Recalling ideas from my graduate school comrades Michael Miller and Erika Iverson – who first introduced me to using Wikis in the classroom – and guided by conversations with my colleague Joshua Beatty, I decided to design a course wiki project in which students would (I hoped) actualize the theoretical capacities and historical knowledge they cultivated throughout the semester. No grand pedagogical insight motivated this idea; I had no more than a hunch that an acceptably-designed and thoughtfully-guided wiki project would be meaningful and engaging to students in a way that my more traditional assignments would not. And so, my Fall 2019 class made the Justice and Politics Wiki – and it was successful enough that my Fall 2021 cohort built on and expanded it.
In a class centering theories of justice from antiquity to contemporary feminist and anti-racist scholarship (see the 2021 syllabus here), the wiki become a useful opportunity for students to concretize and apply their theoretical skills. In Fall 2019, I asked students to examine a realm of justice – disability justice or just war theory, to take two examples – in order to connect it to theoretical debates about justice to identify a current social movement, non-governmental organization, or international institution working in that sphere. In Fall 2021, students retained this option along with two other possibilities: an in-depth analysis of a thinker from any historical temporality or geopolitical location and the possibility of building on a page from the previous iteration of the wiki. In both courses, I provided specific guidelines about recommended sections for each kind of wiki page, number and type of sources to use, and so on.
Pedagogically, I have found this project constructive in several ways. First and most simply, I think a project such as this, which provides a rhetorical and analytical setting, a style, and a clear purpose (cue John Bean's work on writing pedagogy), helps situate students' analytical and writing work. Second, in a theory- and philosophy-heavy course, this assignment enables students to make connections between theory and practice that are relevant to them – or, in the additional Fall 2021 option, delve more comprehensively into a specific theorist. As SUNY Plattsburgh alum Niall Johnson wrote to me, "Justice is applicable to many situations that are often overlooked or under appreciated. It’s incredibly important to me to have worked on a project continuing towards perceiving and addressing injustice in all walks of life." Third, I think students find more meaning and solidity in this project than in other types of projects; as an instructor, this is certainly the case. Fourth, students developed a scholarly voice of their own and then, crucially, had that voice recognized by their peers as the Wiki coheres. They could in turn see and recognize their classmates' scholarship. For additional pedagogical considerations of wiki-based projects, please see, for instance, Kalaf-Hughes and Cravens 2021 and Harsell 2010.
There is one more dimension of this project that I have especially come to appreciate: its ability to create a longer lifespan for students' scholarly work and thus to generate a kind of institutional memory across different iterations of this course. We teach a class, students take a class and do some kind of final project, and frequently all the work this entailed fades from our embodied minds (all the more so in pandemic temporalities). With a course wiki persisting from one semester to the next, students have a permanent referent and exemplar of their academic work, and current students get to have an indirect relationship with their predecessors. Indeed, I have had students in 2021 and 2022 tell me they still look at and use the wiki pages they and their colleagues made, and just last week I used the 2019 jus ad bello entry to recommend a book to a student working on their capstone paper. All this is to say, a very pleasant consequence of the Justice and Politics Wiki has been the informal network created between students who may never meet but are nonetheless connected through their scholarly work, and thus the course-specific institutional memory this creates.
Logistically, the project is not difficult to administer and requires no technological know-how. I have used the free version of the PB Works wiki platform, which has the benefits of a simple yet usable page editor, a functionally unlimited number of contributors, and options for a public or private site. The text editor is a basic WYSIWG ("What You See is What You Get") tool, with which students had no difficulties.
I scaffolded the project in a way similar to what many of us already do with a variety of assignment types: students were asked to read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page about Justice to get a sense of the style and tone we were aiming for; identified a topic in consultation with me; submitted an annotated bibliography; turned in a detailed outline or a partial draft; and then created their page on the Wiki. One solidaristic benefit of the project is the ability to organize the final exam session as a class edit-a-thon for the Justice wiki, enabling students to show off and celebrate their work, see connections with other students' writing and create links within the wiki so that different pages spoke to one enother, and do some copy editing for and with one another. In terms of assessment, in the Fall 2019 semester my students and I collaboratively made a rubric for the assignment, which I re-used with minor modifications in Fall 2021.
A wiki project is adaptable to a wide range of law and justice courses–not to mention courses across a range of other disciplines. Perhaps the greatest endorsement I can give of this type project is that I intend to create a version of it for teaching a new course in anticolonial political thought in the Fall 2022 semester. I can envision a wiki structured around decisions or doctrines in a constitutional law course, around models of judicial decision-making in a judicial politics course, around conventions and international organizations in a human rights course, around national and regional legal systems in a comparative law course, to name just a few. One could alternatively use a wiki throughout the semester to archive key concepts and cases students learned throughout the semester. Moreover, this wiki assignment can be used in face-to-face, hybrid/hyflex, and remote classrooms, and can be completed by students working individually or in groups. In all of these variations, I would expect a wiki project to cultivate some of the same student capacities and relationalities that I have witnessed with the Justice and Politics Wiki.
If you are considering developing a wiki-style assignment for your course, please feel free to contact me.
John McMahon is Assistant Professor of Political Science at SUNY Plattsburgh, where he teaches classes in political theory and racial and gender politics and helps coordinate the interdisciplinary Law & Justice major. He has been a member of the CULJP Board since 2020. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
(Above) Screenshot of PB Works page editor