By Mary Thomas, Part-time Instructor of English

December 23, 2008, days after final grades were posted, some of my English 103 students were still revising their documentaries on our class wiki. They taught me to appreciate the effects of the wider electronic audience available through wikis.

Last spring, Dr. Joe Essid introduced English 103 faculty to wikis. Summer University of Richmond workshops about electronic publishing and various Web 2.0 resources followed. Hands-on wiki-training took place during an English 103 wiki-workshop with Dr. Essid before classes began.

When classes did begin, my students and I talked about Web 2.0 technology and its rhetorical implications for writing and writers. Among them were (1) the use of video and audio files to create more dimensions and texture and (2) the greater audience who might access their work through Web search engines like Google.  

My students were then assigned a researched documentary, composed of images and words, about some aspect of a person’s life. They looked for themes about their subjects’ “human actuality,” a term coined by James Agee, who with photographer Walker Evans, created Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, generally recognized as the first documentary. Most chose public figures—like the artist Pablo Picasso or baseball player Honus Wagner—for their subjects; a few chose to write about friends or family. Their documentaries had to be revised at least twice and published on our class wiki. 

Near the end of the semester, many students told me that they were returning to their already wiki-published and graded documentaries because they felt responsible for how their work would be perceived by the wider electronic audience. This responsibility went beyond pride in their writing or final grade. It didn’t surprise me; it amplified and confirmed how a larger, real audience—in the past created through class workshops—affects students’ rhetorical sensibilities. What did surprise me was this: students assumed even greater ownership of their work because of a perceived responsibility to their documentary subjects. I began to see it as a kind of ethical and moral responsibility for not only accuracy of facts but also intelligent and sensitive interpretation of those facts to represent another person’s life. 

This ownership wasn’t apparent in all my students’ work; however, I saw it often enough that the use of wikis in my classroom will continue to benefit, interest and instruct both students and teacher.