When I ask students how they should use Wikipedia, they are quick to say “not at all” or “as a starting place, but only for the references.” Rarely are they invited to consider Wikipedia as a critical object of study or as a vibrant space of cultural consensus and communication. Even more rarely are they asked to see themselves as authoritative contributors to that space of knowledge production. And yet Wikipedia is the 5th largest website in the world and the 6th most popular platform on the web after search engines and Facebook. Instead of encouraging students to engage critically with what is the largest crowd-sourcing knowledge production project on the planet, we relegate Wikipedia to a restricted tool and focus our instruction on the research paper—an assignment which bears little resemblance to any other kind of academic or life writing that students may encounter. We teach the research paper because of the skills the students learn while writing it such as database research, source evaluation, citation methods, and integrating sources among many others. And yet recent pedagogical praxis suggests that offering students the opportunity to express their research in alternative ways can result in better research and better writing. This paper examines the potential of composing in Wikipedia as an alternative to the formal research paper for introductory composition classes. In researching and writing for Wikipedia, students learn all of the traditional research skills as well as: locating content gaps, tracing citations forward and backward, collaborating in groups, communicating with external reviewers, and how to write for what is potentially a transnational audience. I argue that changing the parameters of the research project changes the entire research and writing process to the benefit of students. Where better to teach them how to successfully paraphrase without plagiarizing than in a medium with real-world intellectual property implications? Where better to explore the research and knowledge production processes than in a space that is dynamic, multi-authored, and subject to a myriad of external factors? in this paper I share some of the outcomes of my own experiments with Wikipedia as an alternate research assignment as well as emerging scholarship on alternatives to the research paper.
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