Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Naturally-Selected Narrative: Darwin's Aesthetic Directive

…Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.

- Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species (40)

In On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin methodically decentralizes the individual, reframing him within the scope of species. Each individual serves only as a contribution in the chain of existence. If an anomaly appears in the chain, it is wiped out in the next wave of death and reproduction. Only through agreement of the masses can change be effected; only through an abundance of anomalies over an abundance of time can the once-unique characteristic develop into a new variety.

Darwin’s is an aesthetic of the aggregate. The theory of Natural Selection systematically devalues the singular, in terms of that single beetle or blade of grass. However, Darwin faced the problem of how to narrate the story of a group to a readership steeped in individualism. In order to pitch such a difficult idea to his reading public, Darwin borrows from novelistic tradition the singular glorified hero. Though the individual plays no part in Darwin’s theory, he dramatizes the phylogenic history of an entire species (successful or extinct) through an individual. “[E]ach organic being,” Darwin explains dramatically to his reader (using the singular), “has to struggle for life, and to suffer great destruction” (50). The reader imagines again that “humblest parasite” (39) struggling through the English garden, gallantly taking on the world, unencumbered by hubris. Anticipating again his novel-reading audience’s need for a happy ending, he goes on: “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply” (50). Like a Victorian novel, twists and turns, murders and misdeeds, death and violence all lead to an incongruously happy ending––marriage and baby, surviving and multiplying.

Slow evolution over millions of years hardly makes for a gripping story; as a narrator, Darwin compresses deep time into a battlefield moment, where the “war of nature” kills “prompt[ly].” Darwin narrates Natural Selection as a battle of individuals, (anticipating modern visions of social Darwinism), but his story is, in fact, one of group survival, utterly unconcerned with the singular travails of that “humblest parasite.” A manipulative storyteller who understands the egocentrism of his readers, Darwin uses the drama of individual survival to draw in the audience.

Darwin’s is an aesthetic of sameness. To see the history of life in deep time, as Darwin does, is to see each single member of a species as just a grainy copy of all the others. In a world of copies, unique individuals no longer exist; they either perish completely or they are one in a multitude, moving “towards perfection” (307). The unique, a synonym for anomalous and the Romantic view of the distinct character of every soul, does not exist. Over time, and over space, each individual’s life story vanishes in the face of the story of species.

A novel that appeared in the same year as The Origin of Species also tells the story of group survival veiled in individual drama. The first serial installment of Wilke Collins’s The Woman in White appeared on November 26 of 1859, just two days after Darwin’s bestseller was released. As in the “war of nature,” the characters of Collins’s novel transgress social and moral boundaries, commit murders, and manipulate others, yet, in the end, “the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.” Against all odds, “the Heir of Limmeridge” (Collins 643) is born to the happy triumvirate, Walter, Laura, and Marian and the group flourishes. An orthographic (and near-genetic) copy of Walter Hartright, the newborn bears his father’s name in promotion of the community and of sameness. The redundancy of the heir’s name reinforces Darwin’s proposition that not only does the group ensure survival, their lack of individuality does, too.

In Collins’s narrative world, as in Darwin’s Nature, the unique life, while interesting, is cut short. In addition to promoting the aggregate, Collins’s novel promotes sameness. Whereas Count Fosco, an unmistakable character whose mere description serves to identify him to strangers (“I remember him, sir!” says the fly driver; “The fattest gentleman as ever I see” [630]), perishes regardless of his bodily strength, Laura Fairlie, who is so without individuality that her identity is easily mistaken, survives regardless of her frailty of body. A different kind of power dynamic dominates the novel. It disregards singular strength and punishes uniqueness. It is the structure of Natural Selection.

In the face of a restriction on both the singular and the unique, it follows that the artist, who legitimizes individual imagination, is put into jeopardy. Romanticism boasted of the artist’s ability to communicate a universal experience, proving that man’s creations are a true expression of his unique sentiments. However, if the new order of narrative and natural survival leaves only the unoriginal standing, the Romantic poet must fall into the ranks of the extinct. The Woman in White, a narrative embodiment of Darwin’s skeptical view of a singular Creator, adapts to the new order. Because a story of an individual is as intricate as that of a species, because ontogeny has as many missing links and dead ends as phylogeny, singular omniscience and unique individuals become impossibilities. In his novel, Collins mocks those who claim omniscience, as Darwin mocks man’s attempt to best nature in his selection of species and God’s attempt at creative perfection. To both storytellers the narrative rests not in man’s labored creation but in external evidence and natural selection, from which story emerges. Through character, content, and form Collins rejects the novelistic singular in favor of the naturalistic plural, the unique in favor of the copy, and omniscience in favor of corroboration. Ultimately, the aesthetic system of The Woman in White follows the scientific system in On the Origin of Species, taking Darwin’s suggestion that art function more like the works of Nature.

The works of man and the works of nature

The same zeitgeist of scientific exploration that led to Darwin’s Origin of Species influenced the arts towards to emulate the works of nature (This may not actually be true. --AG). At the heels of Romanticism and its projection of human feeling onto nature, Collins does just the opposite, projecting nature’s brutality onto the workings of mankind. Curiously, Darwin and Collins alike compare the works of man and the works of nature as two separate modes of creation, rather than considering man an element of nature. Though the later publication of The Descent of Man applies natural selection to man, On the Origin of Species attempts to keep the two separate. The opposition of the works of man and those of nature ensures that man and nature were seen as competitors at the time of writing, and therefore can now be fairly judged against one another, even though the comparison seems to run contrary to logic.

Darwin forces his readers to measure the works of Nature against the works of man through implication. The opposition between man and Nature is implied in the title of his work: the modifier by Means of Natural Selection tacitly constructs an opposition between Natural and “human.” Since the act of selection requires evaluation and projection, it requires intelligence. Man may select a course of action or a necktie based on his options and his goals. The term “Natural Selection” gives Nature the same agency as man. Likewise, Darwin draws man and Nature into confrontation in his chapter headings. Following the first chapter “Variation under Domestication,” which casts man as a central character, is “Variation under Nature,” a passing of the narrative baton that holds dispute under formal cohesion. Ultimately, the parallel structure of the chapter titles and their opposing content ensures Darwin’s intended comparison. The superiority of Natural Selection to man’s efforts in breeding (dogs, pigeons) forms the basis of the comparison for Darwin.

Darwin insults man’s efforts outright, a tone of pity in his words for the inadequacy of man’s creations. In his chapter introducing Natural Selection, Darwin explains why he frames his work within the context of the Domestic Selection: "Man can act only on external and visible characters … [Nature] can act on every internal organ … Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends. … [Man] does not allow the most vigorous males to struggle for the females. He does not rigidly destroy all inferior animals … He often begins his selection by some half-monstrous form" (53). Here, the writer lists everything man does wrong and nature does right. Halfway through the paragraph, the syntax shifts from stating what man does to simply stating what he does not do, allowing the reader to tacitly assume that each of man’s actions are missteps. At the end of his list, Darwin laments the state of man: “How fleeting are the wishes and efforts of man! how short his time! and consequently how poor will his products be, compared with those accumulated by nature” (53). Aside from making for an exciting read, the use of exclamation points and elevated language (particularly “fleeting”) evokes a sense of both pity and inevitability, as if man’s creations were as doomed to failure as Oedipus Rex. While Darwin clearly states the superiority of the “products” of Nature over those of man, it is unclear whether or not he thinks man can learn from the products of Nature. Surely, he explains the ‘dos and don’ts’ of selection; perhaps this suggests man can use the laws of Natural Selection to improve his own Domestic Selection, at least superficially.

To push Darwin’s critique further, man’s “products,” which above refers to domestic varieties, can be extended to include man’s creative products––art, literature, and other acts of creation. Since Darwin equally calls the works of the divine Creator into question, it is only natural that he should also question the works of earthly creators.

Additionally, Darwin explicitly links breeding to the fine arts, completing the comparison: “Natural Selection as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art” (40). If “the works of Nature” are so superior to “those of Art,” perhaps artists, like breeders, can learn from Nature to adapt. Collins does so in The Woman in White when his narrative takes up the patterns of Natural Selection.

The Problem of Creation

In his writing, Darwin poses a problem to creators of all kinds: if God’s creations are imperfect, man’s must be even more so. For Darwin, Nature begins as only a handful of imperfect forms created by God, that then “progress towards perfection” (307); that is, they evolve. If nature can improve endlessly upon the work of a singular divine Creator, how can man, a much less skillful creator, attempt perfection in art? Even when listing man’s poor choices in domestic selection, Darwin all but orders man to end his efforts and give over his work to the more accomplished breeder. How, then, can creation go on in a climate of anti-creationism?

In fiction, the skillful hand of the creator ensures the success of his creations. While Collins has carefully constructed his some few characters, he removes the creator from his narrative altogether. Collins simultaneously gains praise for creating believable characters while shifting the narrative responsibility to those characters, removing all artistry tied to the creator himself. Collins seems more like a scientist, gathering samples and specimens––examining the behaviors of species and gathering their bones. Thus, he effectively dodges the accusation of flawed creator, allowing the collected first-person and documentary narratives of his novel to govern themselves.

With the foundations for comparing Collins’s narrative to Darwin’s description of Natural Selection in place, the argument will proceed to describe Collins’s novel as a movement away from a focus on the singular hero, his unique disposition, and an omniscient narration in favor of the heroic ensemble, their general monotony, and the testimonial narration, all of which contribute to creating the aesthetic of Natural Selection.

The Absence of the Hero

Like Darwin’s own narrative in On the Origin of Species, The Woman in White is a group story paraded as that of an individual. Collins’s characters run counter to the typical heroes and heroines of the recently popular sentimental novel, unique individuals with stories to tell and sympathy to stir. Humanist protagonists lead bildungsroman existences centered on their individual struggles and triumphs. In turn, the typical novelistic narration follows that individual in omniscience, through her own voice or an outside narrator. Regardless of the point of view, the focus of the story remains the same: the individual, illustrated in all her glory, loving and losing in the human tradition. The specificity of her story, in its emotional and psychological extremes, allows the reader to identify with the protagonist, seeing in her a reflection of the reader and, by extension, a blueprint of all humanity.

No such singular hero exists in The Woman in White. Often the title character is most obviously the hero, but Anne Catherick, who the reader knows to be the Woman in White, is manipulated, used as a body double, and accidentally killed. Perhaps then, the reader thinks, her double is the hero and the title truly refers to Laura Fairlie. Contrary to the reader’s expectations, Laura lacks agency, leaving her, like the Woman in White, a pawn to be manipulated by some and saved by others. Marian Halcolme, while noble, decisive, and a key player in the plot to save Laura, is perhaps too guided by others to be the hero. Always an accessory to the crime, and always working for the survival of her half-sister, Marian would seem the archetypal sidekick, the second most likely hero. She even exhibits heroic change: over the course of the novel, Marian undergoes an apotheosis from the “ugly” (31) who, passed through the crucible of housework (441), becomes the “good angel of our lives” (643). If any hero exists, then it would be the character who notes the change in Marian and serves as a consistent link to the reader throughout the story.

Walter Hartright, then, could be seen as Collins’s unique individual, the coming-of-age hero who matures from wistful drawing master to determined leader and schemer. Love changes him, sympathy touches him, death scrapes by him, and dreams haunt him. His fits the external description of individuality: a tormented man, heroic in his commonness, touched by fellow feeling. He even occasionally addresses the reader as a narrator. “This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve,” (5) he begins. Hartright’s first line opens his testimony as a “story”; he sets up the romantic intrigue between “Woman” and “Man”, and he generally peaks the reader’s interest. Shortly, however, Hartright reveals his simultaneous position as socially conscious narrator, thereby uprooting his singularity as the hero figure. By consciously deflecting the narrative to the group, Walter shifts the story from one of his own life to one of the society around him. Hartright explains the format in objective terms: "When the writer of these introductory lines (Walter Hartright, by name) happens to be more closely connected than others with the incidents to be recorded, he will describe them in his own person. When his experience fails, he will retire from the position of narrator" (5). The implication that Walter’s experience does “fail” (for it is a “when,” not an “if”), leaves him powerless to tell a story alone. The individual, as well as the individual creation, must rely on others to “succeed,” when the singular fails.

The Group as Hero

In accordance with Walter’s deflected narration and Marian’s selfless motives, no individual hero exists but that of the group itself. Like Darwin’s dramatic narration of natural selection, that story of the masses through the norms of the individual hero, Collins’s collation of Laura, Marian, and Walter makes them function, in their multiplicity, as the novel’s hero. Living in domesticity “in the far East of London” (440) the group works like a pack, thinking and feeling as one. Having lived closely at Limmeridge, once they reunite in London, the threesome has already experienced pack mentality: “Living in such intimacy as ours,” Hartright explains, “no serious alteration could take place in any one of us which did not sympathetically affect the others” (66). Forming early in the novel, the multiplicitous hero suffers the trials of separation, identity confusion, and eventual affirmation through the birth of their heir, Walter Hartright.

Yet the mere formation of a cohesive pack does not ensure survival: antagonists also use the network of the pack to achieve their goals. Count Fosco, the alpha-antagonist uses his mental and physical dominance to draw together followers, as the alpha wolf would his pack. Fosco’s ease in training five white mice only showcases his facile manipulation of Percival Glyde, Madame Fosco, Frederick Fairlie, Mrs. Michelson, and Anne Catherick to secure his pecuniary position. While multiple parties benefit from the workings of Fosco, the benefit to others is not Fosco’s primary goal, but rather another means to an end. Though Fosco proudly declares his friendship and therefore his aid to Glyde (“you have appeals to my friendship; and the duties of friendship are sacred to me” [336]), self-promotion, rather than pack promotion, guides his every move. Even Frederick Fairlie, the least sociable of all characters, thinks Fosco, “so extremely considerate in all his movements!” (356). Marian remarks on his character, “The man’s slightest actions had a purpose of some kind at the bottom of every one of them” (314). Fosco later corroborates the statement by claiming “with [his] whole heart … the fidelity of the portrait [presented in Marian’s diary]” (343). Fosco’s “purpose” is, of course, to claim Fairlie’s fortune for himself by process of elimination. Fosco’s strained manipulation of others speaks to his self-serving motives. As leader of the core pack of Percival, Mme. Fosco, and himself, Fosco dictates the movements of others because the others look to him for the lead.

On the other hand, Walter, Laura, and Marian join together as equals tied by love and so attract additional individuals to willfully support their cause: Mr. Kyrle, Mr. Gilmore, Mrs. Clements, Pesca, and, eventually, the village of Limmeridge itself. The threesome all share alpha roles, forming a pack as Elias Canetti describes it: “[An individual] may be in the center, and then, immediately afterwards, at the edge again; at the edge and then back and the center” (quoted in Deleuze, et. al. 37). Hartright provides financial support, Marian the housework, and Laura the motivation. When Laura senses her contributions cannot be quantified like Marian’s and Walter’s, Hartright, knowing the pack mentality, sets her to work. Though Laura’s drawings, “poor, faint, valueless sketches” (490), could never bring in money, Hartright acknowledges her need to toil for her loved ones and feel useful by paying her accordingly. Were it not for Hartright’s enlivening deception, Laura would not have survived to keep the others motivated. All members of this pack work for the same goal (proof of Laura’s identity) and for one another.

Darwin’s inclusion of happiness in the formulation, only “the vigorous, the happy, and the healthy” can “survive and multiply,” seems gratuitous in the face of unfeeling nature. But, while Fosco attempts to please his underlings, they cannot be said to be truly happy, least of all Madame Fosco, whose tight-lipped obedience seems to hide “something dangerous in her nature” (219). On the other hand, the quiet understatement of love in the east London apartment contrasts Count Fosco’s boastful dedications of faith to his followers. Laura’s happiness, even attained through deception, allows her pack to survive in Darwin’s nature.

The Value of the Copy

Walter, Marian, and Laura share many more commonalities than Fosco and his followers. Mild-mannered yet determined, all three seem as content and as faceless as Laura herself (once Marian has felt the subduing effects of housework). Their lives meld into one another’s and their differences disappear. “After all that we three have suffered together,” Marian says, explaining their commonalities, “there can be no parting between us, till the last parting of all” (637). Hartright’s narration after his marriage to Laura also refers to life in the plural, suggesting the indistinguishable nature of happiness in triplicate: “The only event in our lives which now remains to be recorded…” (641). In Darwin’s natural world, commonality ensures survival. More than just the suggesting the similarities of Walter, Marian, and Laura, Collins dwells on the motif of copies.

Copies, both true duplicates and mere resemblances, present themselves throughout Collins’s novel in an attempt to efface the individual, both as the singular and the unique. He systematically confounds the value of the copy over the original. Most prominently, the title character of “the woman in white,” which can refer both to the young Anne Catherick as well as her half-sister Laura Fairlie, focalizes the reader’s attention on the central act of duplication. Doubtless, Anne Catherick would appear to be the singular woman in white, since Hartright refers to her as such (“the woman in white was gone” [27]) and each of the twenty times the phrase is mentioned in the novel, it refers clearly to the young Anne Catherick, whether in body or idea. Thus it seems linguistically, at least, that Anne Catherick is the true “woman in white,” and that Laura, the more prominent female in white, just happens to occasionally match the description. Laura is merely “dressed in plain white muslin,” (54) “a white figure (60), or “ the living image…of the woman in white,” (60) but is never directly referred to as a “woman in white.” Laura seems a poor copy of the woman in white, one who merely bears an uncanny resemblance to the original specter. However, arguably Laura is the original woman in white and Anne Catherick, the copy, since Laura’s mother dressed Anne in the signature “white frocks” (59) of Laura’s own childhood. With no true origin, “the woman in white,” could refer to both, either, or none; both Laura and Anne are copies of each other, by nature and by nurture.

Likewise, when Frederick Fairlie employs “two photographers” to “produc[e] sun-pictures of all the treasures and curiosities in his possession,” (201) the photographs are treated as if they were more valuable than the relics themselves. Affixed to “the finest cardboard,” and with “ostentatious red-letter inscriptions,” (201) the copies, according to Marian Halcolme’s description, command undue attention from Fairlie. Collins’s triple repetition of the inscription, “In the possession of Frederick Fairlie, Esquire,” (201, 202) communicates to the reader Fairlie’s interest in proliferating the knowledge of his possessions. Fairlie reveals later that the purpose of the photographs is to “[improve] the tastes of the Members [of the Institution at Carlisle],” which he considers “a great national benefit [to] his countrymen” (346). Safe but meaningless in his home, the etchings and sculptures venture out in duplicate to better the awful civilization Fairlie sees around him.

More central to the plot, the town registry containing Percival’s secret exists in duplicate. Again, the copy and not the original is valuable to Hartright in discovering Glyde’s illegitimacy. Unveiling the “duplicate” at Old Welmingham, Hartright’s “heart [gives] a great bound” because it lacks any mention of the marriage of Sir Felix Glyde and Cecilia Jane Elster, which had been forged into the original in Knowlesbury (“compressed at the bottom of the page” [512]). Glyde, blinded by the centrality of the original, ignored the copy’s power to survive.

In terms of natural selection, the threesome, the women in white, the photographed treasures, and the registry all have greater chances to survive, as none are absolute anomalies destined for extinction. Even the woman in white survives despite her own death; the disappearance of Anne Catherick only enforces the law of natural selection when Laura survives and returns to claim her inheritance.

The Failure of the Unique: Count Fosco

Within the world of the novel, all of The Woman in White is a copy. Collated not as a single creation, but rather as a book of duplicate documents, testimonies, and evidence, copied down letters, and repeated stories, the narrative could be reassembled at will by gathering together its various components. It exhibits no overwrought “plan of creation,” but rather a plan of assembly, with matter-of-fact footnotes included to ensure the plan’s transparency (345). The whole novel seems to reject art, with the exception of one character. Within the assembled documents, Count Fosco’s narratives call out to be published separately. In their overdone style, overused exclamations, and boisterous self-praise, his writings exemplify and mock the writer-artist as unique in his expressions.

The attempt to represent nature through overwrought hyperbole and challenge it through chemistry marks the über-human hubris that leads to Fosco’s extinction in the novel. Count Fosco suffers from the bravado Darwin scorns in man’s attempts at artistry. Equally accomplished in chemistry and psychological deceit, Fosco manipulates nature (mineral and animal) and narrative for his own purposes. Ultimately, his portion of the narrative demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the individual story, the incompetence of man as singular creator.

Darwin says of the successful breeder, “We have seen that man … can adapt organic beings to his own uses” (40). Like Darwin’s man, “[selecting] only for his own good” (53) Fosco uses nature to benefit himself. Whereas Fosco’s science gives man power, Darwin’s takes it away. “Chemistry,” Fosco writes, “has always had irresistible attractions for me, from the enormous, the illimitable power which the knowledge of it confers. Chemists, I assert it emphatically, might sway, if they pleased, the destinies of humanity” (617). Fosco explains how chemists could change humanity: given a drug, Shakespeare would write “abject drivel”; Newton would simply “eat [the apple]”; Alexander the Great would “run for his life” (617). Rather than explaining how he could better society or best nature, Fosco relishes in his dreams of destroying great minds, sending mankind through a self-induced devolution. Reinforcing Darwin’s supposition that Natural Selection is “immeasurably superior” to the “efforts of man” (40), Fosco’s science opposes Darwin’s in its striving for failure and centralized power.

Just as he revels in the chemist’s omnipotence, the Count frequently praises the fine arts (including those from his own pen), always championing man. He sees the events of his life as a worthy subject for art: “Where is the modern Rembrandt who could depict our midnight procession? Alas for the Arts! alas for this most pictorial of subjects! the modern Rembrandt is nowhere to be found” (622). Fosco sees the absence of that “modern Rembrandt” as a loss to culture (“Alas for the Arts!”); he seems to revel in the creations of artists more than those of Nature. “What a situation!” he again boasts of his adventures. “I suggest it to the rising romance writers of England. I offer it, as totally new, to the worn-out dramatists of France” (626). No other character invokes the arts with as much verve as Fosco. In terms of his own artistic talents, Fosco praises his writing explicitly. In his account of the novel’s events, he writes, “I announced, on beginning it, that this narrative would be a remarkable document. It has entirely answered my expectations. Receive these fervid lines––my last legacy to the country I leave for ever” (629). Again, Fosco sees his story as “a remarkable document,” rather than the series of events that took place in reality. His “fervid lines,” and not his deeds form his “last legacy.” Fosco attempts to rewrite history, privileging the “works of man” over the “works of nature” in his unrealistic, overbearing style.

The performance of his narrative engrosses Fosco as he attempts to make his work as unique and identifiable as his own person. A spectacle before Hartright, the act of writing his testimony provides Fosco with an opportunity to demonstrate his individual talents in the most unique way possible: he “clear[s] his throat,” “[writes] with great noise,” and “[tosses each slip of paper] over his shoulder,” (609) before ending with a “ ‘Bravo!’ ” (610). The obvious performative nature of Fosco’s writing suggests its falsity and, correspondingly, the falsity of the individual, omniscient narrative. Even further, when the Count sits down to join together the slips of paper, he fastens them with “a bodkin and a piece of string” (610), as if to further manifest the presence and prominence of his own (obviously constructed) “narrative thread.” Then, like other men, Fosco identifies himself with a characteristic signature, though his can be both seen and heard. Walter hears “a sudden splutter of the pen, indicative of the flourish with which he signed his name” (609). Earlier his mere initial is described as “surrounded by a circle of intricate flourishes,” from which the reader can only surmise the flourish of the entire name (458). Fosco’s intricately drawn signature simultaneously embodies his elevation of the arts and his overbearing individuality.

Fosco’s declaration of narrative omniscience to the reader follows his dreams of controlling the world through chemistry: he withholds known information and adopts a familiarity with the reader expected only from a trusted narrator. “Curiosity may stop here, to ask for some explanation of those functions on my part,” the Count predicts his readers will wonder. He denies them, teasingly, happily withholding knowledge: “[D]iplomatic reserve forbids me to comply with [the request]” (614). Through numerous exclamations and parentheticals directed at the reader, Fosco attempts to gain his trust, manipulating the reader like Fosco does his followers or his mice. “Youths! I invoke your sympathy. Maidens! I claim your tears,” (628) Fosco both pleas and commands, both invoking and claiming as his own. Fosco’s overdone attempt at entertainment and originality makes him a caricature of artistry that illustrates perfectly Darwin’s critique of the arts as “feeble efforts.”

The Refusal of Omniscience and Artistry

Directly opposite Count Fosco’s claims of omniscience and artistic splendor lies the shrewd narrator’s attempt to defer all responsibility for creation, flawed as it is. Darwin himself, a creator and narrator, avoids claims of perfection from his introduction on: “The Abstract, which I now publish, must necessarily be imperfect. … No doubt errors will have crept in…” (1). Rejecting his role as the sole source of narrative, countless times, Darwin omits information, instead referring the reader to the external narrative of data. He admits, “No one can feel more sensible than I do of the necessity of hereafter publishing in detail all the facts, with references, on which my conclusions have been grounded; and I hope in a future work to do this“ (1). Later, though Darwin provides numerous detailed examples, the deferral remains: “I cannot here enter on the copious details,” (6) he remarks once. Again, the excuse returns: “To treat this subject at all properly, a long catalogue of dry facts should be given; but these I shall reserve for my future work” (29). As if to avoid hypocrisy by refusing to even attempt the perfection accomplished only through natural means, the author denies responsibility for creating the contents of his own text.

Collins, too, like Hartright above, claims no authorship over his work. The antithesis of Fosco, Collins does not sign his work with a flourish, nor reveal his singular narrative thread, clumsily poking through each page. In the 1860 preface to the book’s publication, Collins writes that telling the story in plural first-person “has afforded my characters a new opportunity of expressing themselves” (644). He generously nurses his readers’ view of the characters as “recognisable realities” (4) that have introduced the author to many friends, writing that the novel’s form allows the characters to “[express] themselves,” rather than writing that it allows him to express himself. Collins projects all responsibility for expression and therefore the artistry of writing onto his characters, “realities” that they are.

Additionally, Collins’s own characters echo Darwin’s reservations about art. Fosco shows a negative demonstration of praise for artistry and Hartright’s relationship with art is surprisingly ambivalent. Deftly, Collins draws lines of opposition between his characters and the arts. Walter Hartright, himself a “Teacher of Drawing,” maintains a curiously skeptical view of them (5). Considering his primary watercolor subject is landscapes, Hartright is ironically dismissive of Nature’s influence on man: “Admiration of those beauties of the of the inanimate world, which modern poetry so largely and so eloquently describes, is not, even in the best of us, one of the original instincts of our nature” (53). To him, admiration of Nature’s perfection is a learned behavior (“No uninstructed man or woman possesses it” [53]). By extension, his own artwork is merely a disinterested, paying exercise in reproduction, not an expression of human creativity. Even Laura Fairlie’s sketches he unsentimentally deems “valueless” (490). Hartright is not an artist, not a creator. Rather, he is a teacher of drawing––a benefit to others in society, a worker, but not one to express his individuality as a Romantic in ink and oil. Hartright relies not on the subjectivity of art, but rather on the objectivity of law to express the truths of experience.

Corroboration as Natural Law

Darwin ends his narrative with a phrase that suggests a new, somewhat paradoxical power system. It simultaneously rejects intelligent design while still implicating some governing force: “[E]ndless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” (307). Those “beautiful,” “wonderful” forms in their superlative state would be seen by most God-fearing creationists as those “good” forms created in Genesis. The fact that these forms “have been, and are being, evolved,” and not created implies that, at their creation, the forms were imperfect––not (as) beautiful or wonderful. Again, Darwin states the fact more clearly when he writes, “all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection” (307). Ironically, the phrase’s form recalls a pilgrim’s urging towards divine will while its content rejects divine intention.

Though he restricts the talents of a singular Creator, Darwin tempers the opposite extreme. The insistence on passive voice (“have been, and are being”) restrains nature from self-serving anarchy; something governs the forms, though in this sentence the subject is ambiguous. Granted, a form cannot “evolve” itself, nor can the English language gracefully form an active construction of the phrase (“have evolved and are evolving”?). Still, we must respect the implications of Darwin’s carefully-chosen words. After all, he never directly uses the word atheism (and “God” appears only once [105]), but since readers have already inferred this concept, I will join the tradition of reading Darwin closely.

In fact, the forms are “being evolved” by the very subject of The Origin: law. As Darwin states in his conclusion, “[these forms] have all been produced by laws acting around us,” which he then lists (307). Perfection and good, therefore, come not from a Creator or from within the individual, but rather from the exertion of law.

In this vein, The Woman in White adopts law as its framework. Hartright relies on the law, in theory though not in practice, to prove his story. Though his writing is not directed to a jury (since that approach, being a “servant of the long purse,” [5] would fail), Hartright explicitly positions the reader as judge: “As the Judge might once have heard it, so the Reader shall hear it now,” he declares (5). Though the legal system has failed him, Walter still trusts in the principles of the law. For this reason, he states, “the story here presented [is] told by more than on pen, as the story of an offence against the laws is told in Court by more than one witness¬¬––with the same object, in both cases, to present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect” (5). The “object” of legal procedures, when executed faithfully, as Hartright understands it, is to reveal truth. Mrs. Michelson echoes this purpose in her statement, in which she explains, “my testimony is wanted in the interests of truth” (364). Law, and not art, brings truth.

Additionally, Laura’s reintroduction to Limmeridge House suggests a courtroom scene: lawyers, witnesses, evidence, and jury are all present. After “the proceedings,” (634) as Walter calls them, he asks the members of Limmeridge House, “Are you all of the same opinion [as Mr. Kyrle that the evidence is conclusive]?” (635) A jury functioning together as a singular judge, the tenants’ “opinion” is written by their shouts of approval.

Wilkie Collins’s Walter Hartright makes the reader responsible for creating the narrative. The goal of Hartright’s narrative, and his collection of the narratives of others, is to gain “public attention” (5) supposedly for the purpose of bringing justice and revealing truth. Ultimately Collins’s narrative is not just one of natural collaboration, but one of legal corroboration.

“No circumstance of importance, from the beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall be related on hearsay evidence” (5), he declares. According to Hartright’s strictly legal lens, Collins implies from the start that omniscient narratives are, themselves, hearsay. Though Hartright could easily have written the story in an omniscient voice with information gathered from his interviews, he chooses, instead, to reflect the standards of the law.

Just as Darwinian selection eradicates inconsistencies in favor of repetition, Collins’s legally minded narrative relies on the successful collation of multiple stories, judged by the reader as by a jury, to tell the truth. Only by interviewing multiple people and confirming multiple sources can Hartright piece together the story of the world around him.


These works of collaboration, though truly written by one author, reflect the developing viewpoint that, in light of Darwin’s claims about the success of natural selection, the singular individual, the omniscient narrator cannot possibly tell a story that will live on. In order to “survive and multiply,” to be read and republished, a story must attain approval by the population at large. As the moment for the Creator’s master plot had passed, the people’s plural plot emerged, identified by sameness and pack-mentality. Sold to a population fragmented by varying sources of identity, The Woman in White suggests a trend towards a selection of story in accordance with Darwin’s laws natural selection. The decentralizing of the individual and the questioning of creative omniscience that Darwin proposes in On the Origin of Species ultimately leads the literature of Collins and his successors towards the modernist sensibility of multiplicity.

Collins, Wilkie. The Woman in White. 1861. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. 1859. Mineola, New
York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. “1914: One or Several Wolves?” A Thousand Plateaus.
Trans. Brian Massumi. New York: Continuum, 2004. 30-43. Google Books. Web. 15 June

Monday, April 27, 2009

Didacticism in the Classroom:

Early American Literature in the Secondary Curriculum

by Seth Van Horne and Alexa Garvoille

In a time of growing emphasis on standards-oriented education, when teachers post competency goals in classrooms and students gain enumerated skills, English teachers increase their dedication to the state standards, especially when confronted with high-stakes testing and administrators looking to cut positions. These curricular documents, sometimes centuries in the making, represent to educators the ideals of knowledge paired with the rudiments of implementation. Sometimes, though, the standards can wear away at creativity and discovery, leaving departments with worn copies of inaccessible classics that they continue to teach year after year. However, close examination of the standards exposes occasional oversights that lead to innovative opportunities to set the curriculum right. Based on our experiences teaching American literature courses in North Carolina high schools, we believe the addition of a non-canonical novel popular in late 18th century America offers an opportunity to discuss in a new way what it means to be American, as well as addressing a curricular deficiency.

The early novels of America lend themselves to exploration of how literature and education can or should influence life decisions, as they strived to form the common opinions of the new republic. By discussing the goals of literacy in early America, students can question the goals of their own schooling, thus creating what Paulo Freire calls a “problem-posing education” (1970). In addition, students can use the novels as a springboard to evaluate of the morals expressed in the media that surrounds them. Pairing narratives produced during the boom of printing technology and those during the boom of digital technology allows students to engage in historical discussions and critique their own world. By teaching early American fiction, educators can bring character education into the classroom without imposing a set ideology on the students.

A 2003 report from the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies stated that, in order to engage students in urban environments, schools needed to offer “Relationships, Rigor, and Relevance” (Stipeck). At first glance, using two hundred year-old novels in order to foster relevance and relationships seems unlikely if not impossible. Yet, because they allows for investigation of the disempowered, questioning authority, and discuss literary communities, the parallels between the first years of the American republic and today offer the perfect opportunity to connect to and engage students.

Using the North Carolina Standard Course of Study (NC SCS) as a guide, we will examine how the traditional American Literature reading list misinterprets North Carolina content standards on “Colonial Literature.” We will then propose that the addition of an early American novel to the curriculum would both address the content gap and fulfill competency goals. Contrasting the current SCS with North Carolina’s original 1898 Course of Study reframes the curriculum through the new three Rs. In this article we will provide our readers with a background on the historical relationship between literature and the emerging republic, arguments for the relevance of this study in the classroom, and practical suggestions for implementation of two sample texts in high school English.

The pros and cons of incorporating an early American novel into the curriculum vary. We acknowledge that it takes valuable teacher time to invest in original research, including gathering primary source documents. Creating new units is always difficult, as it should be. However we hope this overview of the subject and examples provided should alleviate much of this stress. In order to justify the use of these novels to administrators and parents, teachers need only cite the relevance of the skills each reading can produce. These novels offer a fruitful dichotomy to explore by putting forward moral warnings alongside lascivious narration. They also allow students to practice deciphering the moral messages of different works of literature and media. As objects of advertising campaigns, targeted by corporations, affiliations, friends, and lifestyles, 21st century students need the ability to evaluate didactic messages both in and out of the classroom.

While time and tradition may work against curricular change, our students benefit from studying little-known works. Unable to look up summaries or purchase essays online, not faced with the same canonical fear of “getting it,” students can engage more authentically with the texts. In addition, the discussion of didacticism in reading, media, and education requires students to use higher-level thinking in the form of critique. As juniors in high school, students in the American Literature classroom are also developmentally prepared to use abstract thought to evaluate the texts before them. Examining these early works in public schools would offer English teachers and their students numerous advantages: curriculum integration between English and history departments (NC DPI xi), high-interest readings for students, and, of course, the ability to evaluate the didactic media of their own world. With little effort, teachers can create units that simultaneously include NCTE (National Council for the Teachers of English) and statewide standards and invite students to explore their inner selves and the world around them.

Including the Missing Texts: Standards and The 3 Rs

The content of the current North Carolina Standard Course of Study (2004) is based largely on the western canon and illustrates a world concept centuries of educators wished to communicate to citizens. Regardless of the contemporary English teacher’s goals, the contemporary English teacher’s reading lists reveal a set of moral lessons for Americans. Though educators are so often concerned with beginnings and foundations (the first president, the first great novelist, the Constitution), English teachers have failed to adequately address the beginnings of American literature. While Hannah Webster Foster, Susanna Rowson, and William Hill Brown are unfamiliar to many high school English teachers, those names tell as much about the foundations of America as the familiar tones of Cooper, Emerson, or Hawthorne. Writing at a time when national identity was taking shape in congress, revolutionary-period writers had their own national duties to fellow citizens. Novels provided readers with entertainment, but also sought to define the ideals of an emerging nation. While authors wrote sensationalist narratives replete with sex and murder to attract the interest of the reading public, publishers linked their profession with that of the legislators to promote the books as didactic tracts that would form the moral character of the country. Such a contradiction offers students a rich territory for critical debate (Competency Goal 4.03: “Assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents.” NC DPI 111).

However, as of a 2002 survey of high school English teachers (Appendix), the typical North Carolina classroom addresses none of these early novels. The English III competency goals require that learners “[evaluate] the literary merit and/or historical significance of a work from Colonial Literature, the Romantic Era, Realism, the Modern Era, and Contemporary Literature” (Competency Goal 5.01, SCS 112). While this list of five eras seems to exempt the period between 1776 and 1820, “colonial literature” should encompass early American and revolutionary texts. Yet, upon examining the list of titles commonly used to fulfill these standards, not one example of colonial fiction appears (Appendix). The list incorporates numerous documents of the founding fathers, including The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, The Declaration of Independence, The Federalist Papers, and even the letters of Abigail and John Adams; however, not one single work of “colonial” or “early” fiction makes its way into the classroom.

Partly, this omission could be explained based on terminology: “colonial” often calls to mind 17th century Puritans, for instance Jonathan Edwards (whose sermons are included on the list). “Literature” in terms of fiction was practically nonexistent with the Puritans, for whom “literature” was constrained to the bible, sermons, and religious tracts. By the early 18th century, laws forbade book hawkers selling chapbooks of stories from peddling their wares in Massachusetts (Davidson 41). The mid- to late-18th century brought the growth of cultural centers like Philadelphia and Boston, which created more diverse literary communities. In this way “colonial literature” in the colloquial sense of Puritan fiction is an oxymoron. Therefore, we extend our search for early American literature into the revolutionary period.

North Carolina teachers’ attempts at addressing this oversight have been inadequate. Our district, Durham County, requires English III classrooms study either The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible early in the school year; it seems the “Colonial Literature” requirement is being filled by revisionist historical fictions, written in 1850 and 1953, respectively, centuries distant from the period they depict. While both texts offer exemplary insights into colonial life, especially when paired with historical background, students need to “examine and explain how culture influences language” (Competency Goal 2.02, NC DPI 108) contemporaneously, not merely in retrospect. Historical knowledge has a central place in the English III curriculum, but exposing students to the distinctive style of early Americans authors adds a level of rigor to language study.

Not only do the authors use advanced vocabulary and a complex (and dated) syntax but, more importantly, they reflect the culture around them. Students may track how the author’s style implies the gender or class of the readers. The narrator of Susanna Rowson’s novel Charlotte Temple, for example, addresses the reader as “he” “my dear sober matron,” and “oh my dear girls,” (Rowson 58, 59, 60). Considering the variety of readers described, students may debate the author’s reasons for including such references and who the intended reader truly was (or was not) (Competency Goal 4.04, “[identify] and [analyze] elements of critical environment found in text in light of purpose, audience, and context,” 112). Students may also critique what the use of language in addressing a particular audience implies about that class of people. If Charlotte Temple is, indeed, “for the perusal…of the fair sex,” students may consider how its contents reveal assumptions about women (Rowson 35). The novels, particularly those written in epistolary or confessional form, often use conversational language, which offers an even more authentic view into linguistics of the time. On a broader level, students may imagine how their own language in conversation, notes, emails, and texts implies an audience and a culture through its syntax, diction, and content. Instead of drumming literary conventions into students year after year, teachers should jump at the chance to offer a novel that challenges the language patterns to which they are already accustomed.

The literature is more than rigorous: it is engaging. Before reality television, there was the early American novel. Purportedly true tales of murder, seduction, and social disgrace filled these compact narratives which excited the sensibilities of 18th century readers. Viewers today follow televised ritual humiliation and cinematic tales of betrayal and retribution for the same reasons. Like the video game or social networking system of the present, in early America, the novel was the new, risqué medium, sweeping the nation through the combined innovations in printing and the establishment of the lending library. Yet high school students do not study the time in American literature when the novel began its meteoric rise, filling libraries and salons, falling into the hands of not only ladies but also men, maids, and menial laborers (Davidson 28). We protest not on the scale of a special interest group lobbying for the inclusion of a book on a list, but as teachers looking for new ways to engage and challenge our students. The rise of the novel in America, along with the disdainful remarks of our forefathers on the genre, provides teachers with a fascinating parallel to our own times that we should exploit.


Books are not only texts which allow interplay between writer and reader, but are also products. Students must learn to see communication, not only books but movies, games, commercials, songs and emails, as products designed and marketed to specific readerships. By discussing the history of the novel in the United States, teachers can not only create interdisciplinary connections but can help their students develop awareness of themselves as producers and consumers of information. American literacy, which developed alongside the popularity of the novel, provides an additional historical connection. Examining the goals of the novel with those of early education allows students to relate their own academic experience to both those presented (or omitted) in the fictions and in the primary source pedagogical documents. In the following section we aim to provide a few examples from the development of the novel and education in America and demonstrate the novels’ relevance to classroom implementation.

The Novel as Product

Novels in America at the time of the revolution were as much products of the publishers as they were of the authors (Davidson 79). Most books in the United States before the revolution were imports. Trade slowed to a standstill during the Revolution, giving American publishers a window in which to establish their own market before trade re-opened at the close of the war. Still, printers had to import most of their supplies and content from England (74). In this competitive market, publishers took a huge risk whenever they had to publish anything new. This was particularly true of fiction, which had to compete with centuries of (pirated) British texts. The costs of printing, combined with the risks involved, meant that most American publishers produced books for a small, local market (76). Since they were taking the majority of the risks, knew their clientele and controlled the means of production, publishers had to act as editors, publicity agents and producers all at once.

Relaying facts about the development of the novel as a historical reality not only provides context for students but invites a slew of critical activities. The NCTE calls for “Students to adjust their use of spoken, written and visual language (e.g. conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate with a variety of audiences for a variety of purposes.” Those same standards call for students to “to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace” (National Council 3). Students analyzing early American book markets consider how publishers adjusted and chose texts to suit their audiences based on those workplace demands. Publishers had to chose new novels and determine how to advertise them. This sets up the analysis of audiences to help teach students to modify their own writing and does so in a realistic context.

Due to the competition and the difficulties of printing, most people in the late eighteenth century could not afford to buy books. In Revolution and the Word Cathy Davidson writes that a carpenter in 1800 would make $1 a day, but a novel would cost between $.75 and $1.50, and an unskilled laborer would be giving up two days wages (85). Books, in short, were a luxury most people could not afford. Yet afford them they did, by joining lending libraries. These libraries worked through subscriptions, each member contributing and then able to borrow books from them (88). As such, libraries became the number one source of books for most readers. Due to popular demand, most of these books were novels (89).

Discussing the economics of the novel also invites discussion of modern economic issues. The first copyright laws protected publishers from global competition, providing a discussion of globalization. The cost of books invites an interdisciplinary analysis of how much we spend on entertainment today. Students can study how television and movie producers analyze the market and what determines which shows get made. The dangers of piracy and the protection of copyright demand discussion of modern piracy in music and media. These are not just connections to today, but a genuine opportunity to teach students to analyze the world around them using examples from two hundred years ago.

The competition during the revolutionary period led to advancements in printing technology. Whereas a novel might run between 350 and 1500 copies at the beginning of the nineteenth century, by 1830 newspaper copies of books could run over 30,000 copies (75 – 76). These changes came primarily due to new innovations which made paper cheaper. Before 1800 paper represented roughly 20% of the cost of a book, now it was only 7% (Altbach 161). Congress also passed and enforced copyright laws, protecting publishers from pirating. Tariffs on foreign books also helped bring down the price of publishing (Davidson 97). Consequently, where Charlotte Temple was considered hugely popular by selling 40,000 copies in a decade, James Fennimore Cooper’s The Pioneers sold almost 9% of this figure by the day after it was released in 1823 (Southam 1). At a time when Americans were deciding what it meant to be part of a republic, changes in technology allowed novels to reach an unprecedented audience.

The amount of information available due to cheap paper pales in comparison to the communicative power of new technologies. A September 2008 CBS news survey found that people between 13 and 17 years of age send and receive an average of 1,742 text messages per month (Reardon). Research firm IDC estimated that 97 billion email messages went out in 2007 alone (40 billion of which were spam) (Leggatt). If ever there was a time when changing technology was once again democratizing information, it is now. Studying changes in the novel and the fear it caused can help students understand the role of electronic communication for them today.

The Novel as Community

Reading in the 18th century was often a communal event. Letter reading and writing was a hugely popular form of entertainment, and epistolary manuals with instruction on how to write correct styles, formats can content for different types of letter throughout the eighteenth century, often running at least five editions (Bannet 13). The guides included instructions on reading those letters aloud, including pronunciation guides and how to properly hold the paper when addressing a group (27). The expectation was that letters would be read aloud. The popularity of the epistolary novel mirrored these manuals. Like actual letters, they were often designed to be read aloud to a group as well (28). The epistolary novel and instruction manuals shared popularity reveal the importance of letters in colonial society as a communal event, through sharing them aloud, and as a cultural standard, through the rules and proscriptions.

Early American novels, therefore, offer an opportunity to talk to students about community. People in the eighteenth century (lacking television and malls) would hang out and read to one another. Letters connected families across the country. Epistolary novels revealed the way people thought about the events in their lives and the lives of those around them. Asking students to consider how they connect to people opens up the possibility of creating that connection. Write a letter to your students. Have them write to each other, or to you, or to a family member. Asking students to mirror novels by writing about people in their own lives or stories they have heard about creates opportunities to foster those all important relationships in the classroom.

The Novel as Democracy

Analyzing novels as products should not reduce them to merely pieces of consumer information. Novelists and publishers saw their role as encouraging democracy. In terms of pure economics, writing and publishing novels was not lucrative and often lost money. Yet publishers produced over 100 American books before 1820 (Davidson 99). They did so in small part because they believed they were creating and defining the cultural atmosphere of the new republic.

The popularity of the novel, through the emergence of the library, meant that novels had a vast audience. Moreover, this audience was non-elite and aware of the ways in which the republic failed to live up to the promise of the Declaration of Independence. New readers were not wealthy land owners (indeed they could not even afford their own books), and were not invited into the halls of the constitutional convention. Instead, they were the landless laborers who would not have the vote for another sixty years and women, who would not have it for another hundred and twenty. The texts they read mirrored their positions; these were not exclusively sermons or instruction manuals, but focused on the lives of common or disadvantaged people (105). Novels were, in short, a form of democracy, giving voice to the common man and woman.

Gentleman legislators and members of the highest offices of the nation, far from the lowly social position of the average reader, condemned the novel. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, fierce political rivals, both took time to attack the genre (104). This attack came about because, in the wake of the revolution, Americans were still struggling to sort out the bounds of authority and freedom in a world with a president instead of a king (105). If the republic were going to survive, it would need to exist on a set of cultural as well as governmental principles (Mulford xvi). Critics saw the novel as “subversive,” undermining the authority of a fragile government (Davidson 24). Given its support of the disenfranchised, this fear was not entirely unfounded. The Algerine Captive by Royal Tyler mocks politicians of the day. The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown was based on the lives of some of Boston’s wealthiest politicians and was attacked by John Adams himself. Critics dismissed novels as gossip and a waste of time. The condemnation of the novel as morally questionable, as a waste of time and energy, highlights the founders’ fear of overwhelming freedom in a world without monarchy. This provides the opportunity for educators to emphasize just how terrifying and difficult the prospect of democracy seemed.

In order to address the accusation of immorality, revolutionary publishers and authors often introduced their texts as examples and warnings. Seduction novels were instruction manuals for HOW NOT TO BEHAVE. Heroines who allowed themselves to be seduced regularly ended in ruin and death. These novels claimed to educate young women about the dangers of the world and to help create a single, common American morality. William Hill Brown even addresses The Power of Sympathy to “the young ladies of United Columbia,” revealing his own, intentional construction of morally didactic text. This project fit in with the authors' attempts to create an American democracy while simultaneously combating their critics' fears that novels would destroy America through subversion.

The Novel as Education: Moral Didacticism in Schools

The female readership of revolutionary novels through the next century gave rise to the female educator of the industrial revolution. Thus women, who had gained literacy by reading early novels, soon gained agency in the classroom of America’s common schools. Whereas novels replete with cautionary morals had once been dedicated to their “fair sex,” by 1900 women led 71% of rural classrooms in which they transmitted the morals to the nation’s next generation (Hoffman). The shifting role of women in promoting literacy in America parallels the shift from educating the masses through entertainment to educating them through a public school system. In both arenas, the goal of literacy and literature was to form a coherent political body that shared a language and a set of values.

Nation and literacy link at the roots. Over the world, language study falls under the title of the nation of origin rather than the process––reading, writing, or grammar. While in America, middle school students may only study “Language Arts,” soon enough, they move onto the more serious high school “English.” Language study and literacy have always served national purposes in America, especially. With such a diverse population of immigrants flooding into the ports by the time of independence, a young America needed to provide a standard educational system with language instruction in order to create a cohesive populace. In the movement towards universal education in the early colonial period, Americans used the common language to communicate the shared values of a nation. Today, secondary teachers across the nation continue this value-based education, promoting canonical works that speak to the glory of the American identity, working as double agents for literacy and patriotism, or what it means to be a “good” American. However, seldom do teachers explicitly educate students about the philosophical and historical nature of didacticism in education and reading.

The first line of North Carolina’s current Standard Course of Study, written by the Chair of the State Board of Education, boasts, “North Carolina has had a Standard Course of Study since 1898” (NCDPI iii). Having established the nation’s first public university at Chapel Hill in 1793, North Carolina is proud of its educational standards. That 1898 course of study offers pragmatic examples of implementation, with the suggestion that “weary” teachers “must study and keep up with their profession, or fall out by the way and make room for those who are progressive,” evidence that educational best practices were already being broken and reinstituted (199). An 1845 report from the first superintendent, Calvin Henderson Wiley, provides more background on the goals of schools. The standards of 2004 and the earliest report on North Carolina schools are not so different: both emphasize the importance of preparing students to be productive citizens, both socially and morally. The 2004 SCS aims to form, “contributing members of society,” “collaborative workers who possess…the desire to contribute to the improvement of society,” and “responsible,” “informed citizens in a democratic society” (4, 7, 83, 8). Wiley, too lays out the basis for education in North Carolina: “To make a nation truly great and happy, its heart and mind should both be educated” (23). The repeated emphasis on “society” and “nation” reinforce the role of education in creating a manageable populace.

Wiley, however, alludes to an additional aspect of education not so freely aired in the current SCS: the education of the heart. “Extreme care … should be taken to improve the heart and subdue its passions,” he explains (23). The direct link between didactic novels and education lies in this “schooling of desire” (Bohlin 18). Character education, a movement of values-based teaching first promoted in the early 1990s, seeks to establish a school environment that promotes active reflection on morality in an effort to curb teen suicide, pregnancy, murder rates as well as counteract the barrage of media messages students decipher every day (Lockwood). While critics of character education argue that the “hidden curriculum,” or values message, of the program is more didactic than is effective, the notion of prescribing morality through literacy education has carried on as an American issue since the earliest days of Puritan religious education (Giroux). The dissenters, however, bring up the point that character education, whether between the walls of a classroom of the covers of a book, can seem stifled. The disparity between the good intentions of the educators and the occasional failures of the program, the superficiality of which “[s]tudents are quick to size up,” parallels the disparity between the intentions of early American publishers and their authors, who, like adolescents, were seemingly often more interested in gossip and seduction than utter moral righteousness (Bohlin 4). Coincidentally, in 2001 North Carolina passed the Student Citizen Act, which enforces the implementation of character education in public schools (NC DPI, Character Education). An educational policy debate could give students one more opportunity to understand their role as citizens in America; ironically, the educator can encourage character development in students by asking them to question its validity.

Asking students to write about their own view of the goals of education and entertainment (books and media) can spur an authentic discussion in the classroom (Competency Goal 3.01: “establish and defend a point of view”). Students may also find the study of early documents on North Carolina schools fascinating in their explicit summoning of moral goals. By opening the floor to students, teachers can both avoid the “non-interference policy” that leaves schools utterly divorced from explicit discussion of values and still support Freire’s problem-posing education, which itself fosters democratic individuals.

The history of education in America suggests that one key goal is to ensure all citizens understand the laws and thus form a mor(ally) perfect Union. Discussions of didacticism and moral formation go beyond the classroom to society at large. The struggle to define the role of popular entertainment continues today. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently began to pay Viacom (which runs television networks including MTV, VH1, Nickelodeon and BET) to include social messages in their television scripts and run advertisements about healthy living (Arango). These messages have already started with an episode of Law and Order: SVU. President of United States operations at the Foundation, Allan Golston, said to the New York Times that, “television in this vein was essential because the foundation could reach more people than through direct support of education” (Arango). The decision to make morally instructive programming parallels the moral missions of Early American novels and reveals many of the same fears about the integrity of society. Studying both allows students to question the purpose of their own education and how much influence popular literature (including media) has on them.

Examples of Early American Novels

The didactic nature of early American novels is best revealed through examples. Examining just two of the most popular novels from the end of the eighteenth century The Coquette and Charlotte Temple, will reveal the ways in which didacticism intertwined with the roles of women and democracy in the emerging republic. Other novels to consider include William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Royall Tyler’s The Algerine Captive, and Charles Brocken Brown’s Arthur Mervyn. We have selected the two texts we believe would appeal most to the students we have encountered in our work in North Carolina.

The Coquette

Hannah Webster Foster’s epistolary novel The Coquette (1797) is the story of Eliza Warton. Eliza is torn between two suitors: Mr. Boyer, who she thinks is too stodgy, and Mr. Sanford, who is unreliable. Her indecision eventually drives away Mr. Boyer, while Mr. Sanford marries another woman for her money. Sanford and Eliza have an affair and Eliza, in typical seduction novel style, becomes pregnant. She dies alone in the countryside, far from her friends and without a husband.

The novel was popular, going through thirteen editions before the end of the nineteenth century (Mulford xli). Foster based the novel on the life of the highly publicized death of Elizabeth Whitman, a lady of Hartford Connecticut who delivered a stillborn baby before passing away at the Bell Taverns in Danvers, Mass in 1788 (xliv). Critics made her story into a didactic lesson about proper morality almost immediately. The Massachusetts Centinel September 20, 1788 edition even wrote that “she was a great reader of novels and romances and having imbibed her ideas of the characters of men from those fallacious sources, became vain and coquettish” (xlv). Attacks on Miss Witman embodied the moralizing sentiment that novels at the time were supposed to embody.

Both Elizabeth Whitman’s life and Hannah Webster Foster’s treatment thereof invite examination of didacticism, women’s roles in society and democracy as a whole. The criticism of Eliza for her actions, the repeated advice that she find a husband, highlights the espoused morality of the time. Simultaneously, though, Eliza is a sympathetic character; her decision in the novel form as much due to her role as an American woman in the late eighteenth century as due to her own decisions. Her tombstone at the end of the novel, which urges readers (both in the novel and out) to “throw a veil over her frailties, for great was her charity to others” suggests a far friendlier reading and undercuts the overt moralizing of a woman dying through letting herself be seduced. This was the moral ambiguity which so terrified early founders.

These themes connect to three of the six North Carolina primary competency goals, with room for the other three. In a 140-page text made up of brief letters, students can analyze the historical significance of a text (Competency Goal 5.01), by looking at the discussion surrounding novels. They can “assess the power, validity, and truthfulness in the logic of arguments given in public and political documents” (Competency Goal 4.03), by looking at whether Eliza’s problems emerge due to her coquettish style or her place in society. Finally, students “demonstrate the ability to read, listen to and view a variety of increasingly complex print and non-print argumentative texts appropriate to grade level and course literary focus, by . . . identifying and analyzing personal, social, historical or cultural influences, contexts, or biases (Competency Goal 3.04) by looking at the need to include didactic reasoning in these early American novels. Students can learn to interrogate the world around them and examine themselves within the scheme of American history all at once.

Charlotte Temple

Susanna Rowson, herself a didactic author cum educator, established a girls’ school in Boston, for which she wrote both curriculum (including manners and morals) and textbooks, eight years after publishing her bestseller, Charlotte Temple (Kirk 14). Rowson’s novel, originally titled Charlotte: A Tale of Truth for its original London printing in 1791 and later personalized into Charlotte Temple for subsequent American audiences, offers readers a morally wrought commentary on education along with a sensational narrative. Just as modern classics franchise into movies, posters, spin-offs, and endless reprints, Charlotte Temple became a distinctly American tale, inspiring over 200 American editions and numerous traveling theatrical reprisals of the story.

The story of Charlotte, a young British schoolgirl seduced, kidnapped, and taken to America by a British lieutenant quick to lose interest, offers Americans both a story of pathos over which to weep and a didactic opportunity to showcase the kindness of their nation. After arriving in America, Charlotte is soon forsaken by her seducer and left to fend for herself, pregnant and depressed. Throughout her toils and further abuses her American neighbor, Mrs. Beauchamp, offers her asylum and friendship. After giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte dies in the presence of her father come from England to find her and her savoir Mrs. Beauchamp. A love story turned tragedy, the novel offers itself to cautionary moralizing about the dangers of seduction, the kindness of community, and the forgiveness of parents.

One central point of interest for students is the discussion of how and why Charlotte makes the decisions she does. Faced with choices between duty and romance, education and adventure, trust and healthy skepticism, Charlotte could be seen as the means of her own downfall. However, in the Preface, the narrator mourns those who, like Charlotte, are “spoilt by a mistaken education” (Rowson 35). This phrase turns the blame on Mademoiselle La Rue, the French schoolteacher in charge of looking after Charlotte when she is first seduced, instead encouraging the young girl to forget her family and sail to America. La Rue, along with the other seeming villains, the seducers Montraville and Belcour, offers an excellent character for analysis, as many scenes show these characters as morally ambiguous.

An entertaining and manageable read at about 130 pages, Charlotte Temple offers opportunities for students to address five of the six North Carolina primary competency goals. Students “discover multiple perspectives,” in the classroom in debating the reason for Charlotte’s downfall for which they must provide “textual evidence to support [their] understanding of and … response to [the] text” (Competency Goal 1.02, 1.03), and “examine how culture influences language,” by locating didactic passages of narration and discussing their effectiveness (Competency Goal 2.02). In order to further explore the impact of didacticism in popular entertainment like the traveling plays of Charlotte Temple, students should analyze the moral imperatives suggested in various media (sitcoms, commercials, music videos, songs, etc.), thereby “recognizing propaganda as a purposeful technique” in “non-print argumentative texts” (Competency Goal 3.01, 3.04). Finally, by pairing the discussion of didacticism and Mademoiselle La Rue with a discussion of the role of education, students can “synthesize ideas” between their own educational life and that of Charlotte (Competency Goal 4) and “interpret the significance of literary movements” in relating the appeal of Charlotte Temple to those citizens prevented from having a full education. By focusing on the education strands of Charlotte Temple, students can evaluate moral choices in a context immediately relevant to their own lives.


We do not mean these examples to confine or limit teachers. Instead, we should work together to imagine the country at its founding. With our students, we can envision who was included in defining our country. We see their lives and their anxieties, their dreams and their nightmares, their greatest aspirations and their worst failures.

We can imagine all of these things because they still exist today. Where Adams feared the novel, we fear Myspace. Where publishers gave moral rules, modern entrepreneurs rewrite television scripts. Where texts once questioned roles and social places, our students now take their place.

Our task is still to create an American culture; that we have unified standards at all reveals this purpose. Yet in a democracy, that culture must be one of questioning and critical thinking. It is a culture which not only produces healthy citizens, but engaged and challenged students. Over two centuries after Rowson, Foster, Brown and Tyler struggled to define the limits and expectations of freedom in a new republic, it is our task to do the same.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Writing Wikipedia Pages in the Constructivist Classroom

Look for the original in the 2009 AACE-Ed Media Conference Proceedings!

Writing Wikipedia Pages in the Constructivist Classroom

by Alexa Garvoille and Dr. Ginny Buckner

Abstract: In response to current anxieties over students’ ability to critically evaluate internet-based sources, we propose a secondary curriculum that uses Wikipedia as a platform to pose questions about information verifiability, ethical use of technology, and the democratic role of internet-users. We argue that, while already prevalent in college curricula, the examination of Wikipedia page creation in secondary classrooms provides a developmentally relevant approach to guiding adolescents into higher levels of thinking. The proposed project, appropriate for any discipline, but here concerned with high school English, develops traditional research and editing skills and culminates in a contribution to public knowledge through writing and editing underdeveloped Wikipedia pages (stubs). Methods for project implementation, including suggestions for scaffolding and differentiating learner tasks, are included.


High-tech classrooms, innovative technology, and specialized software help teachers introduce students to new educational paradigms. Computing technology, second nature to students under the age of twenty-five, often aligns itself with educational prowess. As young adults prepare to face the challenges of the twenty-first century job market, educators, in turn, must devote themselves to advancing twenty-first century skills. However, amidst the development of such skills in close proximity to all things technological, lies the problem of critically evaluating that technology from a distance. Since so many young adults claim intimate familiarity with technology, educators might pass over outright discussions of how technology has changed the way students think. Despite the incredible onward and upward trend in educational technology, students can gain critical distance examining in-depth the most basic technology. In addition, students in public schools, for instance, do not always have access to the most recent technological resources. However, using just the internet students can advance developmentally and gain critical thinking skills by the careful consideration of and contribution to one of the most familiar sites on the internet: Wikipedia.

It’s been suggested that in these hard economic times, an expensive liberal arts education could just as easily be replaced with the absolutely free “Random Article” feature on Wikipedia. The ability to access information about anything by merely checking a BlackBerry or going to the computer lab has transformed the way we think and, more importantly, the way the next generation thinks. Information has become addictive. Most high school students look on Wikipedia for research information. Numerous college students have even been caught citing Wikipedia as a source in papers, which earned failing grades. While there is consensus that Wikipedia (or any encyclopedia for that matter) should not be cited for academic work, exactly how Wikipedia fits into our schools has yet to be determined. Though numerous post-secondary institutions have successfully incorporated Wikipedia page expansion into course requirements, some secondary schools have banned the site. The new mantra, “Wikipedia does not count!” has led schools to block its access on campus. Librarians and principals argue that students cannot distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources and therefore Wikipedia shouldn’t be available to tempt students.

Wikipedia, however, offers a consistent alternative (Giles 2005) to the vast, ambivalent sea of sites that is the internet. These days, even Google searches help the curious by sending them to Wikipedia first. Since students will certainly continue to use Wikipedia outside of school, the classroom is actually the ideal place to address questions of source reliability (Davidson 2007, Groom 2007). Secondary schools should take up the project that has already begun in universities all over the world. By examining the workings of Wikipedia in the context of the classroom, students at a younger age can understand why Wikipedia isn’t actually a source at all (thus preparing them for college), and how they can help make it a better resource by becoming budding Wikipedians themselves––that is, editors of Wikipedia. Instead of researching on Wikipedia, students learn critical skills by researching for Wikipedia. In addition to appealing to students, this high-interest project finds support in education standards: the International Reading Association in conjunction with the National Council for the Teachers of English (1996) require that, for one, “students use technological and informational resources…to gather and synthesizeinformation and to create and communicate knowledge.”

In this paper, we will present a theoretical framework for using Wikipedia in the classroom, not as a source for research, but as an opportunity to conduct research and engage in critical thought. We will specifically provide a focus for how Wikipedia relates to adolescent development. Then, we will suggest how, for example, secondary English teachers can integrate a Wikipedia-editing project into a typical high school curriculum, as well as recommend other possible academic trajectories for the project.

The Context: 21st Century Adolescent Learners

Most adolescents rightly see Wikipedia as a viable source––much more so than many adults. However, students may not understand the trepidation of parents and teachers to use the site as an academic source. Developmentally, many high school students and sometimes even college students think in concrete-operational terms, according to Piaget, meaning they understand logical processes in terms of cause-and-effect but often cannot yet grasp abstract gray-area concepts. The concept of source reliability is difficult for these students to understand (Eastin 2008, Piaget 1959). Each developmental stage builds on the last, and in order to progress to the next stage, the learner must experience a complication of their previous understanding. Exposing students to the process of editing Wikipedia pages for themselves would create a moment that Piaget terms cognitive dissonance. This state occurs when a prior assumption (the truth of the Wikipedia page, for example) clashes with newly acquired knowledge (that the page is easily edited). The new concept does not fit into the previous system of thought, thus leading to the accommodation of a new idea, the creation of a new set of paradigms in the brain. Instead of leaving students to continue thinking concretely about the internet by “just saying no” (Olanoff 2007) to Wikipedia, educators can make the ubiquity of the Wiki not only a teachable moment, but, more importantly, part of the developmental process.

By introducing students to the technical intricacies creating Wikipedia pages, we address technology and content standards (NCTE/IRA 1996) in addition to allowing students to personally possess their education by actively constructing it. Students would explore firsthand the unspoken contradiction between the casual acceptance and academic restriction of the internet. In such a way, students pursue what Paulo Freire (1970) calls a “problem-posing education.” Instead of censoring information or feeding students sources, as from a cart of librarian-selected books, a problem-posing classroom embraces the constraints placed on the students in order to lead them to a higher level of consciousness about their place in the world and, today, their place on the net. Freire suggests the goal of education is to perceive the world not as “a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation.” Likewise, instead of seeing knowledge (represented by Wikipedia) as static, students learn the process behind creating knowledge, thus empowering them to contribute to the transformation of knowledge, both within themselves and in the greater world of the internet.

Incorporating and even welcoming this sometimes inaccurate, vandalism-prone medium into the classroom, educators gain a platform for exploring problems of source credibility, ethical standards in technology, and the democratic role of internet-users. By taking advantage of the novelty of the medium, we offer students the opportunity to speak as experts based on intimate prior knowledge and engage in higher order thinking by evaluating a media resource. By making Wikipedia the topic of discussion, the focus of a project-based, student-centered classroom, rather than the outlawed but still-consulted secret, students can identify the shortcomings of Wikipedia themselves and actively engage in improving it.

Origins of the Project: A Graduate Student’s Perspective

I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try Wikipedia-edits in a high school classroom. But I spent the year in public high schools as a candidate in Duke University’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) Program, a one-year, intensive teacher preparation program. I managed student teaching in Durham high schools while taking graduate English classes at Duke. Since the central element of our MAT program is the cultivation of reflective practices, I always observed my graduate professors and classmates metacognitively, taking notes on what I could bring back with me to the high school. I always tried to connect how seminar discussions with fellow graduate students might help me reach high schoolers, which was not always apparent. However, my experience in a course on the early American novel did more than bridge the gap.

Instead of fulfilling expectations about the class based on its title (“The Early American Novel”), the professor, Cathy Davidson, an interdisciplinary scholar and advocate for Wikipedia use, shattered and exceeded the students’ expectations. In the first class meeting candidates learned that the course would be devoted to improving public knowledge on the web and promoting the digital humanities (as opposed to the already-successful digital sciences). Like every successful educator, the professor set higher order thinking (evaluation not memorization) as the goal for the class. Bloom’s Taxonomy of thought, from which the term higher order thinking derives, guides many educators’ planning and applies to adolescents as well as adults.

Bloom puts forward an idea similar to Piaget’s notion of development, which categorizes thought into six levels that, like stair steps, lead the thinker from simple, lower order concerns like fact recall to more complex, higher order concerns like source evaluation. The learner progresses, in order, from knowledge, comprehension, and application to analysis, synthesis, and, finally, evaluation (Bloom 1956). This graduate literature course quickly escalated to evaluation. We questioned the very basis of our discipline, for instance, wondering why novels are categorized by nationality. We learned the content, but the main goal was always to address the big questions. By evaluating the novels, the canon, and the discipline, our discussions consistently kept the higher order concerns at hand while engaging students personally by requiring that each take responsibility for sharing knowledge gained in class with the online community.

To successfully defend the use of Wikipedia in any class, it is important to note here that this class focused on novels popular mainly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but not considered canonical or common knowledge. The Wikipedia pages for these texts reflected their marginal status, giving the class much to work with. Of the six novels on the syllabus, at the beginning of the semester, four of their Wikipedia pages were classified as stubs, one was short enough to be a stub, and one, though more thorough, cited no sources. Again, the unsung status of these subjects was key to ensuring the success of the Wikipedia project. These were the kinds of novels that have no SparkNotes, no eNotes, no cheat sheets. Having come from the public school system, entrenched in canonical classics, the idea of working with little-known literature struck a chord. While classics will generally maintain hold of education in terms of content, I could use less seminal works to teach skills––of source evaluation, writing drafts, conducting research––all in the name of Web 2.0. Imagine the impact high school students could have on the knowledge base of Wikipedia if, instead of using it as a source, they learned the value of finding print and non-print sources in order to contribute to the site; if, instead of turning in a book summary to the teacher and then throwing it away when returned, students were required to post the checked draft to Wikipedia, where it would be saved forever in the history of an article? Our small class of nine graduate students alone has since removed the stub status of all articles, added a significant number of sources, and, overall, contributed more than twenty kilobytes of information to early American novels on Wikipedia. High school students could improve the resource and feel a sense of empowerment and social responsibility, just as I did after adding my first edit.

As a teacher and learner, the experience of evaluating contemporary media and engaging in Web 2.0 materials during a course helped me see the value of maintaining a focus on relevance and immediacy in the classroom. Because of my experience in the course, I now spend hours looking through Wikipedia stubs and page histories, just correcting grammar and editing style. Even if students do not have internet access at home, this kind of project is so much at the core of our reading habits that it can follow the students beyond the classroom. For high schoolers, publishing on Wikipedia would provide a readership beyond the teacher and the classmate (NCTE/IRA 1996), subsequently offering an authentic writing experience for the student. In addition, research shows that adolescent brains favor novelty (Spear 2000), so bringing ever-new technology into the school keeps students engaged and looking forward to class. For teachers, principals, and families, this means students will be more likely to attend and less likely to stay home or linger outside school. In addition to using novel technology (which still seems young at eight years old), improving Wikipedia stubs necessarily involves interacting with new information. In order to supplement the SparkNotes Classics of our reading lists, students will interact with little-known books or subjects to increase the knowledge base of Wikipedia and to gain higher-order thinking skills.

Wikipedia Applied: A Classroom Project

We’ve explained how studying Wikipedia supports adolescent growth and higher order thinking in students from high school to graduate school. Now, based on my combined experience of using this tool in a graduate-level class and interacting with high school students on a daily basis, we will propose one method of implementing the project in a high school English classroom, explaining the educational or developmental impact of each different step. Wikipedia offers students an expansive opportunity for intellectual growth and innovation. Most curricula require research, summary, and writing skills. In this project students will gain all three, with the added benefit of increasing their technology and media knowledge. After assigning a project to ninth-graders in a public high school to create a Facebook page on a character from literature, I know that students with both extremes of ability level consider Web 2.0 a worthy and entertaining project. In addition, both levels of students find innovative ways of using technology that the teacher usually does not think of.

At the point in the school year in which the project would be introduced, my students will have already conducted research using a database. In addition, students will have practiced summarizing text and identifying main ideas. The Writing Wikipedia project reinforces research and summary skills in addition to incorporating the evaluation of information and opinions. The educational goals for the project enable students to 1) understand the need to verify information through multiple sources by experiencing the fluidity of knowledge on Wikipedia, 2) improve editing skills regarding clarity, style, and mechanics, 3) conduct research, cite, and synthesize information, and 4) understand that all new media requires critical evaluation.

At each step of this project, which culminates in expanding a Wikipedia stub, younger students need extensive support to help them utilize prior knowledge and skills in order to apply them to the next step of the process. This support, or scaffolding (Vygotsky 1978), ensures that the learners can reach a goal appropriate to their current skill level. If experience is an indicator, students can never have too much support; intermediate steps ensure gradual thought development and skill mastery. Vygotsky suggests that both scaffolding and social interaction increase the effectiveness of education (Vygotsky 1998); therefore, students should be divided into small groups to establish social development goals alongside intellectual ones.

The eight-step project outline that follows gives one approach to incorporating Wikipedia into a secondary classroom. Each step aligns with a level of thought from Bloom’s taxonomy or an instructional procedure found to be successful in previous university-level executions of the project.

1. Set the stage: The teacher conducts a Socratic-style seminar on the ethical and practical pros and cons of Web 2.0, including Wikipedia, Facebook, and YouTube. The class assembles a list of pros and cons to reference throughout the project. This initial discussion engages students in the project, allows them to speak as experts, and contextualizes editing Wikipedia as a timely and relevant problem. This discussion engages the highest order of thinking (evaluation, level six) from the start, thus issuing an initial buy-in from the students.

2. Learn the rules of Wikipedia: Students create a document that communicates, in their own words, the core values of Wikipedia. Instead of using direct instruction (lecture) to communicate the rules, the teacher allows students to construct this information by reading Wikipedia’s “About” section and its Manual of Style. This activity anticipates how students will interact with the page itself to answer questions throughout the project. Students should work together, ideally each at a computer, to instill at an early stage a sense of collegiality rather than competition. This step involves display of knowledge and comprehension (levels one and two).

3. Reinforce Wikipedia style: Since encyclopedia writing is very different than essay writing, the teacher needs to reinforce the importance of code-switching, that is, using different styles for different purposes. To assert style and content requirements, the teacher might lead students in evaluating numerous sentences copied from Wikipedia or other sources that may show bias or unverifiable information. In small groups, students could sort these sentences into two categories and explain their rationale for each grouping of “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” Once students begin to compare results, this activity results in productive debate. Students use analysis, Bloom’s fourth level of thinking, to group the sentences.

4. Introduce stubs and their weaknesses: The class explores the “List of Stub Categories” on Wikipedia to find small, incomplete articles on literature. At this point, students should explore the “History” of the article, including how to compare two versions of it. The teacher may choose to quickly demonstrate an edit on one of these pages to create a moment of cognitive dissonance, showing students the power they have to fix errors (or create them). One way to introduce students to the amount of work that needs to be done on Wikipedia would be to allow teams to print and edit a few pages for mechanics. This could also lead to an initial, less intimidating edit of a live page, thereby preparing students for their full content edits. This step engages Bloom’s third level of thinking, application, since learners apply previous editing knowledge to a new medium.

5. Stub selection: In order to best differentiate for a multi-level class the various requirements of page edits, the teacher should create heterogeneous (mixed-ability) groups of three to four members. As a team, students decide each member’s strength and assign each an appropriate role: for example, source identification, research, image addition, or style consistency. The teacher may choose to specify a stub category (for instance “Poetry stubs”) in order to avoid the indecision or vague goals characteristic of students faced with too much choice (Groom 2007). Student groups should then decide on a stub to expand. This step involves interpersonal evaluation (level six).

6. Research: This is the most important step and should be allotted enough time to ensure that it is truly effective. After surveying their entry, students should compile a list of information they will need to expand it. For instance, students might list “plot summary,” “list of characters,” “history of writing,” as categories to add. Since students are constructing their own knowledge in this project, the teacher should not suggest categories, but instead direct students to full Wikipedia entries on similar topics to see their format. The teacher leads students in research, which they will conduct collaboratively. Students will then synthesize the information (Bloom’s level five) into one document, for instance on GoogleDocs. At this point, the advanced student can take a leading role to ensure clarity and style consistency, two main critiques of Wikipedia. One student should also lead the others in ensuring the consistent use of in-line citations. Before publication, students peer-edit and the teacher reviews the articles.

7. Publish: To learn how to edit pages, students may look to the Wikipedia tutorial: The teacher may then refer students to the “Sandbox” feature on the site, which allows experimentation.

8. Follow-up: Sign up for the “Watch List” on all student-edited articles to see how other Wikipedians improve them. This may also allow students the opportunity to revert page vandalism.

At the end of publishing on Wikipedia, students can feel both a sense of entitlement and accomplishment for adding to public knowledge in a responsible and credible way. Student will have also gained critical research skills from page building. If not, they will soon find the page deleted by other Wikipedians. No grade can impact students like the acceptance or rejection of their work by the English-speaking, internet-using world.

Beyond the Classroom

Here, we’ve suggested a project-based method of integrating Wikipedia use in a secondary English classroom, an extension of the current university-level work, but the applicability of the project is wide-reaching.

In addition to teaching English content strands, this project offers faculty an opportunity for an interdisciplinary collaboration. Schools that pair English and History classes or use the Freshman Academy model to keep one small group of students circulating within a team of teachers could use Wikipedia for the basis of joint planning. Research skills are central to educational goals in many departments, as well as being central to Wikipedia’s standards.

As noted, the creation of Wikipedia pages enriches post-secondary and doctoral work by encouraging an active online community of scholars. Research universities’ humanities departments can use Wikipedia as an opportunity to break out of the ivory tower or the obscure journal to increase public interest, readership of their work on the web, and, eventually, readership in their subject area.

New teachers looking for positions in a competitive market of schools focused on twenty-first century skills benefit from understanding and embracing cutting-edge technology in the classroom or lecture hall––not as a cheap trick to lure the attention of hyperlinked brains, but as a platform for profound discussion on a topic for which boundaries have not yet been established. A discussion of Wikipedia may lead to one on social networking and its etiquette, for instance––a topic far from having such boundaries. Students are much more likely to take an active role in discussion when they know the teacher isn’t looking for a certain answer… Because right now there is no sure answer.

In a broader view, since Wikipedia pages and their history can be accessed from anywhere, a course on Wikipedia improvement could be offered by a variety of institutions. As a higher-order thinking project, Writing Wikipedia Pages could be a distance learning class gifted students in rural or underprivileged districts. Likewise, summer enrichment programs could develop such a project into an intensive workshop devoted to debating the social and ethical underpinnings of public knowledge before focusing on significantly expanding stubs into scholarly articles.

With Wikipedia edits in hand, our adolescents will have gained the power to impact readers all over the world, the resources to answer their own questions, and the critical analysis skills to evaluate sources. The next generation of information managers will know that Wikipedia is not a source, but rather a collection of sources and a seed for a powerful shift in the educational paradigm.


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Olanoff, L. (2007). School district unites in banning Wikipedia. Seattle Times. 11/21/2007.

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Broughton, J. (2008). Wikipedia: The missing manual. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media. Free copies for educator use.

Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC). Educator and graduate student perspectives on the digital humanities, including information on Cathy Davidson’s courses at Duke University.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning. Boston: MIT Press. Available to download free at

Wikipedia School and University Projects. Listing of Wikipedia-editing projects currently being conducted.