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Writing Wikis

posted: 3.12.13 by Steve Bernhardt

This spring, I am teaching “Introduction to Professional Writing” to a group of 35 undergraduates who are choosing to concentrate in professional writing within our English major. We are exploring career options, developing ePortfolios, gaining familiarity with some central research and theory, developing tools, and imagining what the future holds for writers in workplaces. We are in the middle of a wiki assignment this week, and it is proving to be a challenging rhetorical task.

I have the class divided into teams of five, and each team must make two contributions to TCBOK—the Technical Communication Body of Knowledge wiki. This project is sponsored by the Society for Technical Communication with the purpose of gathering career-related information into a central resource for the profession. Students can choose to contribute new content to one of the many nodes that are at this time content placeholders, or they can choose to further develop and improve existing material. I tend to like the latter option, since so much workplace writing involves reworking existing texts for new purposes and audiences. Students don’t yet appreciate that, so most choose to develop new content.

What I like best about writing for TCBOK is that students can start to form a sense of audience beyond me and our class. They have to think about what professional or technical communication is, who belongs to this community, and what might be the expected backgrounds and prior knowledge. They must start to form their own identities as professional writers with something to contribute. My students are newbies, so this is not an easy task. It’s also just a little bit intimidating.

TCBOK also requires a contributor to work within certain guidelines, and includes instructions for authors, templates, documentation guidelines, and style sheets. These are new constraints for many of my students, and they struggle as they post and edit their work online. Most are accustomed to composing on their own, as opposed to posting within an existing publishing system. I advised them that on any new project, they would need to take some time to explore the resource they are contributing to and figure out just what it is. We used to talk about “Grokking the system” or really getting to know the technology before trying to document it.

All the teams are now working to figure out how their information can be fit into existing hierarchies, linked appropriately, and edited to a consistent style (a goal, not an attainment). Some students took time to form a model of the system; others did not. Those who did not created informative texts that were redundant or did not fit the existing wiki, so they are having to rework information. Others sized up the wiki and worked productively to a defined target. They are starting to get a sense of the complexities of maintaining order and consistency in a widely co-authored text.

If you have had students work within existing wikis, I’d love to hear about your experiences. If you have not, you might consider doing so. It’s a good way to think about new texts, new tools, and the social processes underlying wiki construction.

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One Response to “Writing Wikis”

  1. Bob Cummings, University of Mississippi Says:

    Hi Steve:

    Thanks for the post. It’s exciting that students have an advanced, and healthy wiki to communicate with in the technical writing community.

    Many of the advantages you mention in this assignment — developing a sense of a real audience beyond the teacher, learning how to work within the stated rhetorical norms of another community, negotiating the demands of other writers — are also present in writing assignments which use Wikipedia.

    I am wondering if you considered Wikipedia, as well?

    Bob Cummings