I have written before about my dislike for disposable writing assignments in college courses. Like math homework, they serve a purpose in having students practice various concepts, but both are seen by students as busy work. Research papers can be made more palatable by giving students enough choice in the topic to establish personal relevance. However, as long as the paper ends up filed away in either the instructor’s or the student’s filing cabinet, it remains merely an ineffective exercise with a single reader.

One common alternative is the course blog. In my class on science and literature, one of my student’s wrote a blog post on the representation of vivisection in the Island of Doctor Moreau, which has been read 319 times so far this year. The thing is that the paper was written in 2014. All told, since he posted it, the paper has been viewed 1,239 times. Lately, the post has been getting about 55 views a week, primarily from Google searches about the book. This student writing a junior level paper that could have been filed away in my cabinet contributed to public knowledge about H.G. Wells and vivisection in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

While I worry about the proliferation of abandoned course blogs, that course site from the summer of 2014 still gets about 600 views a month, about twice as many as this personal blog. Here’s a breakdown of the top posts for May:

Table of views in May for my After Newton blog

I think it’s easier to motivate students to put in work on their research and writing when they know it will be publicly available and possibly widely read. There is also value in showing students that they can contribute to the knowledge community and challenging them to do so.

A second possibility for public writing, and one that frankly dwarfs the course blog in terms of readership, is writing for Wikipedia. My mentor, Peter Barker, taught a survey course on the history of science since 1700 last fall. In that course, Peter asked his students to make edits to improve the Wikipedia articles on the various subjects that they were studying.

Screen Shot of the Wiki Education Dashboard

Notice that the 84 articles edited by the students have been viewed 3.67 million times since those edits were made. That’s so incredible I assumed it must be a glitch, but you can access the views by article on the site. Obviously, most of the articles weren’t created by the students. But as we ask students to join intellectual discussions in our courses and contribute to the broader knowledge community, why would we ever choose to assign a single reader paper over writing for a public audience.