What makes for a good assignment at Rice University? Wikipedia!

Do you remember your favorite college assignments? I think mine were probably the essays I wrote for my undergraduate mentor, Richard D. Alexander at the University of Michigan. Maybe when I pack to move to St. Louis I’ll come across both the essays I wrote, and the blue mimeographed sheets describing the assignments. Or maybe we just got something general on the original syllabus. They will be on paper, and not found on any hard drive, that I know. Well, actually, I gave permission for some of my stream and pond studies at UMBS to be put online, but they don’t show up easily. The ones from Dick Alexander will have his round handwriting all over them, full of skepticism. I hope some of my students like and remember the assignments I have given them at Rice University. I hope they are proud of the work they did and remember it.

I’m a firm believer in independent, original scholarship, even by first-year students. This is most feasible if the instructions are clear and multiple drafts are required. I also like to make all the student’s work with comments available to everyone. This way students can compare the issues that challenge them with those that challenge others in the same class. They can see how others solve writing problems. This works only if everyone is doing a slightly different assignment, perhaps working on a different animal, same subject. And of course actual grades, by law, and decency, must be kept private. This leads to another thing I think is important: teamwork. If you see other’s work, it is natural to talk to them about it. But teamwork can be full of difficulties. Some students care more about the assignment than others. Some are free before its due, others wait until the last minute. It is important to design the project so teamwork happens but does not cripple the best students, or embarrass the weaker ones, except away from laziness. Life is about teamwork, and all the same issues come up, so learning the ins and outs now can only help.

The final thing that I think makes for a good assignment, is that it count in the real world. Rice students are so smart, so hard working, so delightful. It would be a shame to stick their excellent work in a drawer, or in a dusty corner of Owlspace. Their assignments can count in the real world in a number of ways. They can teach actively, as they did with high school students who came to campus one Saturday (more on this in a future blog). They can write chapters for a book, as the students did last year and the year before, for Mockingbird Tales, readings in animal behavior. This book is freely available in paper or download, or as a printed book for a modest fee. About a third of the written chapters made it into the book, some with heavy editing by other undergraduates, mostly Aparna Bhaduri, now in graduate school at Stanford. Another great way for assignments to count in the real world is if they are designed to help inform on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia sets its own standards, and has templates designed by user groups that should be followed. It is crucial that incorrect information be kept from Wikipedia, so articles should only go up after revisions, and careful review for accuracy. I would like my students to become lifelong scholars and learners, and to share their knowledge, whatever field or hobby they choose. I hope the post they do in Wikipedia for my class is only the first, and that this assignment will make it comfortable for them.

How do you get started with contributing to Wikipedia? I would go to a topic close to the one you plan to write about, say animal behavior. Well, animal behavior redirects to ethology, which is annoying. Ethology is a particular approach to animal behavior. How about behavioral ecology, actually a more accurate term for an evolutionary approach to animal behavior, one that distinguishes it from a more neurological approach? This is not a very good entry, and could use extensive rewriting. If you look under the discussion tab, you will see it is part of the WikiProject: Ecology, which is also problematic since it is more often viewed as a subcategory of evolution. The evolution entry is quite good, as is the one on adaptation, and so are good places to start. I think the higher categories like these are probably not worth arguing about under the Discussion tabs, since most people search directly for something more specific.

Another good thing to do when you’re thinking about writing for Wikipedia is to look at the criteria for a good article. A very few of the best articles become featured articles. My students could easily write articles that get this status. The plea for clarity, a neutral tone, careful referencing, and respect of copyright are important things to learn for all writing. Essential to writing for Wikipedia is to look at the Discussion tab for your topic, and to join the group.

There is so much to do for Wikipedia. Even the entry for my famous advisor Richard D. Alexander is woefully inadequate and needs rewriting immediately. They don’t even have a photo – I do if anyone decides to fix this now. For this and other biographies of living persons, Wikipedia has a place. But biographies are short, so a better assignment would be on an organism. But biographies are so lacking, maybe 2 biographies equals one insect. Hear that class? Here are just a few friends I did not find good entries for: Rita Cervo, Stefano Turillazzi, Stuart West, Ashleigh Griffin, Gerry Wilkinson, David Haig, Jacobus J. Boomsma, and Patricia G. Parker. Basically, nearly everyone I looked up needs a better article! They are all professors and therefore sufficiently famous to warrant an entry.

Sometimes narrowing the category is good. I think it would be good if my students chose an insect with interesting behavior, and wrote on that. They could join the insects wiki project. If they all work on insects, they can help each other more. If anyone felt strongly, I would be all right with another organism, say a social shrimp, or even a poorly-covered bird, or two biographies.

Do I need to give a more precise assignment than to write an article, preferably on an insect, that follows the guidelines here? It should be fully referenced using only primary literature as sources. Oh, I suppose you want a due date. There will be two, first and revised. First is 28 March, and revised is 14 April. Hey, why is my assignment for class in a blog????? Well, if you get credit for great work, why shouldn’t I publicize my assignments? Ultimately, I would like my entire class to be available to everyone.

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I could find some of my essays, but not the assignments. Here, however is an exam, and the instructions. Don’t you just love the way he says he may test you at any time because he really wants to know why you put something down? That’s Dick Alexander. He wants you to learn, and show him it has happened. Good old Zoology 475 back in 1974.

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This photograph of Dick Alexander was taken in June 2009, just about exactly 35 years after I graduated from University of Michigan, but his undergraduate teachings still guide me, and he still cares what I think, so I keep coming back.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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