Embedding the WikiWritingHandbook

Presented at WPA 2010, July 11 - 18, Philadelphia as part of Intellectual Freedom, Writing Programs, and Open Textbooks, with Joe Moxley, Matt Barton, and Charlie Lowe. What follows is a draft from which I created notes for a presentation and discussion. It's still in draft but to use with attribution. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Session Description: Writing the wiki handbook. Produsage goes to college

M C Morgan will report on embedding a writing handbook directly into a course wiki. In this instance of a freetext, the handbook is composed and revised in the same writing space used for instruction and student writing. Issues for writing faculty include refactoring pages initially written for another purpose into handbook pages; adapting student observation and advice into handbook pages; linking to and from student content pages; incorporating traditional wiki guide pages (StyleGuide, GettingStarted); and using and evaluating the handbook.

Presenter's Notes

I'm addressing Joe Moxley's thesis that Teachers and Students Learn by Co-Creating Their Curriculum and Textbooks by way of Axel Bruns.

Axel Bruns in Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond discusses four features of produsage - as in creating open source software such as Linux, or Wikipedia. For this presentation, I'm looking at those four elements as pedagogical principles I can drive by means of an open text project of embedding a WikiWritingHandbook:

Creating Value by Produsage (Bruns)

I will look at these four features again near the end of the presentation.

My interest is in embedding a handbook as instructional material into the working environment of a course. Just in time teaching. A secondary aim is to help students design and work with their own PLE, with the course wiki as an analogue or model. This means that the handbook becomes one element in a larger learning environment. And it means that the handbook either contains or is includes other environments or links to other environments and external resources.

I have been teaching teach a junior-level writing course in weblogs and wikis since 2002. In 8 years of introducing students to writing with wikis, I've discovered that students need to learn a new set of rhetorical strategies that allows them to exploit the affordances of the wiki - practices in composing that are tailored for the wiki and it's purposes. That need drives the purpose and exegence for a handbook. And so - The wiki as a writing space and the WikiWritingHandbook as a project lets me place students in the position of producers as well as members in a class. An authentic position, I'd argue. And one which strengthens the pedagogical relationship between students and their work in profitable ways.

I read recently in The Chronicle that McGraw Hill Barnes & Noble College Booksellers and Follett Higher Education Group are looking to sell textbooks through the CMSs and tie online assignments from the e-texts directly into existing online gradebooks.

The WikiWritingHandbook is designed like that: to rhizomatically tie into other materials for a course. The handbook I'm working on ties into writing on a wiki, but from what I'm learning with it, the same could be done with other handbook materials.

History and Context

The handbook started as a collection of materials for students new to writing with wikis when I first set up the course in 2002. I saw a need a few years ago, so I roughed it out with materials I created originally for lectures, assignments, and handouts, as well as pages that students developed from the same. When, a couple of years ago, I started to look at open source education, I saw the handbook as a project for students to engage. I finally got it into shape to develop as a handbook in summer, 2009.

I discovered in collecting these first pages that some student-generated nodes either fit of became a starting point for overview and advice. Some examples: TheCollective, INeedAMap ... I also started to repurpose materials I had written for lecture and exercises into pages that emphasized advice and guidelines..

Initially, progress was slow - in part because I didn't have the students interest at hand. I hadn't taken the time to get the handbook together as a project for students. I hadn't designed or built the scaffolding that students would need to engage it.

I placed the handbook in a mid-level - 3000- and 5000-level course - rather than FYC in part out of convenience, but I'm pleased with placing it that context.
Because the handbook is on a wiki, it can be more daring in style, more extreme. If it goes over the edge, it can be tamed if it needs to be. Consider it extreme composition, akin to extreme programming. Try it - test - refactor - do again.

Need for a handbook of writing with a wiki

A wiki supports dialogic, collaborative, essayistic writing - but that doesn't mean it directs writing that way, or that it provides any control of writing - no more than blank sheets of paper direct writers to organize their writing in outlines. Direction and control come from wiki writers. A wiki gives writers a lot of novel possibilities - linking, embedding images, collective construction that draws on many minds. But writers new to wikis are unaware of these affordances - they aren't visible - and unsure how to use them and control them.

And so the need for a handbook and a rhetoric of wiki to provide ways of thinking about writing on a wiki, and to guide practices. To uncover the affordances. Writers will use whatever resources they have available to make meaning. But they need to be aware of the resources.

At its most general level, the handbook addresses how to use the resources and constraints of the wiki to support composition. It discusses familiar territory - invention, drafting, formatting, outlining, revising, editing - and discusses how to adapt and apply these to the newer space of a wiki.

But it also covers new, less familiar territory: topic naming, link text, multiple structures, DocumentMode, ThreadMode, and RefactoringPages ... and discusses how to use these effectively - to advantage - in composing. It addresses effective wiki-writing: adapting rhetorical moves and figures and tropes and styles to wiki composition and presentation. Wikis are not linear print documents; pages evolve constantly. And the drive to constant development, the characteristics of the web page, text elements, and the nature of the knowledge on a wiki make use of a different set of rhetorical moves than print.

Three instances: 1. A common trope is to draft and link two defining pages together, as in WhatAWikiIs and WhatAWikiIsNot. 2. Or, commonly, writers will leave a list of SeeAlso links Near the end of a page. 3. Or consider when it is rhetorically effective to leave a stub - an open link to a non-existing page - as a means to persuade a reader to add to the handbook, while suggesting the information on the page isn't complete.

Wiki writers have to learn strategies for
Typically, strategies are covered in the wiki's local StyleGuide, developed over time by wiki participants. The WikiWritingHanbook is an extension of the style guide. Style guides say what to do; the handbook also explains and examplifies how. The handbook addresses rhetorical strategies and practices can be generalized across wikis to the benefit of writers and readers both.

On refactoring: from Eric Richardson quoting Martin Fowler
While doing research for my book ttp://www.catb.org/esr/writings/taoup The Art of Unix Programming, I read one particular passage in Fowler's Refactoring that finally brought it all home. He writes:

One argument is that refactoring can be an alternative to up-front design. In this scenario, you don't do any design at all. You just code the first approach that comes into your head, get it working, and then refactor it into shape. Actually, this approach can work. I've seen people do this and come out with a very well-defined piece of software. Those who support Extreme Programming often are portrayed as advocating this approach.

Scaffolding: Some decisions about structure and style

To get the project moving, I needed to make some initial decisions about structure and style before opening the handbook up to student work. Not that the choices are frozen now that I made them, but that I had to define a starting point for the project. I want to court an attitude in the prose, and wanted to define a larger space to cover than traditional handbooks might, and to permit a different writing style - tone, range - than traditional handbooks. I needed to provide a formal and procedural scaffolding.

I developed the first table of contents, including pages that were already written, and stubs - topic names to pages that needed to be written. I also started to develop the CategoryWikiHandbook by assigning the category to pages that I suspected were or might be made fitting.

I developed some suggestions for writing in a style guide, and some example pages that illustrated the tone and gave permission to develop that tone and attitude further.

Now that this scaffold is up, students can get a sense of the range of what's possible. Now that I have a rough structure in shape, they can see places to enter, where the holes are, what they might want to develop further, what needs to be developed further. Students can be invited, and cajoled, into the project now. They still need to know that the handbook demands contradictory pages, and to where those contradictory pages might fit, they need explicit permission to make changes, and they need to get a sense of what's permissible on the wiki. While it is embedded in the Weblogs and Wikis Course, I am going to open it up to tech writing and other classes. And from here, I can devise exercises and projects that will either directly or indirectly supplement what we have.


Involving contributors

To get students started on the project each semester, I do need to structure and assign projects and encounters to prompt revision and additions. This isn't spontaneous for most students. It's work. The yearly class gives an ongoing opportunity to develop matters further.

The Social

Because of the public nature of the wiki writing space, the handbook and rhetoric of wiki addresses the social aspects of working on a text with others - both other creators as well as readers of work in progress.


I oversee the handbook, it is embedded in an academic course wiki, and it sits on my server. Those who contribute are students in a class.

Adapting clusters of pages

Much of the handbook can be adapted to situation, mainly by selecting particular pages and creating various to suit. I see this selection and annotating as part of what students do as producers: they arrange the materials, but also add to it when they see a gap, or option, or alternative. See Path Building below.

I see a lot of wiki projects, but also see that students and teachers still use wikis more as bins rather than webs. Linking, mainly internally, makes all the difference. One project, The Rhetorics of Rhythm, by Trey Conner, stands out.

And see Emboldened Linking: Growing Wiki-cology at PraxisWiki

The upshot of this composing-by-linking process and attendant effects (distribution of authorship, expanded classroom) for scholarly practice seems to us to involve, among other things, a greater promise for writing-with-students as a way to generate sustainable and ethical inquiry in and about digital ecologies of writing. Our narrative suggests that writing-via-linking in this way offers new models for digital composing/scholarship, and can shift and expand the purpose of narrative in composition scholarship.


The handbook continues to develop over time by revision and refactoring rather than aggregation. That's a strength. This is something we don't see in open source publish-to-print. Version flows into version, and we move towards history as we need to. That it's on my server and overseen by me gives the work some credibility, but the value comes only if it is used and how well the advice can be used.


One form embedding takes is linking handbook pages - info and advice - into student created and other pages. [Locate some examples of when and how this operates]

Matters of the commons, open source texts, and handbooks

Handbooks are our compositional commons. Handbooks are copyrighted, yes, but they really aren't original in content. More like scribal, or just post-Gutenberg, distro of common, accepted knowledge. That is, the ideas - the principles or rules (or Rules) or advice - tend to be in the public domain - in the commons. The Rules (Use a period to indicate the end of an independent clause), the processes (Writing proceeds from draft to final by way of revison) - aren't ownable - no one owns language in that way. In fact, the common knowledge of handbooks is valuable because it is common: it is shared, situational, contingent, and a common point of reference. So a handbook is a good candidate for engaging in an open source text. We're working on the commons.

 (image: http://erhetoric.org/wiki/images/Weblogs%20and%20Wikis%3A%20You%20are%20here.%20%5BX%5D.png)
Student generated page in current state is phrased as 3rd person and advisory. Here's how to find your way around the wiki. But there's also a stub to develop: BecomeACartographer. Map your own territory. That can be picked up and developed by another set of students. Contributors listed.

Use in course

While I started the handbook, it became clear that students could collectively contribute pages and refinements to it. And that means I can ask them to.

Students create new content

The idea is to create exercises that encourage students to create more materials.

Path building

Wikis allow multiple paths through content. So, we can structure the an index to encourage various paths through the pages.

How: Give a problem, then have students collect and order pages they need to refer to in order to address that problem. First in the order in which they confronted the pages, then in a revised order for efficiency. Then annotate or preface the path, add pages that might be necessary, add an image, make the path memorable.

One the way to construction, add pages that are necessary and/or revise pages that could be more effective. Refactor pages.

Yes: This is simply user development. But that's what produsage is all about


Good instruction is contextualized, and embedding the handbook contextualizes. Embedding contextualizes additions, development, and revisions for both me as a main author and student authors. The context here means both the large rhetorical climate in which the handbook is written, and the changing exigencies that we write to. Say a student or a class comes up with a new kind of linking, or a new page pattern. We can invent both the kind of linking and the handbook instruction for it at the same time, and let the matter develop further over time.

This way of working erases formal editions, of course.

This is not much different than how Wikipedia developed it style guides and authoring advice. That's a good model.

As produsage: Students slide easily from using the handbook to adding to it, changing it, remixing it into their own work. Or that's the hope. That should be the design, too.

I look at this project as a way of incorporating online help directly into the workspace, erasing that difference, or at least lowering the boundaries.

Gilad Ravid, Yoram M Kalman, Sheizaf argue that creating a wikitext empowers both students and teacher by distributing roles.

With wikis, we seem to be placing students in a social arrangement and in roles they may not be comfortable with, not willing to engage. Melissa Cole reports on failed attempt to have students create course content. Her speculation: we are asking students to work outside their expected and practiced educational behavior.

Revisit: Creating Value by Produsage (Bruns)

Now, looking at Bruns's four elements of produsage as pedagogical affordances of the project - affordances made possible by use of the wiki in this particular context - I see this:
 (image: http://erhetoric.org/wiki/images/Weblogs%20and%20Wikis%3A%20WikiWallflowers.png)
Student generated page on WikiWallflowers: that is writers who are reluctant to contribute. Written first person by a post-grad, with two lists and some sources. the page is on the toc, but needs to be refactored to be useful in the handbook: 3rd person, rephrased as advice rather than observations, the writer's concern about reluctance turned towards advice.

I would not have come up with this idea - but I can now refactor the page or assign it to other students to refactor - which is easier because the original writer is no longer in the class.

Questions of evaluation

Tentative answers

Used differently than paper text, so how might we measure effectiveness

For next time: Connection with PLEs

My interest in PLEs and informal learning are tweaked by the project. Handbooks have a longish history of being part of a print-centered PLE of reader, rhetoric, notebooks, and handbook. That is, many carry and refer to a handbook as they need it, as one source. It becomes part of just-in time-learning. A core element of a a digital PLE might be a handbook such as the one I have sketched out here.

IIncorporating next
Copyright has a number of built-in safeguards. The most important of these is that copyright only covers “original expression”—both the ideas and facts in this book can be used by anyone without my permission. Thus, goes the theory, the speaker’s freedom of expression is never truly restrained. The only thing I am barred from is using your words, your exact plot, your photograph, your music—not your facts, your ideas, your genre, the events you describe.

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