Making Class Wikis vs. Thinking in Wiki

In general I describe myself as a blogger, partially because my work title (Director of Blended and Networked Learning) just leads to too many questions, and partially because it ties together some experiences I’ve had over the past decade or so. Blogger is not quite accurate even there — the work I did with Blue Hampshire was technically more about running a pretty volatile online community than blogging, but it’s good enough description most days, even if blogging consumes only 20 or so minutes a day.

The other reason I describe myself as a blogger, though, is that after you blog for a while, you start “thinking in blog”. Your mind is writing blog posts everywhere, constantly trying to synthesize new experience into a meaningful blend of narrative and exposition. It changes you, mostly for the better.

I can’t find the reference now, but I read something recently that argued that the difference between the way a botanist looks at a flower and the way a layperson does is that the botanist looks at the flower with a question. And the point the person was making is when you write every day you start to look at everything with a question. In a way, daily writing defamiliarizes the world to you and makes it more difficult, because thoughts must be reconstructed for others who do not have reference to your experience or share your dispositions.

That said, however, different forms accomplish this in different ways, and are suited to different sorts of things. Blogging is a great tool in that it pushes you to see posts as steps in a journey to a current (and future) understanding. You link to past posts. You watch your thinking evolve. It also places you into a conversation with other bloggers, so that you understand how your conceptions map on to a larger communal consensus or disagreement. I could go on, but you get the point: the reverse-chronology structure of blogging combined with trackbacks, comments, blogrolls, and RSS pushes us to see knowledge in a certain way.

It’s been interesting playing with wiki the past few months, because what I’ve realized is that while I’ve used wikis (and taught with wikis) I’ve seldom *thought* in wikis.

As a simple example, I’ve done stuff with TV Tropes before. In TV Tropes you give certain tropes (repeated conventions) names, for instance Incredibly Obvious Bomb. Over time this library builds up to where many scenes in movies can be quickly analyzed with these ideas. You remember, for instance, the scene in Casablanca where the Jerk With a Heart of Gold makes an Iconic Song Request of his Black Best Friend?

If that seems silly, it’s not. Not in the least. By “chunking” large, complex observations and histories into terms and pages you make it possible for people to see patterns that would otherwise be invisible. The fact is, you’ll find that Jerks With a Heart of Gold tend to make a *lot* of Iconic Song Requests. That’s kind of interesting, right? It may be even more interesting that Jerks With a Heart of Gold often have Black Best Friends in a bizarre (and racist) form of Pet the Dog.

What’s Pet the Dog? Pet the Dog is another nexus of ideas. Here’s a snippet of that page:

This term was coined by cynical screenwriters, basically meaning: show the nasty old crank petting a dog, and you show the audience, aw shucks, he’s all right after all. Often used to demonstrate that a Jerkass is really a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, or, if more limited, that the character is goal oriented rather than sadistic and/or thoroughly evil. If used as an Establishing Character Moment then you skip right past the jerkass phase. Of course, this doesn’t mean specifically petting a cute animal, but any sign of nobility within a morally ambiguous character.

Sub Tropes include Photo Op With The DogEven Bad Men Love Their MamasMorality Pet (a character’s entire relationship with a villain is one long Pet the Dog moment), andAndrocles Lion (where the dog would later reward the one who petted him/her).

Now you can ask a meaningful question — to what extent is having a Black Best Friend in a film an instance (or non-instance) of Pet the Dog. Does that change over time? That’s a question in a simple sentence that as complex as any cultural studies article abstract, but rather than being established through a specialized jargon that implicitly references certain touchstone works it accomplishes the same density of meaning through simple parts well connected.

So here’s the thing — I’ve known this is the point of much wiki when reading things like TV Tropes. But I’ve never made use of it when running a class wiki (or co-designing a wiki with an instructor for a class). We’ve sat down and written encyclopedias, collaborative class notes, community resource mapping sites — all of which are excellent uses of wiki.

But we’ve never asked the class to develop a new language in the study of a subject, or to extend an old one. Instead, we gravitate to more traditional modes of academic production, but wikified.

Does anyone have examples of a class producing their *own* analytical language through wiki, TV Tropes style? If you do, can you share links in the comments?

8 thoughts on “Making Class Wikis vs. Thinking in Wiki

  1. The idea of our routines influencing our thought processes is so compelling. I’m a teacher and I often catch myself reading a book and getting distracted by thinking about how I would present that material to students. But distracted in a good way. As the article points out, this makes our experience deeper and more thoughtful.

    I’m intrigued by the question about wiki-thought and look forward to others’ experiences.

  2. Great post, Mike! You probably already know about the Periodic Table of Storytelling: that structures TV Tropes in an interesting way.

    Elements can be combined into simple story “molecules”.

    Elijah Meeks, Digital Humanities Specialist at Stanford, has done some visualizations of TV Tropes:

  3. Martin Fowler does this type of thing for patterns in software engineering: Interestingly, he calls this a Bliki (blog+wiki, Ward Cunningham’s term), discussed here:

    There’s a movement of academic research wikis, which I took part in heavily though I only lasted a year in academia. I always struggled with how to format the wiki. I’d go so far as to claim it’s impossible to coherently organize a wiki when you’re in the process of learning and forming the knowledge of a field. Nevertheless it was great as a store of knowledge, and I even turned the homepage into a sort of about me/productivity tracker:

    I also worked at a startup ( that took the wiki language exploiting to an extreme: on Wikipedia where every topic is a link, we used it for generating topic relationships, terminology lists, and quizzes.

    Recently I found some enlightenment with DEVONthink: I don’t actually need to do a lot of manual tagging/naming/classifying stuff because computers are pretty good at NLP. See I’ve already used it to enhance my blogging; it’d be interested to use in whether it could be used to help establish wiki pages.

  4. I suspect the reference to writing changing the way you live was from James Somers:

    I don’t have any examples of a “class producing their *own* analytical language through wiki”, my own experience was more of a producing a language verbally over time in a research lab, that was somewhat documented via a wiki. I realize that is much different than what you are advocating here 🙂

  5. I think the Key benefit of wiki is breaking up pages into small cross-linked chunks.

    I believe the best way to make such a process natural is to use SmashedTogetherWords instead of brackets, because that reinforces the idea of that compound phrase being a more concrete Thing (portmanteau? neologism?) to build on.

    Unfortunately, the forces of ease-of-adoption (new users find SmashedTogetherWords to “look weird”) have made the bracket style more common.

    One of my WikiLog pages that covers this is:

    • That’s a great point, Bill. I think the compromise position has been square bracket with title case capitalization, which I kind of like. So you write sentences like “Sending errors to console.log can be seen as a failure to [[Break Loudly]], but is often merited by security concerns. Etc. Etc.

      I’ll take a look at the article.

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