by Tammy Stark, Linguistics
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2015
Linguistics 55AC (The American Languages) is a lower division sociolinguistics course that surveys the languages and language varieties used in the United States and the social, historical, and political issues surrounding them. Students are also expected to learn the basics of theoretical linguistics in the major subareas relating to sociolinguistics, a tall order for any introductory course. As I taught the Ling 55AC as a six week summer session, I faced the additional challenge of covering this range of topics under a compressed schedule.
Traditionally, a major component of the course is a semester-long individual research paper that students hand in the last day of class, and (usually) never pick up. Given time constraints during the end of the semester when academic commitments peak, and the improbability of ever seeing any particular instructor ever again, students are often unmotivated to put substantial effort into final projects. Worse, many students work very hard on final projects only for the professor to toss their papers a few days later without ever having provided feedback. Additionally, the Ling 55AC research project traditionally requires significant class and section time for individual student meetings, which simply can’t be spared during a six-week session.
As a solution to the related problems of limited time and a lack of incentive to carry out scholarly research on final papers, I decided to make the final project a Wikipedia assignment, in which students worked in groups to significantly improve Wikipedia pages related to sociolinguistic topics relevant to their independent research interests. Instead of using class time to meet with students individually, I allowed student groups to meet during class for one to two hours a week, helping them with the technical aspects of editing their Wikipedia pages and resource collection as necessary. They read and commented on each other’s Wikipedia pages publicly, and as a whole, improved the level of sociolinguistic scholarship available on Wikipedia dramatically.
Students were overwhelmingly positive about the assignment, and overall put much more effort into the project than was required of them. Publishing their assignments on the internet placed value on their work; their Wikipedia pages are public, and their work has served the purpose of improving a free, open-source research tool.
This assignment allowed students to see that they’re capable of writing scholarly prose that’s fit for general consumption, boosting their academic self-esteem. It allowed them to go from student to expert in the course of a single assignment. The assignment was not created for the sole purpose of assessing students or for busy work. A happy side effect of the project is that having diverse students engage in the process of contributing to Wikipedia helps give demographic diversity to the pool of Wikipedia contributors, who have tended to be overwhelmingly white and male. My hope is that engaging students in the process of editing Wikipedia encourages them to continue contributing to the project. Additionally, this type of assignment places respect on student time and intelligence. They are not forced to create an essay they (or I) will discard at the end of the semester. Their work has tangible benefits, and it’s good enough to be made public.