Socect’s Weblog

Unsettled Thoughts/Works in Progress

Wiki Experiment… Day 18

It is now about 18 days since the Anthropology and the Human Condition Wiki went live. We have also now completed three weeks of the semester at NUS. I’m very encouraged – delighted, to be honest – with the results of this “experiment” in participatory learning so far. The Wiki format is bringing forth lots of thoughtful engagement with the topics and ideas in the course. Still early days… but bravo to all you brave souls who have gotten on early and boldly gone where no NUS students have gone before…

That said, a few reflections on using the Wiki, getting it going, and keeping it active…

THE FEAR OF WIKI… We met with the first two small-group discussion sections this week. It is clear that there is still a lot of uncertainty – and anxiety – surrounding the Wiki. What exactly are we supposed to DO with this thing? What exactly is required of us? I’ve created a page on the Wiki to try to allay some of these fears and calm nerves. But ultimately I believe all of this will be resolved in the end (and only) by participants – students – getting on the Wiki and working with it. The goal, expectation, hope is that this will be a transformative experience and the 70 or so participants in the course who started with little or no idea what a Wiki is let alone how to edit and create one will become saavy consumers and producers of this form of Internet-mediated communication.

MAKING THE LEAP, from discussion, blogging, chatting, and so forth to Wiki… So far, participants have added much more content to the discussion threads on the Wiki than to the main Wiki pages. As one of our participants in discussion sections today pointed out, the discussion thread area feels much less intimidating than contributing to Wiki pages. It is a space where participants feel more at ease commenting and expressing their take on things. So why Wiki at all? Because as pointed out in the same discussion, information is easily lost and hard to find in discussion threads. And the threads themselves are hard to follow. Wiki’s are set up to present a more concise, accessible – dare we say authoritative? – presentation of ideas, information or whatever.

FRAMING AND INCENTIVES… If you troll around various Wiki’s and similar media (like discussion forums), the fact is that most are the creation of a very small number or even just one dedicated individual. (Take a look at members and their contributions on Wetpaint wiki’s for example – often it is just one person adding substantial content.) Nothing wrong with that. But part of the power of the Wiki comes in harnessing the power and participation of as many members as possible. Moreover, for a course Wiki, my goal is for all the students to learn the Wiki format itself. To me, the best way to do this is to recognized that participation (time spent; blood, sweat and tears shed) by making it part of the graded evaluation. The cynical teachers out there (and I’m one of them sometimes) will bemoan the fact that ‘students never do anything except for a grade’. But turn that around a bit: As mentioned, the grading component gives recognition to this being an important part of what the students do in the course. In addition, students at NUS have lots of classes (five generally) with lots of instructors asking them to do lots of assignments all semester long. Is it fair to ask them to step up and “voluntarily” contribute to something like a Wiki… then moan and complain when they don’t?

FORM (FORMATTING) MATTERS… As one of the teaching assistants in the class emphasized, it is important to pay attention to formatting – and generally how the pages look – as well as the content. Formatting matters in terms of how accessible the material is. And let’s face it, plain old visual appeal makes a difference (at least one participant has said they think the Anthropology wiki background graphic is rather ugly… probably true… it seemed the best choice of those available at the time so leaving it for now… perhaps the class wants to find a better, more appealing one?… But, I digress.) The point is that attention needs to be given to formatting – including recognizing and rewarding that as part of “participating” in a course Wiki like this.

All for now… stay tuned to see how things evolve… or better yet, join us on the Wiki 🙂

August 30, 2008 Posted by | Teaching | , | 8 Comments

Society Reconsidered…

(Note: I’m cross posting this here and on the Sociology blog Singapore)

 “Understanding Singapore solely in terms of its citizen population is an unwarranted sociological fiction.”

 A couple days ago, I got back a first round of edits to proof for book chapter coauthored by myself and Zhang Juan (who completed her MA at NUS a couple years ago and is now doing a PhD based in Australia).

The chapter is: “Navigating Transnationalism: Immigration and Reconfigured Ethnicity” In: Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore, Bridget Welsh, James Chin, Arun Mahiznan, and Tan Tarn How, eds. Singapore: NUS Press (forthcoming, January 2009)

The quote above, from the chapter, reflects one reason why I think Singapore is a great place from which to do sociology (and anthropology) and thinking about society and culture generally.

Last time I looked (admittedly, about 5 years ago now) I came across statements in introductions to Sociology describing different levels of society, in which “the nation” was described as the highest level or largest form of social organization. IMHO, this is an untenable, deeply culture-bound theory of “society”.

That idea comes from Euro-American folk-theories of “nation”.

If we understand “society” to be defined by “social relationships” (relationships of reciprocity, exchange, interaction, etc.) then I would contend that any attempt to understand “society” in the context of Singapore will be extraordinarily incomplete if defined by the territorial borders of Singapore-as-nation-state.

The challenge (and opportunity) of doing sociology in Singapore (as our place/position from which to think about the world) is that this and many other sociological constructs developed in Europe and America do not fit the context we live in. Understanding Singapore also means that we need to think seriously about some common, oft-repeated, yet questionnable cliches about Singapore. For example, that “Singapore does not have a hinterland”. If by a hinterland, we mean those places outside of urban areas on which cities depend for labor and commerce, then this cliche is simply not accurate. Rather, the interesting point is that Singapore’s hinterland lies beyond the territorial boundaries of the nation-state (and it is worth thinking seriously about all the consequences this entails). Of course, I’m far from the first to think about this – many social researchers in FASS @ NUS have been addressing this and similar issues for sometime. But the idea remains a common one in Singapore generally (e.g. in some great discussion on the Anthropology and the Human Condition Wiki).

The point of raising this in the Sociology blog Singapore is to challenge all of us doing sociology and anthropology in Singapore to use our research to challenge (and we hope improve on) traditional sociological concepts – not just adopt them and try to squeeze the social realities of Singapore and Asia more generally into them.  (Yes – this means you, our intrepid grad students 🙂 ).

FYI a draft of the chapter is attached (that is if I can get the linking function to work…). (But later, please go out and buy the book!)

Navigating Transnationalism

August 23, 2008 Posted by | Research, Teaching | , | 1 Comment

Collaborating, Competing and Grades

“Pamanthropolgist” (another blogger) raised the question of how to assign grades for a collaborative project (like the Wiki). The problem is that on the one hand we want to encourage students to learn how to work cooperatively on projects. But the entire structure of the university (schools in general) is based on individual competition, expressed in terms of individual grades. So how to deal with this? (I was going to just reply to the comment, but this deserves a post of its own.)

This is always a difficult question – how to assign grades (credit) for a collaborative project. In the past, I’ve always had the students submit an evaluation of their own contributions and those of group members. They hate this. I’ve even been accused of being “unethical” (believe it or not) by one student who said that it was my job as instructor to give grades and unfair (unethical, in her words) to make students do it. Since then I’ve always been clear that I am the one assigning grades and that their evaluation forms are for me to get feedback on what goes on in the group. (In fact this has always been true, I’ve never assigned grades simply on student self-evaluations; rather they provide important inputs in the process.) I obviously can’t be present to see what every group is doing all the time (who is contributing and who is not). Mike Wesch has noted that he tried to use a group ‘self-grading’ system, but had to abandon (or change it) because students weren’t willing to grade down a popular but under-performing group member. (This is mentioned either in his blog or one of his online lectures… forget which).

In theory, the Wiki should make assigning grades easier. The contributions of every member of the wiki can be viewed by clicking on their profile. I did a fair amount of research on the web, trolling through education and course related Wiki’s before deciding to go ahead with a Wiki for SC2218. There seemed something of a consensus that the transparency of the Wiki (knowing exactly who contributed what) made assigning credit easier (compared to older formats for group projects). The downside (complaint) of some students is that the architecture of the Wiki seems to favor quantity over quality – specifically, the built in Wetpaint feature (the platform I’m using), which highlights those members who contribute the most (their picture appears in the “top contributors” sidebar; with the size weighted to the number of page edits). In my syllabus, I make clear that quality and cooperation will be given greater weight than quantity (though, quantity still counts to some degree – one really excellent post alone will unlikely be enough to get an exceptionally high grade for participating on the Wiki). On a member’s profile, one can see exactly what that person contributed and read through those contributions – this of course takes more time than just looking at the number of contributions. But with just a bit more effort one can see the quality of contributions not just their quantity.

The very simple answer to how we (I and my two teaching assistants) will be grading the Wiki is that 10% of the over all grade for the course will be based on participation on the Wiki. Students are assigned to contribute to certain parts of the Wiki (NUS has an internal “IVLE”… Integrated Virtual Learning Environment… system through which students will be automatically assigned to one of five “Wiki Groups”). So first, we will be looking to see that they have contributed to those pages and that the pages for their group are of good quality (in that sense there still is a “group” component). Next, we will be looking at their overall contributions beyond the pages assigned to their group. The 10% Wiki component of their grad will be based on that.

There is also a group project that they will be doing (won’t go into the details here). That will also be Wiki-mediated. Again this should make it somewhat more transparent who is contributing what. This helps to solve the problem of “slackers” getting lots of credit for other people’s work. But at the same time, this is still a group project and collaboration will be important. We are not going to look favorably on group members who appear to be trying to monopolize all the credit for their group project by trying to do everything themselves without collaborating with their peers (we don’t want to reward ‘kiasu’ behavior… Singaporeans know what I mean!).

All that said, I’m not going to hide the fact that this is the first time I am running the class with a Wiki platform. So although I’ve read enough and looked at enough examples to have some idea of what to expect, I’m sure some things will need to be worked out as this project proceeds.

August 13, 2008 Posted by | Teaching | , , | 4 Comments

Anthropology Course Wiki

After much fiddling, the “Anthropology and the Human Condition” Wiki has now gone live. It is open access for anyone to view. In order to contribute, edit content and post comments to the discussion threads, it is necessary to join as a member. It is primarily meant for students in SC2218: Anthropology and the Human Condition (a course in the Department of Sociology at NUS. But others are welcome to join, comment and contribute (constructively, please!!). The site is found at:

All students in SC2218 are required to join (and contribute to) the Wiki. Details about this can be found at the Wiki website.

August 12, 2008 Posted by | Teaching | | 3 Comments

A 4-Year Old on Race: It Ain’t So Black and White

Last March, while I was watching the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, my 4-year old son joined me. The first time he looked at the TV, he asked “Is that Uncle Alex?”

Uncle Alex a friend and lecturer here in Singapore. He’s from Uganda originally (but went to the same College as I did in Minnesota).


On a trip back to the US in June I picked up an Obama ’08 t-shirt (wearing it today, which reminded me of this). When I first wore it, my son stared and stared at it.

“Who is that?” I asked. To be honest, I was thinking of the basketball episode.

“Uncle Scott!” he said emphatically.

Uncle Scott, another friend and lecturer, is from Michigan and in American culture just as lily-white as me.

Children are wonderful.

Click here for a few more thoughts on the race thing.

August 1, 2008 Posted by | Random Walks | Leave a comment