Durable Writing for a Public Audience, an Interview with Dr. Robert Cummings


Last week, I met and chatted with Dr. Robert Cummings over Skype. Dr. Cummings earned his Ph.D. in English in 2006 from the University of Georgia where he focused on the intersection between Rhetoric and Composition and digital technology. He is now an Associate Professor of English and the Director of the Center for Writing and Rhetoric at The University of Mississippi. He also serves on the board for the Wiki Education Foundation.

With the DRC’s own wiki for digital rhetoric initiative and our current Wiki Wednesday post series, I immediately thought about reaching out to Dr. Cummings for an interview. Five years have passed since his book Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia was published, a work that uses the theory of Commons-Based Peer Production to consider a 21st century composition class built around networked, collaborative writing.

To Dr. Cummings, I proposed the interview as a reflective coda on his earlier work in order to discuss what has changed and stayed the same over the past five years. In what follows, Dr. Cummings discusses how Wikipedia has grown, what makes a wiki a successful learning opportunity, and how students still benefit from writing for a public audience in a deeply collaborative setting. Please read on to consider what’s durable when it comes to writing today, and what that question means for teachers of writing. Welcome back to the Age of Wikipedia.

Lindsey Harding, DRC Fellow

LH: Are you still teaching with Wikipedia?

RC: I teach less and less. Fall 2012 was the last time I was teaching with Wikipedia in a composition classroom. Recently, I’ve been doing consulting work for Australian classrooms, but I anticipate returning to teach with Wikipedia in the fall.

LH: What still holds, five years later, in terms of the benefits and virtues of teaching with wikis?

RC: First, there’s a distinction between teaching with wikis and teaching with Wikipedia. There’s the matter of traffic, and it’s difficult to start a wiki unless the rhetorical context is clearly defined.

LH: Let’s talk about teaching with Wikipedia, specifically, then. What are the lasting virtues of such classroom work?

RC: With Wikipedia, there are 450 million unique visitors a month. There’s always traffic, always people reading and writing. You have a big range of assignments you can do using Wikipedia, so it doesn’t have to be a writing class environment. The great thing about using Wikipedia is that it has stated values and processes that are valued.

LH: What is the process like for students?

RC: Students gain some expertise on a topic. Then they assess the accuracy and relevance and completeness of the material that is there already [on Wikipedia]. Next, they develop and propose a plan for improving [the existing material]. Then they execute their plan. And finally they assess the plan in terms of class outcomes and Wikipedia expectations.

LH: What continues to be the benefit of working with Wikipedia for students?

RC: The external audience. Collaborative writing. It’s most similar to the writing [students]will do in the work world and gives them experience with the real give and take of composition. In my class, I offer team writing or individual writing options, but Wikipedia is always a team writing environment in that Wikipedians write back. Students also benefit from receiving criticism.  Wikipedians can say things a teacher can’t.

LH: How has working with Wikipedia changed in the past five years?

RC: The big changes have been administrative.  Wikimedia created an education project: They selected topics of United States public policy, recruited students to serve as ambassadors, and then their education program went global. Now, the program is so successful that Wikipedia has spun it off to Wikipedia Education Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is to help teachers understand the value of Wikipedia and the value of higher education to Wikipedia. So overall, the biggest changes are the number of users and administrative changes. Early on, when I first started writing about using Wikipedia in a college classroom, commenters on one of my articles said I should be thrown out of education. So that’s changed. Even the biggest detractors have come to admit the great utility it provides.

LH: What hasn’t changed in the past five years for Wikipedia?

RC: How Wikipedia gives an external audience to a classroom. Even in 2009, it was important to recognize that students were writing for a true public, not just their teachers. It’s a really different thing to be writing for a real audience. It still offers continued engagement.

LH: Have you ever taught with a wiki? Can you share what that project and experience was like?

RC: When I was at the University of Georgia, I created a MediaWiki install for a project revolving around Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and all its references. Students were creating content based on those references, encyclopedic pages.  And so far, it’s been for me the best conception of using a wiki in a classroom.

LH: What are the pros and cons of teaching with wikis?

RC: Wikis have a public audience. They need to be tightly defined rhetorically, in purpose and scope. They can be academic and fit in outcomes for the course with public rhetorical value. They’re manageable. Though it’s difficult to conceive of wikis that extend beyond a class. Wikis may fail if you expect them to have the world come visit without thinking it through.

As a counter to that, the first wiki was created as a listserv to avoid redundancy. So there was a group of people interested in a topic, that being enough. A listserv with a memory, Ward Cunningham called it.

It doesn’t have to be Wikipedia to be a wiki. WikiLeaks serves as an example. It operates as a website. The difference is there’s more one-way communication. The public doesn’t come to leave a lot of content. It’s missing the interactive element and the peer editing. Wikis are useful and good for projects like video games, where players are exchanging advice, and doing walk-throughs. Because there is enough of a user-base, these projects foster a two-way street for creating content.

World of Warcraft Wiki Community Button
Source: WOWwiki

LH: What has changed for you personally in your approach to and experience with Wikipedia over the past five years?

RC: I had never really contributed to Wikipedia. I was just a teacher who uses Wikipedia. And I’ve been thinking about why that was. I realized I wanted more of a guarantee that my text wouldn’t evaporate. But now, I see that text [on Wikipedia]as the most durable thing that I could write. Wikipedia represents the public face of knowledge. Peer review research is important, but the public doesn’t see that. In essence, really, any kind of writing you do for Wikipedia can be the most leveraged writing you do. I’ve become more involved over time. I fell into working on historic places, uploading pictures and writing descriptions. Now I’m practicing what I’ve been preaching. I’ve returned to the question about what’s permanent, and I’ve come to see this is the most durable writing I can do.


  • Lindsey Harding

    Lindsey Harding graduated from the University of Georgia in May 2015 with her Ph.D. in English. She is now the Assistant Director of the Writing Intensive Program at UGA. Her research and writing interests include composition and rhetoric, creative writing, and digital humanities. In May 2011, she graduated from Sewanee University’s School of Letters with her M.F.A. in creative writing. She earned her B.A. from Columbia University in 2004. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and three small children.

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