Friday, August 11, 2017

Countering Alternative Facts: Wikipedia in the Classroom

Because a few friends have asked about this recently, and because many of us are embroiled in the semi-traumatizing mid-August ritual of syllabus planning, I'm breaking the summer hiatus to describe my experience of assigning a Wikipedia project in my Spring 2017 'Women in Early Modern Drama' sophomore course. Tl;dr: it was useful, I'm glad we did it, and yayyyyy public outreach and engagement (see: Hannah McGregor's post) but I would certainly change a few things in future iterations of the assignment.

Wikipedia has a highly developed education department that has full-time staff hired to specially help with your courses. They are good: I first 'met' their Outreach Manager Samantha Weald over Skype at a WikiEd event at Fordham last year, and since registering my Spring class for a small project, she and her colleagues have contacted me frequently offering help, advice, guidance, and asking for feedback. Here is the page they've created for getting started with your course, which includes an orientation tutorial that takes about 25 minutes to complete, and there is also a dashboard where you can browse all the different courses registered with WikiEd and what impact they're making.  Really there's not much practical guidance I can add to the multitude of electronic and personal resources they've already compiled. Just shoot Samantha or anyone an email; they will respond.

My project: 
Working internally with the WikiEd experts, you create a course page which allows you to track student progress and edits (which means instructors will know who waited until the final hour to complete all 5 weeks of assignments!). Once you register your course, you are assigned a Content Expert who will help field questions or concerns your class may have - I know some of my students corresponded directly with ours. Here's what my page looks like from my perspective, with course data: 

750K article views! That sounds pretty impressive, right? 

Personally, since I myself was just learning how to edit Wikipedia for the first time and I had never assigned anything like this before, and also because I was teaching a sophomore class with many first-years, I opted for the 'small project' rather than a full article-length project. If you glanced at my course description above, a project like this has obvious topical relevance: our course was designed to identify and recover early modern fictional women from oblivion, and we similarly aimed to expand their representation on Wikipedia in accordance with the diversity problems Wikipedia faces across-the-board. 

After compiling a list of viable articles in class, the project was split into five weeks: in the first week, students simply had to sign up for the course and complete personal interactive modules on how to edit and evaluate Wikipedia; in the second week, they completed an 'Evaluating Articles and Sources' module and then had to find an article related to our course content and critique it (is the article written from a neutral POV? is every fact referenced with appropriate citations? is any information out-of-date? Are any viewpoints overrepresented?); third week, they copyedited an article, perhaps building on the changes they suggested in Week 2. Things really heated up in week four, as I asked them to add at least two sentences of new content to an article. Week five, they had to add a peer-reviewed scholarly source to an article, formatted and cited flawlessly of course, as well as 1-2 sentences of content summarizing and introducing it. This final step also included a training module on 'Sources and Citations' which instilled the fear of plagiarism deep into their souls. I gave my students a fair bit of leeway regarding which articles they could focus on, and whether or not they wanted to contribute to and edit only one across all five weeks.
Further guidelines were provided on the internal course website. 

WikiEd allows you to select templates for these individual modules and alter and customize them to your course. The weeks appear in an internal timeline and you can also grade them through the system, though I opted to base my numerical assessment on the final reflection I had them write wherein they needed to narrate their progress through the sequence and offer any comments on how well (or not) the assignment went. I did not want to be responsible for tracking each student individually across every single step, so while they knew I was watching over them big-brother-style, they were responsible for taking screenshots of their work and describing what they learned at each step of the process. These final reflections were about two pages long. 

My students were pretty excited when I told them that their changes--even those as small as fixing a grammatical error or improving the clarity of a sentence--received tens of thousands of hits (numbers I can also access as the instructor). (As an academic blogger whose posts have received thousands more hits than my academic articles ever will, I can relate to this!) See for example this edited sentence on the page for The Taming of the Shrew whose changes have been seen 136 320 times, a fact I made sure to relay to the student:

You can access all these changes through your course page, which is crucial since they may no longer exist when you're grading the assignments: the sentence above now reads "Numerous men, including Gremio and Tranio, deem Katherina an unworthy option for marriage because of her notorious assertiveness and willfulness."  Such is the ebb and flow of the internet. At least in that case, some of the student's language has been preserved. 

However, our course was victim to what I suspect to be a bit of online trolling: many of my students' changes were rejected and reversed by one single user with an apparent interest in early theatre, and though I understand some of his changes, it was still discouraging to see. We noticed as a class that there is a separate page for Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, but not for Katherine, which replicates the very same gendered issues that are raised by the play (the men have autonomy, agency, mobility, while the women are controlled by their fathers and husbands, viewed as aberrant forces to subdue when, like the Katherine of the opening scenes, they refuse to bow). But one student's attempt to create a separate page for Katherine has subsequently been rejected, presumably because it wasn't notable or well-sourced enough. 

Mostly, though, my students had positive feedback for the assignment. Here are some excerpts of what they wrote in their final responses (and for the most part, I do believe them!): 

I suddenly remembered that this information was put into the world for anyone to see, but instead of being nervous about that fact I felt amazed and happy. It is so exciting to see something I did be seen by thousands of people and makes me want to add information to other articles. This project also made me very conscious of what I contribute in the future and has taught me some good tips on how to use reliable sources and cite them correctly. (Maryam)
I feel as though I am now more apt to notice holes and errors in Wikipedia pages, and I plan on making edits to articles in the future when opportunities present themselves. If there's anything I have learned from the politics of the last six months, it is that we need to take responsibility for verifying sources before spreading the news we read on the internet.  After this experience, I feel more confident in my ability to help protect myself and others from the dangers of 'alternative facts.' (Bree)
Although at first it seemed outside of the realm of what our class was really focused on, it proved to be a valuable activity both related to our content and to a broader spectrum of academic work. (Marissa)
If all college students were required to do this for all of their classes, there would be free and reliable information for almost every subject. (Stephanie)
I want to take my knowledge of Wikipedia editing and use it to fix articles about my favorite books, TV shows, movies, and celebrities. These pages may not be as educational as the pages that I already cited, but it makes me want to look up more, fix more, learn more, and aid others in learning more as well. (Maria)
This exercise allowed me to practice my research and citation skills, whose usage can sometimes feel isolated to only academic settings. (Julia)
So many of the female characters [...] either have no pages or have very bare pages. It is very frustrating to see a more minor male character, like Edmund [from King Lear], with a page that approximates three or four pages while prominent female characters, like Goneril and Regan, barely have two pages. (Clare, who added an excellent section on "Role in Play" to the Goneril character page
While it can't be denied that I had an especially eager, bright group of students last semester, I am confident that the project taught them editing, sourcing, and observational skills that extended beyond the narrow confines of our classroom, fulfilling service learning objectives. I'm also pleased as punch that some of them picked up on the utility of the project in the current political climate of 'alternative facts' and 'fake news.' They loved feeling like what we learn in the classroom could make a difference in the public sphere. The assignment also helped them recognize that yes, sexism still exists in the present and can be seen through unequal online representation of female characters whose depth, nuance, and complexity our course was based around. In fact, we realized that in some ways we've regressed in terms of gender parity: we were mostly reading plays by men, after all, some of which featured strong characters who could not readily be placed on a binary gender spectrum (Middleton and Dekker's The Roaring Girle), or girls who fall in love with each other while disguised as boys (John Lyly's Galatea).

Future changes: 
I may assign another Wikipedia assignment in my courses this year, but if I do, it will involve two major differences:

  1. I will assign longer projects in groups which will give weaker students who found posting online intimidating a boost, and help round out the grammatical and content problems that found many individual changes getting rejected by other Wikipedians. I will also assign a draft of the changes that I'll approve before posting to help prevent the same. More oversight was needed. 
  2. I will spend more time in class going through the modules and expectations. The reading load for this course was heavy and probably could have benefited from a slightly slower pace to make room for more practical in-class guidance. I think I let too much of this assignment happen on individual computer screens in dorm rooms. Devoting more classtime will also help us generate shared goals for pages and projects that we want to develop as a class. 
Basically, my future assignment will involve less atomized learning and more communal goals which would help us leave a more lasting digital footprint after the class is over--so that perhaps we can indeed create a standalone page for Katherine. 

Readers, have you used Wikipedia in the classroom, and do you have anything here to add or comment on or critique? Would love any feedback or further suggestions. Now back to your regular August programming of denying the approach of the fall semester...

Thanks to Megan Cook, whose Facebook query sparked an email discussion 
that prompted the creation of this post! 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Guest Post: Podcasting CanLit

In her post about Unpacking CanLit, Jennifer Andrews writes about the spaces we occupy as critics and asks what it might mean to “[step] outside of the institutions which prop us up.” In the ramp up to the same conference Jennifer is writing about, I was stepping outside myself, walking through the streets of Dublin and listening to podcasts that, I think, exemplify publically engaged and politicized Canadian literary criticism. As I walked, I listened, and I thought: what are these podcasts doing that makes them so much more thrilling than other forms of cultural criticism?

I find myself talking a lot about podcasts these days, and not only because I listen to so many of them. Cheap, intimate, mobile, manipulable, interactive, and participatory: the podcast, I think, is an ideal medium for public scholarship. So why don’t we see them saturating academia? The problem lies in how they’ve been used. Academic podcasts are mostly lecture recordings, which is disappointing, because podcasting can do so much more than that. It can upset the binaries between scholarship and pedagogy, professor and student, producer and listener, opening up space for different kinds of critical dialogues. It might even be able to push a new kind of public scholarship, one that goes beyond the abstraction of our work into bite-sized pieces. We—academics—often presume that the real scholarship happens in the university and is then disseminated out to the public. But what if, instead of just thinking about public scholarship and public pedagogy as forms of dissemination or knowledge mobilization, we instead thought of it as public first? What are the real barriers that are preventing us from thinking publicly as the default mode of our work—and how can start to tear those barriers down?

I want to tell you about the two podcasts I was listening to in Dublin, and how I think they build public engagement with Canadian literature and cultural production beyond the academy. I want to talk about how they model different kinds of engagement that can teach us something about how academics could use podcasting differently.

“Everything Is Weird Here”: Can’t Lit

Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli’s Can’t Lit is a monthly podcast birthed from the literary magazine Poetry Is Dead. In each episode, the hosts have an author on to talk about books and feelings and CanLit feuds. Sometimes they play games; frequently they make fart jokes. As the hosts explained in an interview for Discorder Magazine, their goal is to make Canadian literature both less insular and less serious. Says Zomparelli:

It’s important because people are having these conversations like the ones we’re having in the podcast, but they’re not recording them. We’re able to create some sort of a record of what’s going on in Canadian literature.

Del Bucchia and Zomparelli emphasize the conversational informality of the podcast as a genre, the way it can break down perceived cultural barriers between potential listeners and this thing called literature.

That informality registers at multiple levels, from the clear friendship of the hosts to the inclusion of laughter, tangents, and mistakes. Listen, for example, to the opening of their sixth episode, with guest Wayde Compton:

Zomparelli and Del Bucchia embrace the messiness of a medium that must go on no matter how flawed. The promise of seriality as a contract with the listener produces something more raw and immediate than academics are used to. Sure, many of us have learned to embrace the classroom as a space of productive failure and unpredictability, but our public performances are so scripted. As Lucia Lorenzi recently discussed on Twitter, the academic drive towards perfection and polish often shuts down conversation, even in spaces like the conference where conversation is supposed to be the point.

Read the whole thread by Dr. Lucia Lorenzi (aka @empathywarrior) here.

The possibility for goofiness, profanity, and, of course, error is what makes podcasts in general, and this podcast in particular, so appealing. Now take note of how Tintin Yang of Discorder Magazine describes this appeal:

By placing emphasis on the more relatable, less academic perspectives on literature, Can’t Lit follows a similar mandate to Daniel’s project, Poetry is Dead: “If it’s not fun, don’t do it.” Can’t Lit is one solution addressing the problem of framing Canadian literature in an inaccessible and pedagogic way.

That’s academic, pedagogic, and inaccessible on one side, and relatable and fun on the other side. And part of being relatable and fun is also being enthusiastically flawed. Listen to this clip of Vivek Shraya and Del Bucchia in episode 34:

Imperfection isn’t a side effect of seriality: it’s the point. In order for Can’t Lit to break down barriers between listeners and the culturally intimidating construct that is Canadian Literature, it needs to embrace a little messiness. Imperfection is the starting point of letting people in.


“Listen, We Should Be Making Things”: Red Man Laughing

Imperfection is also embraced in Ojibway/Metis comedian Ryan McMahon’s podcast Red Man Laughing. Red Man Laughing is part of the Indian & Cowboy Indigenous Media Network, “the world’s only listener supported Indigenous podcast media network.” McMahon describes Red Man Laughing as “conversations, investigations and pontifications about the collision between Indian Country and the Mainstream,” embracing both the openness and the orality of podcasting as a medium to highlight indigenous artists, thinkers, and creators. Guests have included Tanya Tagaq, Wab Kinew, Lee Maracle, Christi Belcourt, and, in the episode I’ll talk about here, Anishinaabe/Métis games designer and scholar Elizabeth LaPensée.

McMahon and LaPensée’s wide-ranging conversation should be required listening for every academic, particularly for its focus on the experience of working in the academy as an Indigenous scholar. But the real reason I’m focusing in on this episode is how LaPensée frames the value of what we might call maker culture. “Can we just make some things,” she exclaims at one point. “Can we just do that? Fuck! Who wants to come make some games?”

These thoughts obviously resonate with McMahon, who opens the next episode, on Indigenous comic books and graphic novels, with the statement “Listen, we should be making things.” Specifically, according to LaPensée, indigenous creators should lean into the pleasures of smaller projects and their shorter development cycles. Here’s what she has to say:
The shorter development cycle is key to the sustainability of creation. This is especially true for creative work that challenges the ideas of success and legitimacy promoted by institutions like big gaming companies—or universities.

LaPensée and McMahon’s discussion of podcasting as a form of experimental and community-driven creation contrasts the podcast with the university. One is a pleasure-motivated expression of real cultural values, while the other is a Kafka-esque bureaucracy that presents a series of hoops to jump through in pursuit of a credential.


I don’t think it’s particularly radical to say that the university in general, and humanities education in particular, is at a crossroads. One might even call it a crisis. The precaritization of our workforce, in particular, is driving many of us to ask what the point of higher education in the humanities actually is. I’m not claiming, by any means, that podcasts offer a solution to this crisis. That would be absurd. What I’m saying is that podcasts, like animals, are good to think with—and I'm saying that the rise of public-facing cultural criticism podcasts like Can’t Lit and Red Man Laughing offer us an opportunity to think about what the university is for, and what academics are for.

Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University, where her research and teaching focus on the histories and futures of print and digital media in Canada. She is particularly interested in Canadian middlebrow magazines, podcasting as public scholarship, and the histories of structural racism in the Canadian publishing industry. She is also the co-host of Witch, Please, a feminist podcast on the Harry Potter world. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Beginning, Endings, and Transitions

I'm not good with transitions.

I am, in fact, really lousy at transitions. I'm late for nearly everything because that liminal space in between being here and being there somehow paralyses me. Sometimes I sit on the edge of my bed, fully dressed, for 20 minutes because while I want to be in my pajamas and in my bed reading, I just can't handle the whole routine of getting undressed and changed, and taking out my contacts and removing my makeup and brushing my teeth, and finding the dog, etc. See also: me in the driveway half in and half out of my car, and me in my office wearing a coat and holding my keys in my hand, but idly browsing Facebook.

I'm no better at big transitions. My dear love has packed up our shared domicile for big moves three times while I either left town (twice!), or cowered in corners, crying (memorably, once). Never mind we were always moving somewhere better, happily. Moving in always involves moving out, and that's sad.

As the song has it (and I'm embarrassed this is my reference here, but it's what popped into my head), "every new beginning feels like some other beginning's end." Well, because it is.

This week, I'm the Associate Chair for Graduate Studies in my department. Next week, I am ... not Associate Chair for Graduate Studies.

It turns out my feelings about this are pretty complicated. I volunteered for this role, took it on with passion and purpose. I worked very hard and achieved some of the goals I had, important goals, big goals. I am proud of my work: I made money appear out of nowhere, solved some structural problems, recruited and supported some great students, learned a lot. I also have regrets: I'm still no good with paperwork and barely competent at email and my calendaring skills result in me occasionally missing meetings, to my deep shame. Sometimes I procrastinate on overwhelmingly nitpicky tasks. I'm going out with a bang: we've had to produce an enormous program review document summarizing the past seven years of work, and it's been a gargantuan task that I'm barely going to get finished, and certainly procrastinated on. I don't feel super great about that. It's not a secret that the last year has been hard for me: I've been overworked and burnt out.  I thought I would be glad to be done.

I am, but, it turns out, I'm somehow really sad, too.

It just hit me Monday night. I'm in transition. Sitting in my driveway with the engine off, not going anywhere but not really arrived, either. Resentfully still doing grad chair work, but not particularly energetically. Writing hard-ish toward a deadline, but exhaustedly. Took a vacation day, but didn't really unplug, without really staying plugged in, either. Neither here nor there.

Perhaps you are in transition, too. Here in Canada, July 1 is an important academic date--it's when many positions officially start, when administrative roles change hands, when milestones are marked.  I started here as an Assistant Professor on July 1, 2004; I got tenure and promotion to Associate on July 1, 2011; I started as Associate Chair, Grad Studies on July 1, 2014. Some of you are starting new jobs and new roles and new ranks on July 1.

But some of you, like me, are not so much starting something new on Saturday, but rather ending something. Returning to regular ranks, leaving a position, retiring. Or maybe you are watching others begin new roles while you ... do not. These endings and non-startings are important, too.

I needed, for myself, some kind of ritual, that I haven't really allowed myself yet, to end this period of my work. I've decided to just use this week to transition, emotionally and mentally. I've asked for an extension on the writing deadline so I can let that work go for the week so I can just really work on ending my time as grad chair this week. I met with our incoming grad chair, and handed over my master key: we had cocktails, we traded wisdom, I sincerely wished him well and offered him my help. It's his master key now, the email becomes his on Monday, the sign moves from my office door to his. I'm trying to tie off loose ends with my coordinator. I'm also, honestly, just kind of wallowing and feeling my feelings. My feelings of relief and regret, of pride and frustration, of sadness and hope.

I'm on vacation next week. My email autoresponders have been set. I teach in the fall and then will begin a 12 month sabbatical. All things to happily plan for, to look forward to, to dream about. And I have been, and I will.

But for now, this: something is ending, and it's okay to spend a few days just sitting in the discomfort of the transition. Really taking the time to let go before finding joy in picking something else up. Whatever you are transitioning into and out of this summer, I hope you, too, will find a moment to feel that pivot, between then and now, here and there, what you have been, and what you will become next.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Unpacking: A CanLit Special Series

Although the blog has been on summer hiatus, we have decided to re-open the blog for a moment in order to take up Jennifer Andrews’ guest post. First, though, a short introduction from Lily and Erin.

For many of us here in Canada, the spring conference season is finally winding down. For Lily, as with a lot of other literature academics, the season began with Black Like, rolled into Mikinaakominis/ Transcanadas, then right into Congress where she ran madly between incredible panels at Congress 2017 from ACCUTE, ACQL, and CACLALS. Erin began in Dublin at Untold Stories, then went to Toronto for Mikinaakominis/ Transcanadas, and, like Lily, right into Congress 2017. (We both collapsed after that but we know that for a lot of you out there, the conferencing continued and might not even be over yet.) Throughout these post-conference weeks, we’ve thought a lot about what just happened? Indeed, we’ve been in touch with one another more regularly than ever before—texting, emailing, and writing to one another and asking how are you? What about this thing that happened? And, how are you feeling and what are you thinking now?

We’re in agreement: we don’t normally think these kinds of questions after conferences. But these conferences have been some combination of the most generative, fraught, difficult, and complicated ones we have ever attended. Since then, we’ve been talking to each other over coffee, in snatched moments in the hallway, on email, on the phone, on limited social media channels. In our experiences, these have been private conversations thus far, but it is clear to us we also need to have a lot of public dialogues too. There is a lot to unpack. Hook & Eye will only be one place where this happens.

This post, sent to us by Jennifer Andrews, is about a set of conferences that happened in Toronto and that mostly concerns folks working in Canadian literary criticism. Each of these things – Toronto, CanLit crit – can be, and often is, its own bubble. But these bubbles—the interconnected spheres of power and relations— need to be named. And the issues that have come up and out of these conferences are about much more than Toronto and literary criticism in Canada. Jen’s post is also very much about the spatial dynamics of institutional power, of the ways in which whiteness and masculinity are reified in the very buildings and cities where we gather to work. As Jen’s post highlights, there is without a doubt a LOT that happened in CanLit this year that those of us in the field need to keep talking about. Additionally, as Jen writes, there is a wider and equally urgent need to think hard not only about the conversations we have, but also where we have them.

This isn’t just about what rooms are in, but also about the kind of room we need to make. One of the greatest things to come out of this year, as Jen notes, is the Emerging Indigenous Voices Literature Award (if you haven’t already kicked in, and want to, it’s not too late!). This award gets us to all the rooms that are going to emerge from indigenous voices that will be supported by it.

But there’s a backstory to the award that is also about feminism and making the rooms that we want. The campaign for this award is put together by a lawyer, Robin Parker, who is a partner in a newly formed feminist law firm, Paradigm Law Group, LLP. When The Precedent, wrote about the firm, Angela Chiasson, another partner, said, “This is not a female-only space… but this is a no-bullshit space.”

So, here’s to a LOT more no-bullshit spaces. What we’re aiming to offer here at Hook & Eye is an interim no-bullshit space to think through power and space in the academy through the context of CanLit.

Let’s unpack.