Emboldened Linking: Growing Wiki-cology
Contributors: Trey Conner, John Monroe, Emery R. Skolfield
School Affiliation: University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and Penn State University
Email:firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
So-called "trench tales" and sustained reflection on student writing has always been a hallmark of composition scholarship, and it is in this tradition that we offer a reflection/composition on the ways that wiki technology alters scholarly composition practices.
One of the key features of Wiki technology is that it allows students to create compositional scenes by making and breaking links, and in order to understand and teach writing in these contexts, composition teachers must participate in the linking-based writing process. Although it proceeds circuitously, the Brownian motion of linking can be entrained to traditional and purposive methods of inventing, arranging, and delivering arguments. In other words, the combined work of wiki-spaces and wiki-authors (through linking) can be said to produce "scholarship". However, when we say this, we must also ask, "how does our understanding of scholarship change in wiki-space, where writer-audience distinctions collapse in ways that promote distributed and clustered composing strategies?" In wiki, students and teachers can experience networked, multimedia and multi-person ideation and composition, together. How do these spaces fit in (or not) to our conceptions of scholarly writing? In what follows, three writers will narrate a few of the more noticeable effects that our deliberately-scripted, scrupulously-performed, consistent focus on linking had on our compositional practice and our understanding of a scholarly practice that would report on writing-by-linking. Wiki technology furnished by pbwiki facilitated linking within-and, once emboldened, between--our composition classrooms. At the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, in the Fall of 2006, English major Emery Skolfield enrolled in a Technical Writing class, and English major John Monroe enrolled in an an Advanced Composition class – both classes were designed and taught by http://courselinker.pbwiki.com/TreyBio Trey Conner, a first-year professor who had, along with http://biotelemetrica.pbwiki.com/DoyleBio Rich Doyle, incubated and piloted this "wikidelic" model pedagogy in composition classrooms at Penn State University. We (Trey, John, and Emery) offer this wiki text as an example of linked, connected writing (and the processes that build it), while at the same time acknowledging the ways that such writing disrupts or just plain refuses some of the rules and logics of scholarly writing as we currently understand it in composition studies.
At first, USF St. Pete students responded to this pedagogy, and the wiki technology instrumental to its design, with varying degrees of skepticism, apparently fearful to take leave of their expectations and move out from their private content management systems into public, open-access spaces of review and revision. In this participatory, rhythmic entrainment design, wiki functioned like a spatial/analytical analogue to a musical process of finding and losing rhythm. In our wiki scene, the jazz ensemble becomes paradigm and template for compositional practice. This means that communication practices emphasizing the semantic dimension of writing had to make room for and go into balance with [asignifying] "commons formation" practices, both in class and on our wikis. A small band of writers can create multivalent and multiple-voiced texts by simply dwelling in the dissonance and stagnation that arrives on and interrupts a "crowded" composing itinerary. Composing a focused argument or deciding upon an audience-friendly sequence on your own in one thing, but writing rhetorically as a band means each player must learn how to put aside assumptions about the purpose and scope of writing. When the wiki begins to hasten the tempo and alter the space of writing, participants proceed by communicating in ways that will bring rhythm out of chaotic premise-sharing exercises. In order to resonate with clusters of writers working both together and against each other, the teachers needed to write with students in this rhetorical scene. As a result, the standard practice of instructor-grades-student gave way to a lottery of remix exercises which then informed an open, peer-calibrated, peer-graded method of quantifying rhetorical performances. No longer concerned with tailoring appeals to an imagined grader figure, student-teachers set their sights on more meaningful directions and outcomes for their writing. Gradually, they became symbiotic residents of a commons, pooling their collective and diverse skills and passions to nurture, in a matter of hours, a more participatory audience-based relationship that accelerated the timing of conventional pen-and-paper communication. But more importantly, unexpected problems and solutions in writing were created. In the USF experiments, we learned that it's easier to write distributively than to write alone if you are trying to learn and teach these emergent compositional strategies. Learning required a different practice and pedagogy than evaluation and judgment of writing. The linking and attendant affect that wiki brought to our process dramatically altered the psychology and process of finding, inventing, proposing, and creating scholarship addressing how we assess and evaluate compositional swarms.
There's something "Wolfram-like" about wiki, which has proven, so far, to be irreducible; that is, you can't reduce what wiki is to any algorithm shorter than itself - or at least, no one has found a way, yet. Making links is simple, but no simple theory accounts for or can guide these processes: and so in our way of wikiing, we make and break links. Rhetorical choices proliferate, and comments that would fit neatly in the margins expand when they are mixed into this medium. When John and Emery, representing two different "scenes" that nonetheless shared a practice, both enrolled in an expository writing class modeled after 'zine culture, they began to share common wiki experiences and compare differences in ways that made it easier for their peers to adopt the linking-based pedagogy common to the linking-based courses Trey designs. When John, who adopted the writer-as-programmer approach in the Fall Advanced Composition course, and Emery, who at the same time led an inquiry into the Pinellas County School Choice Program in the Fall Technical Writing class, actually linked up in the Spring 'Zine Culture class, the wikidelic/linking culture was immediately more palatable to the uninitiated. In short, the John-Emery connection significantly shortened the installation algorithm, which created more time, and gave us an opportunity to create links between different courses or "scenes"-this time, before semester's end.
Once things got going in the Spring 'Zine Culture class, John and Emery experimented even further with http://enc3310zine.pbwiki.com/NarrativeNook real-time collaborative writing, hopscotching through chat clients, class discussions, and wiki work, creating and modeling writing exercises with loose ground rules. The games were simple and fashioned after [apart-playing]; basically, taking turns. For example, Emery and John wrote a collaborative piece that tested their presuppositions about what semiotician Scott McCloud calls the gutter. The first writer opened with a paragraph and shared it with the other, allowing for four (or five or six) minutes of response and expansion. Volleying back and forth, the students invented and refined just-in-time rhetorical sequences on the Web. The exercise lasted one hour and twenty-two minutes, and produced 724 words of contagious, compelling narrative. Rich and Trey, reflecting these and other wikidelic effects while writing with their Spring course wiki communities, decided to allow their own linking habits, in their wiki writing, to freely establish, when appropriate, direct connections across and between their course wikis - Metaprogramming Societies of Control at Penn State and 'Zine Culture and Rhetorics of Rhythm at USF St. Pete. Within two days, Emery and John's micro-deadline collaboration attracted feedback from a student in Rich's class at Penn State, and the expansion of the commons became evident. Although Emery and John's compositional experiment was not as purposive or deliberate as Rich and Trey's cross-course linking, this bit of feedback emboldened students and instructors alike, solidifying our intuitions about cluster-composing, and impelling us to go further with this approach.
Like Napster, Limewire, del.icio.us, and YouTube, emboldened wiki-linking emphasizes the fact that when we compose digitally, we compose on a Commons surface. In p2p clients you can see what is being downloaded from your computer, as it happens, and this shows you that your are in a commons. Wheras filesharing emphasizes the art of selection, wiki-linking facilitates rehearsal in mixing and "banding" together. Different strands of argument can "go parallel" and then become folded back together again, recursively, and this brings writers together and provides space to unpack presuppositions. Linking creates the topology necessary for writers to teach each other and build on, in text, what peer-to-peer software makes plain: not only does writing happen online, it happens in common online. In this way, wiki is a resonance technology like Napster or Limewire, but without the file swapping, and with increased emphasis on, and ability to record, the prosaic and discursive elements that emerge wherever ideas are shared.
Wiki lets university teachers work with students beginning with this thing that all writers, with diverse experiences and divergent ambitions, all know how to do, or can easily and quickly learn to by committing to linking-share. Linking performances amount to direct and indirect sharing-whether it be preferences, premises, skills, or simply a gutter for a collaborator to "fill," directly and indirectly-provides rehearsal and training in distributed rhetorical practice. Bringing this practice into the classroom created a space for anticipating and rehearsing conditions of writing in the workplace, and for performing and experiencing the routines that drive scientific and technology inquiry and knowledge production today, at any time.
And yet, at the same time, this knack for sharing doesn't always jive with the sort of subjectivity the university solicits from students, and creates more questions than answers about the future of commons - formation in classroom contexts and for sharing scholarly work in forums beyond wiki. In the 'Zine Class, we had occasion to wonder what a collection of wiki-produced 'zines about different compositional scenes, bound together as journal, might look like!
Linking is Musical...and Noisy!
Emphasis on linking also allows the common wiki medium to take on and connect diverse modes of composition. For example, linking our wikis to Freesound-an experiment in musical territories of production where users make connections using shards of sound--allowed us to work sonic elements into our repetitious linking itineraries. Freesound users share swatches of sound, making them stream-able, downloadable, and available for tagging, description, discussion, and composition. The fundamental units are rhythmic: these swatches are not offered as "files," songs, or composed products for sale or analysis. At Freesound, it's not filesharing, it's pattern sharing, and Freesound is explicit about this in its selection criteria. What Freesound is selecting for is this part that can't be owned, and fragments of "un-composed" sonic elements are made shareable in a database, not so much for ownership as for entrainment. At first, Freesound provides occasion for participants to experience and rehearse traditional and emergent citational modes in a digital medium, and learn about copyright law and copyleft alternatives. Even before considering such rhetorical choices, Freesound introduced many in our commons to tabbed browsing, a simple browser feature that more experienced browsers took for granted until wiki enabled heightened and more managable parataxis of reading and composing processes. More important and difficult to describe, however, were the indirect effects on authoring that sound brought to the mix and to the scholarly outcomes we proposed for our final projects. After mixing tabbed browsing and Freesound by means of wiki, we were able to explore the dynamics of nonsemantic linking in a direct way, in the course of inventing, elaborating, and arranging our claims and proofs. Sound's powerful means for altering mood and consciousness made it possible to learn rhetorical modes of commons-formation in our shared space of writing, modes that require a capacity for dwelling in dissonance, for stopping, and for changing directions, as a group.
Using rhythm as our guide, the 'Zine Culture class arrived at a full-scale collaboration exercise in an informal writing exercise about the Starbucks corporation. This was an all-hands-on-deck composition that was systematically refined, by means of linking, and then collapsing divergent developmental pathways back onto single wiki pages. This project grew (and grew and grew). Various ideologies emerged, and a research paper hatched as clashing and complementary presentation styles were woven together through wiki, in-class discussion and writing sessions. Impassioned contributors provided links and fed off each other's offerings, the dialogue veering slightly off topic - to definitional work on the term "green" as it relates to environmental friendliness - and back on topic. All students, business-minded and rhetorically-focused, alike, weighed in. In the 'Zine class, this spontaneous and in-class process carried over to our long-term projects, and each student contributed to each group project. Indeed, this emboldend linking practice dramatically altered where our 'Zine Culture class focused its collective efforts. Although we divided into small bands earlier in the semester, the emboldened approach to linking at times brought the entire class together as one compositional unit, as links and real-time exercises in class and in campus computer labs led us all to compose our best work as a large cluster working on a single project (for example, a 'zine project focusing on the genocide in Darfur. Furthermore, this galvanization is repeatable, and now, with refinement and planning, each student could cultivate different skills by writing for and performing different roles for in different projects. This gift-economics has even extended beyond the class: as we design and fold together our final projects for the course, the 'Zine Culture class will also do a "fit and finish" for the first print publication of the Tampa Bay Writers Network. We could anticipate the effects of linking when we came together on the Starbucks exercise, but after a semester of emboldened linking, those effects registered palpably.
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.