Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

an assignment

In relation to my earlier post on academic genres, here’s an assignment that I’ve been thinking about using: a critical response to a Wikipedia page. Students would be asked to read a Wikipedia page on an author or a book, say, and evaluate it for accuracy and fairness — but then they would also look into the history of that page. Such histories can be very illuminating, because they tell us what’s at stake in the conversation about that author, what debates are common. And one of the really interesting things about Wikipedia pages on literature is that they are edited by both academics and fans: there aren't many places in our culture where those two groups come together, because they so rarely have the same agendas.

Here’s an interesting case in point: on the home page of the W. H. Auden Society you may find this message: “A highly accurate, thoroughly revised version of the Wikipedia.org entry on Auden is now available. This site strongly recommends that online researchers make reference to the archived version of the page, in the link above, rather than to current versions, which may be less accurate or may be subject to vandalism.” (I’m pretty sure Edward Mendelson, Auden’s exemplary literary executor and a brilliant critic in his own right, oversaw those revisions.) So that “officially approved” page could become the standard by which the whole revision history could be evaluated — though who knows? Perhaps an enterprising student would find edits that improved upon the standard.

An assignment like this would be an example of what Gerald Graff calls “teaching the conflicts”, but it would have the advantage of going beyond the boundaries of the academy. Yes, it’s a tad meta, and an assignment like this shouldn't replace close attention to the literary texts themselves — but I think it could be very useful.


  • That's an interesting assignment. I've found the literature articles on wikipedia are a real mixed bag. I mean, wikipedia as a whole is a real mixed bag, but the lit articles are particularly so. Some reflect serious study and scholarship, others are a total waste of time.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Seems largely the same as a typical college lit essay in which one reads a few articles about a book and engages critically with the discussion.

    The main difference being that the Wikipedia article is written for a popular audience and the debates behind the article would be much more informal.

    So is just a dumbed-down high-tech version of what you were doing before?

  • Sure, Michael. I'm striving to get dumber and dumber.

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