This semester, my Ling 102 students are editing Wikipedia articles on topics relevant to class, and I’m making the materials available if others want to do something similar. All the materials currently available for the project are here, in zipped form. If you’re looking for a description of how the project works, read on.
Ling 102 is the second semester in a year-long introductory sequence for undergraduates, so they’re not exactly experts on language, but I know they will rise to the occasion. You set your goals low, and students will meet them (more or less). You set them high, and they’ll meet them to the same degree. My first job out of undergrad was instructing high-school Latin. I suggested we perform Auricula Meretricula, a play entirely in Latin that we did in my first-year college Latin course, at the end-of-the-year talent show. The pimp (the male lead, the play’s about a prostitute but is entirely PG) had what I was told was mild autism. But he wanted so badly to take part in the talent show. We practiced before, during, and after school, and the night of the play those kids were awesome. My point is that I have no doubts about turning undergrads loose on Wikipedia. That is, given the highly structured, semester-long nature of the project described below.
First I should credit the Association for Psychological Science with sowing the seeds in my mind: this year the APS launched an initiative to improve all the psychology-related articles on Wikipedia. This link has a great summary of the benefits for students who work on this type of project, including writing for a general audience. I haven’t contributed much to the APS forum on this, but I plan to at some point. Some students are working on articles relevant to psycholinguistics like the mental lexicon (which, believe it or not, doesn’t even have a Wikipedia article as of this post).
First, before the semester began, I identified 10 or so articles that were relevant to course material, that needed improvement (or simply creation), and that were accessible for undergrads. Here they are, with links to the Wikipedia articles or sections of articles students will be editing (when available):
- Cree, Dene Suline, or other Aboriginal language. The students will first pick a language, and then a specific topic to work on, like syntax;
- Quebec Sign Language, the sign language unique to Canada with the largest number of speakers;
- Dialectal differences in ASL (e.g. Canadian vs. American or other distinctions);
- Vocabulary unique to Canadian English;
- Vocabulary unique to Quebec French;
- Word formation;
- Lexical borrowings/loanwords;
- The language of hip-hop;
- Linguistic hedges;
- The mental lexicon;
- Other (students’ choice).
Looking at these articles, you can see that some are pretty cursory, and others lack organization and/or correct information. You can also see that many of the choices relate to languages spoken in Canada. A major focus of the class is language in its social context, and I’m at the University of Alberta, so this makes sense. Of these possibilities, students have chosen to work on an Aboriginal language (as of last week, they didn’t know which one), lexical borrowings, blends, and the mental lexicon. Stay tuned for some excellent articles.
The students are working in groups, and I felt that one way to reduce any group-related issues relating to unequal distributions of labor was to make students as enthusiastic about their topic as possible. So, instead of assigning groups, I asked them to give me their first, second, and third choices for topics and any group member choices they had; I then created groups based on these preferences. This may have been a bit more work, but in the end all but two students got to work on his or her first or second topic preferences. Also, I’m having group members evaluate each others’ work, so students can learn how to be accountable to their peers. The current evaluations for group members students will be filling out is pretty much copied verbatim from Mark Hoven Stohs’ form. Leave it to a b-school prof to be on the ball with group work.
As I mentioned, the project is highly structured. Throughout the semester, there are several firm deadlines for various stages of the work. I’ve told them the project is cumulative, and if they miss one deadline, they’ll just get further behind for the next ones. The handout describing this project, including these deadlines, is long and detailed. Like, I tell them they have to try their best to interview at least one expert on the topic, and then I give them a template of the form the email should take and tell them to copy and paste it for their email, even though I will probably end up emailing the expert beforehand just to establish a contact. In the end, though, I know they’ll appreciate my attention to detail.
We then spent two 50-minute classes editing the Wikipedia article on Quebec French, one of the topics above that students aren’t working on. This article was a train wreck, mostly from an organizational standpoint. At first glimpse though it seemed deceptively fine, and here’s why: how many times have you ever read a Wikipedia article from beginning to end? Me, for example, if the article has a table of contents, I can’t remember a time when I have. I skim until I find what I’m looking for or where it would be. That’s the thing with having a ton of editors working separately: it’s not like the information is faulty, and it’s kind of informative. But you could clearly see that several people had worked disjointly on this page.
We mostly focused on the vocabulary of Quebec French, which means we spent most of our time in section 4.4, “Lexis”. This section was flagged for needing expansion. The page as a whole is still kind of a train wreck, like why did the people editing section 3 think they should put their references in that section as opposed to at the end of the entire article, where all the other references are? In the end, who knows, and it’s not our job to wonder why. The point is, the article is less of a train wreck after our edits. I told them, by the way, that if they ran across such issues outside the scope of their project, they could but do not have to correct them. It’s good to get used to imperfection, and the guiding principle I have told them is to leave the page in a better state than when they started working on it.
For our section, we mostly worked on improving organization and adding content, which was also organizational in that it added a linguistic classification of how vocabulary in Quebecois is different from vocabulary in other varieties of French. We added all the information in section 4.4.1 up until section 184.108.40.206. That Poirier reference? Ours! In the process, we got rid of a bunch of rather disorganized itemized lists with examples and put in the tables you see now. Even work on that small part isn’t perfect — we pulled section 220.127.116.11 up from the now-extinct section 5.5, but it was mostly redundant with the independent article on the Quebec French lexicon. So we suggested it be merged into that article, and maybe I can do that over Canadian Thanksgiving, who knows. But it brings up a good question, namely what material is good for the broader “Language X” page, and what info belongs in the more specific “Lexicon of Language X” page? Our guiding principle was, more general information on the language page, and more specific stuff on the lexicon page. And we didn’t repeat the info we added in the lexicon page — should we have? We figured maybe not, since we did put the link up to the lexicon page for people to see as well. All our changes, along with Wikipedia code, are available in the zip file of materials for this project.
Next comes the issue of plagiarism and copyright. Students don’t know how to deal with these issues, and who can blame them? Academics get in trouble for these issues all the time. So, I gave them the following guidelines:
- Don’t use direct quotes. For the purposes of our work, they’re not necessary. Use of the same technical term or concept doesn’t constitute a direct quote, but wholesale copying of phrases or sentences does.
- When in doubt, cite a work. Give credit where credit is due; in linguistics theories, concepts, results, and even example words and sentences should be cited.
- As a general rule, do not discuss over 10% of the material in an article or book. For the most part this won’t be a problem anyway because of the 250-500 word limit students have for their edits.
- One thing that I added after an astute student talked about copying pictures of ASL signs was, no adding of pictures from a source onto Wikipedia. Those are copyrighted materials, and we are adding to the public domain. A tentative solution we’ve arrived at is for students in their group to take a picture of one of them doing the sign in question — thereby also immortalizing them with Wikipedia fame! Of course, they have to cite the source of the original image.
So far, that’s all we’ve done, but I will keep you posted on progress we make on this project. If you have any comments, I (we) would love to hear them.