Collective Study

The Romantic Audience Project: A Wiki Experiment Table of Contents

Collective study

The super-author

Since wikis are networked and interactive, offering possible modifications of individual intention, it became interesting to think of RAP as having a collective author. This super-author might link to Keats more than to Shelley, say, or highlight more verbs in poems than adjectives, or decline to connect poems by women to poems by men.

In some ways the instructor shaped RAP's collective identity by issuing specific posting requirements, such as the weekly posting assignment. The weekly posting assignment, for example, designated certain poems for everyone in the class to comment upon, and required responses to peer entries. Even so, posting tendencies emerged that were worthwhile for the class to ponder and could be framed as the expression of a unique group of students, using a particular toolset at a particular time, working within a particular socio-economic setting. Looking at RAP together during class, we could consider the reasons that a given discussion attracted elaboration; a particular poem went unlinked; one poet attracted more biographical elaboration than another; a student entry was cited by several other students; etc.

There are other wiki engines out there that would have given us much more of a statistical breakdown of collective activity, but we had to abandon one such program due to coding instability. Still other wikis allow users to build up 'karma' that is awarded by other users, and thus occupy a more powerful, more representational position in the community, but we deemed this functionality inappropriate for RAP.

Novelty and profusion

The sheer novelty of the technology shaped class dynamics. Collectively, students could think of themselves as akin to the two generations of writers they were studying — likewise riding a wave of changes in publication and distribution, and likewise dependent on the (shifting) recognition of (unsettled) peers. Cooperation and reworked identity seemed natural reactions to a strange new world of networked writing. It was interesting to see students refer to each other by their user names on RAP — and even more striking to hear them do so in person, in the classroom.

On an obvious but fundamental level, RAP appears on computer screens and thus pushed the class as a whole towards forms that succeed in an electronic environment: shorter entries, graphical presentation, and what George Landow calls "orientation devices" (137). Students proved quite diligent in linking to entries that resonated or inspired or even contradicted their own, and they spent a considerable amount of time building extra anchor-links to back up citations of poems in the system. Order and attribution became group concerns.

Collectively, the class settled into rhythms reflective of web access and organization. RAP was never so alive as the night before a weekly posting assignment was due, when several students were often simultaneously logged in, sometimes responding to each other on the fly. Several of them wished for instant messaging functionality on RAP. These short posting assignments could snowball; not only could a given entry attract comment and elaboration, sometimes an author would wish to revise his own posting to reflect a point raised in class discussion. Such 'tending' of entries was allowed and encouraged, even as it qualified a sense of orginality.

As the term wore on, students authored significantly more than what was required of them. For instance, some students took over author pages devoted to individual poets who appealed to them, loading into RAP extra images, poetry, and biographical information (see RAP's John Clare page, or Mary Robinson page, or John Keats page). Many assigned postings spilled beyond a requisite 100-200 words, and comments on peer entries evolved into small essays. The constant visibility of the wiki seemed to encourage some amount of competition: the diligence of others was hard for students to ignore, easy to imitate. It may be a stretch to claim that RAP inculcated addiction as Jerome Christensen heralds it — see especially his chapter on "Using" in Romanticism at the End of History — but the project certainly benefited from new rhythms of digital media, the "revision of customary ways of doing things" (Christensen 179).

Cultivating collectivity

An atmosphere of collectivity was crucial to establish in order for RAP to succeed. Students had to feel that anyone had the authority to comment publicly on source text, each other's work, and perhaps even the instructor's own comments. Such an atmosphere was easier to inculcate in a poetry seminar, which lends itself to discussion, elaboration, interpretation. It would of course be more difficult to encourage open-ended revision in other pedagogical situations.

An interesting report by Mark Guzdial et. al. on disappointments in the classroom use of a wiki-like application at Georgia Tech ("When Collaboration Doesn't Work," 2002) attributes "active resistance" and "learned helplessness" among students to classroom contexts that were particularly unsupportive of collaboration. (Even in this negative sense, it is worth noting, a collaborative website fosters group reactions.) According to Guzdial et. al., elements that snuff out collaboration include an atmosphere of competition, rote learning, and single-answer problems. Their report focuses on engineering and computer science classes led by faculty who valued facts and individual skills more than group interchange. Success with a wiki-like tool, the report concludes, depends on "a high value placed on discussion.... [W]hen there is more than one answer to a question, it’s easier to collaborate" (5).

Such conclusions suggest that RAP could only have benefited a group that was willing to think of itself as banded together. Approaching the subject area as confederates, students had to regard it as open and adaptable to the full extent of their collective interpretation. This is not to suggest that RAP exerted no pressure on those who were building it. As even the most whimsical, careless, or erroneous posting reflected poorly on the class as a whole, a communal obligation compelled solid, useful work within the context of unfolding discussion.


FIG. 1 — A student, "jperez." edits a comment on Keats's famous line posted by another student, "cgurall" (above)...which in turn attracts a comment from a third student, "rfenning."
[Enlarged image and live page link]


FIG. 2 — A student's discussion of Felicia Hemans's merits as a poet attracts profuse comments from three of her peers.
[Enlarged image and live page link]