case studies of specific students and their performance in and reactions to Wikipedia assignments to be intrinsically interesting.
Review by Henry W W Potts
We are in a period of rapid technological change and much of society is endlessly playing catch-up, coming to terms with the implications of and uses for new developments. Each new development brings both enthusiasts and sceptics, and debate over Wikipedia has followed a familiar pattern. That same pattern has been played out in higher education, with the added contrast between a younger student body of "digital natives" and older lecturers who are "digital immigrants" (Prensky 2006).
While most are still responding to students' (and colleagues') use of Wikipedia, some in higher education have moved to teaching with Wikipedia (e.g. Callis, Christ, Resasco et al. 2009). However, as has been found in other areas of e-learning, there is a risk that we will replicate traditional patterns of teaching and learning without embracing the revolutionary nature of 'Web 2.0' approaches. If we are to fully grasp the potential of Wikipedia's use in higher education, we need a shared corpus of experience using it and to be able to make sense of those experiences within a theoretical structure. Robert Cummings' Lazy Virtues is a good beginning to satisfy that need.
Cummings puts forth a theoretical structure to understand Wikipedia and related projects as commons-based peer production (CBPP), an economic model from Benkler (2002). This he develops to apply to the teaching and learning of composition, with reference to rhetorical transaction theory and particularly James Berlin's (1987) taxonomy of composition theory. Central to Cummings' argument are two key features that CBPP environments like Wikipedia support. First, as reflected in the book's title, is "laziness", meant in the sense that individuals do more when their creativity is piqued in a context that allows them to self-determine their input. Second is the notion of other editors in Wikipedia providing an authentic audience for students rather than the instructor having always to pretend to be some hypothetical audience for differing writing exercises.
This use of a theory from economics may seem unusual, but Cummings devotes most of Chapter 1 to defending and explaining this choice. Chapters 2 and 3 are then more immediately practical and will be useful to lecturers wondering how to use Wikipedia activities in teaching, before further theoretical chapters to conclude the book.
While Cummings presents a strong case for his CBPP analysis, he largely does not comment on possible alternate theoretical approaches. Here, I think there was a missed opportunity, particularly around existing pedagogical theory. Approaches used in e-learning research like activity theory (Nardi 1996) or Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger 1991) would seem readily applicable to Wikipedia and its use in teaching. Indeed, Lave and Wenger's notions of legitimate peripheral participation seem highly concordant with Cummings' own approach and the stress he puts on the authenticity of the audience in writing activities. In all, Cummings' approach would seem to fit what de Vaujany (2005) would describe as a determinist or causalist perspective: that is, where a change in the technology or the context for writing is expected to have predictable effects on behaviour. In contrast, much recent research conceptualises IT from an integrative perspective, as with actor-network theory or Wanda Orlikowski's technology structuration (Orlikowski 1992; 2000), where technology adapts to context and context adapts to technology.
Cummings notes in his final paragraph that Wikipedia is changing. An integrative socio-technical theory of Wikipedia would also help conceptualise how Wikipedia and the Wikipedia community are changing, and how society's attitudes towards Wikipedia are changing. As my fellow reviewers note, already parts of Cummings' case study of using Wikipedia in teaching seem dated: he had his students write or edit pages about films, and he describes two students who created the Wikipedia page for the film "The Color Purple" in late 2005. Three and a half years on and one would be surprised were such a successful film not already covered in depth on Wikipedia. Are we running out of easy article for such class assignments? Many of Cummings' students were sceptical about the value of Wikipedia back in 2005; few seemed familiar with it. In contrast, in a local survey of medical undergraduates in 2007/8, I found 83% (38/46) reported using the site as a learning resource, with 9% (4/49) having edited it.
One might also ask how such class exercises affect Wikipedia. Such exercises should be congruent with the goals of Wikipedia, and Cummings sees student understanding of those goals as being central to their experience, yet the implication of so many class exercises on Wikipedia is not addressed.
Lazy Virtues focuses on teaching writing in the composition classroom. With no criticism of Cummings, there is much more to be explored on using Wikipedia in teaching elsewhere in higher education. How do activities need to vary between low- and high-consensus subjects, for example? In particular, I can see how Lazy Virtues has immediate potential application to language teaching, particularly in less traditionally taught languages where the relevant language's Wikipedia represents a unique opportunity to encounter an authentic audience.
The research literature on Wikipedia and on using Wikipedia in higher education is growing rapidly. Lazy Virtues is a good start at developing a theoretical approach with some valuable practical examples.
- Benkler Y (2002). "Coase's penguin, or Linux and the nature of the firm." Yale Law Journal, 112(3): 369-447.
- Berlin JA (1987). Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985. Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale.
- Callis KL, Christ LR, Resasco J, Armitage DW, Ash JD, Caughlin TT, Clemmensen SF, Copeland SM, Fullman TJ, Lynch RL, Olson C, Pruner RA, Vieira-Neto EHM, West-Singh R, Bruna EM (2009). "Improving Wikipedia: educational opportunity and professional responsibility." Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 24(4): 177-179
- De Vaujany, F-X (2005). "IT conceptualization: Respective contributions of sociology and information system". Journal of Information Technology Impact, 5(1): 39-58
- Lave J, Wenger E (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521423740
- Nardi BA (1996). Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-computer Interaction. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. ISBN 0262140586
- Orlikowski WJ (1992). "The duality of technology: rethinking the concept of technology in organizations." Organization Science, 3(3): 398-427.
- Orlikowski W (2000). "Using technology as a practice lens for studying technology in organizations." Organization Science, 11: 404-428.
- Prensky M (2006). "Listen to the natives." Educational Leadership, 63(4), 8-13.
Review by Awadewit
Robert E. Cummings begins his book Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia with the following appeal:
Having picked up this book, there is a good chance you have heard of Wikipedia. And if you know anything about Wikipedia, chances are also strong that you fall into one of two groups: you are either curious about Wikipedia and want to learn more, or you are worried by it—or a particular aspect of it—and are looking for confirmation of those worries. (The group of people who picked up this book because they are excited about Wikipedia and think it is a good development is, alas, still small enough to gloss over for the moment.)
— p. 1
As most readers of the Signpost will fall into the last category, this may be a bit of a rude awakening. I think we sometimes forget that there are people in our world that are ignorant of Wikipedia. We know about the hostile factions – but we forget about those who live in blissful ignorance of RS, NPOV, ArbCom, RFA, and RFC. At its heart, Cummings' book is not about Wikipedia nor is it addressed directly to Wikipedians (note that its subtitle is "Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia"). Rather, it is addressed to those interested in composition theory and new media as well as writing instructors. As such, it is divided into "theoretical" and "practical" sections. As it is the practical sections that deal most directly with Wikipedia and will be of the greatest interest to the readers of the Signpost, I will focus on those here.
Cummings argues that the traditional writing model, which focuses on the professor as audience, fails to engage students' interest.
One of Cummings’ major arguments for the benefits of using Wikipedia as the basis of writing assignments in first-year composition courses is that the students are writing for a real audience. Explaining that students often feel that writing "for the professor" or even an imagined audience is limiting or pointless, he argues that Wikipedia writing assignments allow students to write for and respond to a real-life reading community. He goes so far as to claim that Wikipedia "was stable enough to expose my students to the demands of producing writing for a professional knowledge community: a place where their writing would be read and evaluated for its accuracy, its relevance, and its efficiency" (p. 9). It is at places such as these that Cummings begins to overreach, however. In his efforts to legitimize Wikipedia as a teaching tool in the eyes of his skeptical audience, he misses an opportunity to discuss Wikipedia's challenging uniqueness. For example, Wikipedia is indeed a knowledge community, but it is by no means a professional one. In fact, it is the jostling of experts and amateurs that makes the site so dynamic. Furthermore, although Cummings mentions the authority that a teacher cedes in Wikipedia writing assignments, he addresses this primarily from the perspective of students resisting or accepting their newfound freedoms within the traditional confines of the classroom. He fails to address one of the most interesting aspects of the assignments: the intersection between two types of collaborative projects, both of which reject the "cathedral" structure and embrace the "bazaar" model. What does it say, philosophically, that we are rejecting the authoritarian (in the best sense) production of knowledge? How will that change the nature of knowledge itself?
One of the most interesting sections of the book for Wikipedians is Cummings' case study in which several students worked on improving film articles over the course of three weeks. Cummings describes his assignment in great depth, an assignment which consists of several small reflective pieces of writing on the part of the student in addition to wiki-work. The assignment is not geared towards teaching students to write in a collaborative environment, but is rather aimed at prompting them to think more broadly about the nature of "audience". Because the assignment was so short and not part of a collaborative curriculum, it could not teach students to write collaboratively (only one student substantially edited the work of another, for example), which, in my opinion, fails to take advantage of Wikipedia's real strength: the wiki software and the wiki model. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with using Wikipedia as a way to teach the concept of "audience" and students can learn a lot about how to investigate different reading communities through such an assignment, but I felt that an opportunity to teach about collaboration had been missed. Moreover, the goals of the assignment were clearly geared towards the student learning about the writing process, not toward creating encyclopedic content. As a writing instructor and a Wikipedian, I was, of course, disappointed that the assignments did not attempt to integrate the students into the community. However, then I asked myself: Why was I disappointed? Is integration into the community really an important goal for all users? If so, why? If not, why not? To what extent does a contributor have to embrace Wikipedia's mission to contribute valuable content?
Like the Murder, Madness, and Mayhem project organized by Jbmurray, Cummings' assignment did not focus on the students learning the skills of argumentation. Because Wikipedia is (rightly) wedded to the principle of "no original research", the bulk of any project undertaken by students on Wikipedia is going to be, at its heart, a summary. One can argue that summary is a valuable skill and learning to research is important. However, all teachers and professors have to make choices about what skills to emphasize in the few short weeks that they have students in their classroom and I feel that it is vital that we ask how much is gained and how much is lost when we emphasize summary and research over argumentation and even rhetoric, skills that demand students think independently.
One of the drawbacks of Cummings' book for teachers interested in using Wikipedia is the unfortunate fact that much of it is now dated (through no fault of Cummings', it takes several years to publish a traditional monograph). His studies are from 2005 and the Wikipedia of 2009 is, of course, substantially different. For example, the emphasis that the Wikipedia community now places on sourcing makes smaller writing assignments, such as the one Cummings designed, much more difficult to successfully undertake. Large-scale projects, such as "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem", however, have been completed successfully. Teachers coming to Wikipedia from Cummings' book will have the basics of Wikipedia right (such as its core policy of neutral point of view), but they may also believe that the site is easier to navigate and the policies simpler than they are. This problem highlights the need to publish research on practical teaching methods and digital technologies quickly.