This fall, I taught a freshman writing seminar focused on modern and contemporary art in the Maghreb. Most of my students had never taken art history classes before, or studied anything in the region. I used the theme of “the city” as a gateway into the topic – how major cities (Algiers, Casablanca, Tangier) are pictured, how artists engage with these cities, the ways in which the cities become a sort of character in and of themselves within artworks. Inspired by HASTAC and the discussions of technology and pedagogy, and by a missive that had been sent around by Cornell’s Writing Institute about a classroom wiki, I opted to create a class-wide wiki in place of one of the required essays. I will share the experience here, but I am interested in responses to a few questions that I wrestled with.
Cornell uses the password-protected platform Blackboard, and so I set up the wiki there. Students were placed into groups centered around either an artist or an artistic structure. Each group worked together to write a one-page introduction to the topic, using the style that is typically seen in artist biographies (with information about major exhibitions, themes of work, etc.). Then, each student wrote a two-page analysis of one work, one aspect of a larger artwork, or one facet of an arts institution. I urged them to use the vivid and less formal (or perhaps more precisely, less academic) style of arts writing that we had studied that had been published in such forums as Frieze. This process included a draft that was peer-edited and time to work together in class. At the end of the project, once everything had been posted on the class wiki, each student was required to comment on at least one other student’s post.
The class response was overall very enthusiastic. In the past, when I have taught writing seminars, the number of pages assigned starts small (approximately 2 pages) and consistently builds up to a final project of approximately 8-10 pages. This assignment came towards the end of the semester, in our final unit, and forced students to return to a more concise analysis, similar to early assignments in length and breadth, but with the added skills that had come from our work together over the course of the semester. It was gratifying to see the remarkable difference at that point in the semester. The students also enjoyed the change in writing style, and it both pushed them towards ever-increasing clarity and allowed different students to shine in new ways.
I enjoyed the activity, and would definitely assign something similar again. However, I was left with the following questions, and I would love feedback as I continue to think through this intersection of pedagogy and technology. This primarily comes back to a question of: should a class wiki be published on an open platform like Google, or kept on a private, password-protected platform?
One of the wonderful possibilities of wikis is that they can offer new possibilities for creating information on the internet. The class was only possible because it coincided so closely with my own research – culled together from articles found over the past years, information from friends, copies of video art pieces given to me by artists and galleries, and images sent directly from the artists, because much of the information is not readily available or easy to access. This is an underserviced field, and I would love for my students to be able to actively take part in spreading information about these fantastic artists and projects. However, focusing on contemporary art, we were discussing living artists that are colleagues of mine and that know and care what is written about them online. What is the responsibility of a professor, in terms of deciding what can/cannot be published online? Is student writing an extension of one’s own name? If so, does the precise editing process that would then be required for students that are new to this subfield as well as the field of art history overall help them as writers, or stifle the importantly open field of inquiry?
Along this same line of questioning, I wonder about dictating online publishing. I am increasingly aware of my online presence and care what is put online in connection with my name. When so much personal and professional information is gleaned from these online citations, it seems worth being thoughtful about what is available about us. Not even going into questions of online privacy (which I don’t discount), I know that I would not necessarily want my earliest forays into different lines of thought readily available to anyone that Googled me. Moving from my own personal concerns, I then think about the implications of this for students. Is it my role to require this of them? Perhaps (probably) many or most of these students maintain an active online presence with far more sensitive information than their early thoughts about a contemporary art piece. Yet if at 18 – the age of many of my students—I was more forthcoming about my private life on social media, I no longer am. Academic writing is of course not a student’s private life, but I am trying to get at the idea that what we want available about us online at different stages in our lives changes. How, then, does that affect what we require students to publish online?
I would love to hear other experiences of wikis, and how others work through these ideas. To end with a question:
To what extent should we capitalize on the information-sharing capacities of using the internet as a pedagogical tool, and to what extent do we need to safeguard privacy—or an open (private) space without consequences for student exploration? What are the ethics of public or private information in trying to increasingly incorporate technology into the classroom?