Academic journal article College English

Teaching Wikipedia: Appalachian Rhetoric and the Encyclopedic Politics of Representation

Academic journal article College English

Teaching Wikipedia: Appalachian Rhetoric and the Encyclopedic Politics of Representation

Article excerpt

Despite its negative reception by a majority of academic institutions and programs in the early 2000s, a growing amount of research in rhetoric and composition (indeed, across disciplines) has identified numerous opportunities for writing pedagogy offered by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia "anyone can edit." Among the most prevalent claims in scholarship within composition studies, the encyclopedia allows students to engage with public audiences, gain knowledge about writing processes, and experience writing as a social-collaborative act, all while contributing to a public knowledge project (Cummings, Lazy Virtues; Di Lauro and Shetler; Hood; Purdy, "When"; Sweeney; Vetter). Furthermore, the encyclopedia's public revision history offers composition students a chance to challenge the notion of the finished product (Hood; Purdy, "When") and to deconstruct authority in public and "published" texts (Purdy, "The Changing"). Finally, because the encyclopedia is built on the wiki platform, it can provide opportunities for collaboration and interaction with outside audiences and allows for a type of public writing wherein students encounter genuine rhetorical situations and audiences that "often write back" (Cummings, Lazy Virtues 5). While this research has led us to broader realizations about Wikipedia's capability to teach toward common learning outcomes in rhetoric and composition, especially those associated with first-year composition, less attention has been paid to the opportunities for teaching with Wikipedia from a cultural perspective, an approach that might be valued more across English studies.

Wikipedia's open-access mission, evident in its policies and practices, is often praised as inclusive and democratic. The community's ambition to "collect the sum of all human knowledge and distribute it freely to every person on the planet," articulated by cofounder Jimmy Wales (Roblimo), further describes an ethic of accessibility and universality. The encyclopedia is incredibly successful by most metrics. As of 2017, the English edition contains more than five million articles ("Wikipedia: Size"). The entire encyclopedia, which includes 295 editions ("List of Wikipedias"), includes more than 30 million articles. Wikipedia is the sixth most popular website on the internet and receives "over 85 million monthly unique visitors from the US alone" ("History of Wikipedia"). The encyclopedia is arguably one of the most successful collaborative writing projects to date, one that has already come to occupy a permanent place in global public knowledge culture.

Despite such success, Wikipedia has also been the subject of a number of critiques in recent years about its ability to accomplish its ambitious goals of universal access and representation. It has come under fire, for instance, for its overwhelmingly male and homogenous editorship (Glott et al.), which has been linked to a lack of representation of women and subjects of more interest to women (Cohen; Gruwell). Critiques of content gaps go beyond gender, however. In "Wiki Space: Palimpsests and the Politics of Exclusion," Mark Graham acknowledges the exclusionary functions of Wikipedia as it represents, and fails to represent, global geographies. Recognizing the dominance of Wikipedia as "de facto global reference of dynamic knowledge," Graham argues that the site's construction of geographic knowledge, "has a potentially immense bearing on the ways that people interact with those same places culturally, economically, and politically" (269). Using the encyclopedia's own system of geotagging articles, Graham's analysis illustrates the massive disparities in representation between Western geographies and the Global South. Even more troubling, Graham's findings also show how, when non-Western locations are represented, they are often written about from an outsider perspective. In other words, a place's people have no voice in that place's representation.

Graham uses the term uneven to characterize the information politics of the encyclopedia and to challenge the accepted notion that it is unbiased, claiming: "Wikipedia is characterized by uneven geographies, uneven directions, and uneven politics influencing the palimpsests of place" (271). …

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