Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Teaching Creative Writing Using Wikipedia

This morning I am teaching a class for our first year module: An Introduction to Writing Creatively.

We've been discussing how to write and publish material online, using Wikipedia as a case study. 

The students have chosen a controversial topic, written their own version, have compared this with Wikipedia's version of the same topic and are now editing each other's work.

The topics they have chosen include: Sir Jimmy Savile, Same Sex Marriage in the UK, the Soham Murders, the Watergate Scandal, and Mormonism.

We're using this experience to generate a list of top issues that emerge when (1) Writing about controversy and (2) Editing each other's work.  Here is a summary of the topics they raised:

Issues related to Writing about Controversy:

  • How much can you rely on your reader's knowledge?
  • It's hard to stay neutral because the cases are very big and well publicised. This influences your opinion.
  • The reliability of 'experts' can be questionable.
  • It  is difficult not to give undue weight to particular aspects of a case (in terms of focus and sidelining other material)
  • You need an explanation of key terms: jargon can exclude fair representation of a topic.
  • Repetition can be difficult to avoid - and repetition can be dangerous because you can obscure details and repetition can be used as a rhetorical effect which sways audience response.
  • The publication or use of controverisal material might have long term implications (e.g. what if Maxine Carr's child found they were studying the Wikipedia article for the Soham murder in class?)
  • If you are quoting newspapers, how you contextualise these can vary in terms of how biased the citation might appear.
  • It's difficult to provide enough information for your audience without overwhelming them with detail.

Tips for editing a non-fictional account of a controversial event:

  • Don't overload the lead section with detail: include the key facts first.
  • Be careful about how you structure giving information: think about how sections can be used to organise definitions and topics, and give focus to the subject matter.
  • Make sure that the information is logical and chronological: that it does not jump around too much.
  • Make sure that the opening sentence makes the topic clear from the outset.
  • Use signposting judiciously to guide the reader
With thanks and acknowledgement to Rob, Jordan, Alyson, Lauren, Sarah and Charlotte.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Article on Counter narratives and Wikipedia

So I have been hopelessly, shamefully bad at posting to my blog.  I haven't fallen off the face of the earth, just really busy with lots of different things.  Here's an abstract for an essay I've just finished writing and is under review for a special issue of 'Language and Literature'. If you'd like to read the full draft, please email me.

Counter narratives and controversial crimes: The Wikipedia article for the ‘Murder of Meredith Kercher’
Narrative theorists have long recognised that narrative is a selective mode of representation. There is always more than one way to tell a story, which may alter according to its teller, audience and the social or historical context in which the story is told.  But multiple versions of the ‘same’ events are not always valued in the same way: some versions may become established as dominant accounts, whilst others may be marginalised or resist hegemony as counter narratives (Bamberg and Andrews, 2004).  This essay explores the potential of Wikipedia as a site for positioning counter and dominant narratives.  Through the analysis of linearity and tellership (Ochs and Capps, 2001) as exemplified through revisions of a particular article (‘The Murder of Meredith Kercher’), I show how structural choices (open versus closed sequences) and tellership (single versus multiple narrators) function as mechanisms to prioritise different dominant narratives over time and across different cultural contexts.  The case study points to the dynamic and relative nature of dominant and counter narratives.  In the ‘Murder of Meredith Kercher’ the counter narratives of the suspects’ guilt or innocence and their position as villains or victims depended on national context, and changed over time.  The changes in the macro-social narratives are charted in the micro-linguistic analysis of structure, citations and quoted speech in four selected versions of the article, taken from the English and Italian Wikipedias. 
I argue that site architecture of Wikipedia is structured in such a way to suppress or foreground narrative controversy in different ways.  The article’s front page is default view for readers where the dominant narrative is likely to be foregrounded and controversy is obscured.  In contrast, the talk pages document a meta-narrative of conflict between contributors as they negotiate which material might be included in the account.  Between the front page and the talk pages is a third, liminal narrative space: the revision pages of the article.  As the prior, but less visible versions of the ongoing narrative-in-progress, the archive allows the recovery of previous retellings, but always subordinates the polyphonic controversy of earlier retellings to the pages hidden behind the hegemonic, superficially unified narrative which is given precedence on the article’s main front page. In this way, Wikipedia is able to manage the tensions of controversial narration, simultaneously acknowledging that no single version of events can tell the ‘whole story’ of these controversial crimes (by allowing access to previous versions of the article), but giving primary position to the version of events most in keeping with Wikipedia’s own values of ‘Neutral Point of View’.