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Using Wikipedia in the Composition Classroom and Beyond: Encyclopedic “Neutrality,” Social Inequality, and Failure as Subversion

Abstract

Instructors who use Wikipedia in the classroom typically focus on teaching students how to adopt the encyclopedia’s content practices so that they can improve their writing style and research skills, and conclude with an Edit-a-Thon that invites them to address Wikipedia’s social inequalities by writing entries about minority groups. Yet these approaches do not sufficiently highlight how Wikipedia’s social inequalities function at the level of language itself. In this article, I outline a pedagogical approach that invites students to examine the ways that language and politics shape, and are shaped by, each other on Wikipedia. In the case of my Spring 2020 class, my approach encouraged students to examine the relationship between Wikipedia’s content policies and white supremacy, and Wikipedia’s claims to neutrality. I also draw on the Edit-A-Thon that I organized at the end of the unit to show how instructors can extend a critical engagement with Wikipedia by building in moments of failure, in addition to success. In the process, my pedagogical approach reminds instructors—especially in composition and writing studies—to recognize that it is impossible to teach writing decoupled from the politics of language.

Wikipedia has become a popular educational tool over the last two decades, especially in the fields of composition and writing studies. The online encyclopedia’s “anyone-can-edit” ethos emphasizes the collective production of informative writing for public audiences, and instructors have found that they can use it to teach students about writing processes such as citation, collaboration, drafting, editing, research, and revision, in addition to stressing topics such as audience, tone, and voice (Purdy 2009, 2010; Hood 2009; Vetter, McDowell, and Stewart 2019; Xing and Vetter 2020). Composition courses that use Wikipedia have thus begun to follow a similar pattern. Students examine Wikipedia’s history, examine the way its three content policies (Neutral point-of-view [NPOV], no original research, and verifiability) govern how entries are written and what research sources are cited, and discuss the advantages and limits of Wikipedia’s open and anonymous community of volunteer contributors. Then, as a final assignment, instructors often ask students to edit an existing Wikipedia entry or write their own. By contrast, instructors in fields like cultural studies, feminism, and postcolonialism foreground Wikipedia’s social inequalities by asking students to examine how its largely white and male volunteer editors have resulted in the regrettable lack of topics about women and people of color (Edwards 2015; Pratesi, Miller, and Sutton 2019; Rotramel, Parmer, and Oliveira 2019; Montez 2017; Koh and Risam n.d.). When they ask students to edit or write Wikipedia entries, these instructors also invite students to focus on minority groups or underrepresented topics, thus transforming the typical final assignment into one that mirrors the Edit-A-Thons hosted by activist groups like Art + Feminism.

The socially conscious concerns that instructors in cultural studies, feminism, and postcolonialism have raised are compelling because they foreground Wikipedia’s power dynamics. When constructing my own first-year undergraduate writing course at the University of Virginia, then, I sought to combine these concerns with the general approach instructors in composition and writing studies are using. In the Fall 2019 iteration of my course, my students learned about topics like collaborative writing and citation, in addition to examining academic and journalistic articles about the encyclopedia’s racial and gender inequalities. The unit concluded with a two-day Edit-A-Thon focused on African American culture and history. The results seemed fabulous: my brilliant students produced almost 20,000 words on Wikipedia, and created four new entries—one about Harlem’s Frederick Douglass Book Center and three about various anti-slavery periodicals.[1] In their reflection papers, many conveyed that Edit-A-Thons could help minority groups and topics acquire greater visibility, and argued that the encyclopedia’s online format accelerates and democratizes knowledge production.

Yet, as an instructor, I felt that I had failed to sufficiently emphasize how Wikipedia’s content policies also played a role in producing the encyclopedia’s social inequalities. Although I had devoted a few classes to those policies, the approaches I adapted for my unit from the composition and the cultural studies fields meant my students only learned how to adopt those policies—not how to critically interrogate them. The articles we read also obscured how these policies relate to the encyclopedia’s social inequalities because scholars and journalists often conceptualize such inequalities in terms of proportion, describing how there is more or less information about this particular race or that particular gender (Lapowsky 2015; Cassano 2015; Ford 2011; Graham 2011; John 2011). Naturally, then, that’s how our students learn to frame the issue, too—especially when the Edit-A-Thons we organize for them focus on adding (or subtracting) content, rather than investigating how Wikipedia’s inequalities also occur due to the way the encyclopedia governs language. Similar observations have been raised by feminist instructors like Leigh Gruwell, who has found that Wikipedia’s policies “exclude and silence feminist ways of knowing and writing” and argued that current pedagogical models have not yet found ways to invoke Wikipedia critically (Gruwell 2015).[2]

What, then, might a pedagogical model that does invoke Wikipedia critically look like? I sought to respond to this question by creating a new learning goal for the Wikipedia unit in the Spring 2020 iteration of my course. This time around, I would continue to encourage my students to use Wikipedia’s content policies to deepen their understanding of the typical topics in a composition course, but I would also invite them to examine how those policies create—and then conceal—inequalities that occur at the linguistic level. In this particular unit, we concentrated on how various writers had used Wikipedia’s content policies to reinscribe white supremacy in an entry about UVa’s history. The unit concluded with an Edit-A-Thon where students conducted research on historical materials from UVa’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library to produce a Wikipedia page about the history of student activism at UVa. This approach did not yield the flashy, tweet-worthy results I saw in the Fall. But it is—to my mind—much more important, not only because it is influenced by postcolonial theorists such as Gayatri Spivak, who has demonstrated that neutrality or “objectivity” is impossible to achieve in language, but also because it prompted my students to discuss how language and politics shape, and are shaped by, each other. In the process, this approach also reminds instructors—especially in composition and writing studies—to recognize that it is impossible to teach writing decoupled from the politics of language. Indeed, Jiawei Xing and Matthew A. Vetter’s recent survey of 113 instructors who use Wikipedia in their classrooms reveals that they did so to develop their students’ digital communication, research, critical thinking, and writing skills, but only 40% of those instructors prompted their students to engage with the encyclopedia’s social inequalities as well (Xing and Vetter 2020). While the study’s participant pool is small and not all the instructors in that pool teach composition and writing courses, the results remain valuable because they suggest that current pedagogical models generally do not ask students to examine the social inequalities that Wikipedia’s content policies produce. This article therefore outlines an approach that I used to invite my students to explore the relationship between language and social inequalities on Wikipedia, with the hope that other instructors may improve upon, and then interweave, this approach into existing Wikipedia-based courses today.

Given that this introduction (and the argument that follows) stress a set of understudied issues in Wikipedia, however, my overall insistence that we should continue using Wikipedia in our classrooms may admittedly seem odd. Wouldn’t it make more sense, some might ask, to support those who have argued that we should stop using Wikipedia altogether? Perhaps—but I would have to be a fool to encourage my students to disavow an enormously popular online platform that is amassing knowledge at a faster rate than any other encyclopedia in history, averages roughly twenty billion views a month, and shows no signs of slowing down (“Wikimedia Statistics – All Wikis” n.d.). Like all large-scale projects, the encyclopedia contains problems—but, as instructors, we would do better to equip our students with the skills to address such problems when they arise. The pedagogical approach that I describe in this paper empowers our students to identify some problems directly embedded in Wikipedia’s linguistic structures, rather than studying demographic data about the encyclopedia alone. Only when these internal dynamics are grasped can the next generation then begin to truly reinvent one of the world’s most important platforms in the ways that they desire.

1. Wikipedia’s Neutrality Problem

Wikipedia’s three interdependent content policies—no original research, verifiability, and neutral point of view—are a rich opportunity for students to critically engage with the encyclopedia. Neutral point of view is the most non-negotiable policy of the three, and the Wikipedia community defines it as follows:

Neutral point of view (NPOV) … means representing fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without editorial bias, all the significant views that have been published by reliable sources about the topic … [it means] carefully and critically analyzing a variety of reliable sources and then attempting to convey to the reader the information contained in them fairly, proportionally … including all verifiable points of view. (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020)

Brief guidelines like “avoid stating opinions as facts” and “prefer nonjudgmental language” (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020) follow this definition. My students in both semesters fixated on these points and the overall importance of eschewing “editorial bias” when engaging with NPOV for the first time—and for good reason. A writing style that seems to promise fact alone is particularly alluring to a generation who has grown up on fake news and photoshopped Instagram bodies. It is no surprise, then, that my students responded enthusiastically to the first writing exercise I assigned, which asks them to pick a quotidian object and describe it from what they understood to be a neutral point of view as defined by Wikipedia. The resulting pieces were well-written. When I ran my eyes over careful descriptions about lamps, pillows, and stuffed animals, I glimpsed what Purdy and the composition studies cadre have asserted: that writing for Wikipedia does, indeed, provoke students to write clearly and concisely, and pay closer attention to grammar and syntax.

Afterwards, however, I asked my students to consider the other part of NPOV’s definition: that the writer should proportionally articulate multiple perspectives about a topic (“Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View” 2020). A Wikipedia entry about our planet, for example, would include fringe theories claiming the Earth is flat—but a writer practicing NPOV would presumably ensure that these claims do not carry what Wikipedians describe as “undue weight” over the scientific sources which demonstrate that the Earth is round. Interestingly, the Wikipedia community’s weighing rhetoric associates the NPOV policy with the archetypal symbol of justice: the scales. Wikipedians do not merely summarize information. By adopting NPOV, they appear to summarize information in the fairest way. They weigh out different perspectives and, like Lady Justice, their insistence on avoiding editorial bias seems to ensure that they, too, are metaphorically “blindfolded” to maintain impartiality.

Yet, my students and I saw how NPOV’s “weighing” process, and Wikipedia’s broader claims to neutrality, quickly unraveled when we compared a Wikipedia entry to another scholarly text about the same subject. Comparing and contrasting texts is a standard pedagogical strategy, but the exercise—when raised in relation to Wikipedia—is often used to emphasize how encyclopedic language differs from fiction, news, or other writing genres, rather than provoking a critical engagement with Wikipedia’s content policies. In my Spring 2020 course, then, I shifted the purpose of this exercise. This time around, we compared and contrasted two documents—UVa’s Wikipedia page and Lisa Woolfork’s “‘This Class of Persons’: When UVa’s White Supremacist Past Meets Its Future”—to study the limits of Wikipedia’s NPOV policy.

Both documents construct two very different narratives to describe UVa’s history. My students and I discovered that their differences are most obvious when they discuss why Thomas Jefferson established UVa in Charlottesville, and the role that enslaved labor played in constructing the university:

Wikipedia Woolfork
In 1817, three Presidents (Jefferson, James Monroe, and James Madison) and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court John Marshall joined 24 other dignitaries at a meeting held in the Mountain Top Tavern at Rockfish Gap. After some deliberation, they selected nearby Charlottesville as the site of the new University of Virginia. [24]. (“University of Virginia” 2020) On August 1, 1818, the commissioners for the University of Virginia met at a tavern in the Rockfish Gap on the Blue Ridge. The assembled men had been charged to write a proposal … also known as the Rockfish Gap Report. … The commissioners were also committed to finding the ideal geographical location for this undertaking [the university]. Three choices were identified as the most propitious venues: Lexington in Rockbridge County, Staunton in Augusta County, and Central College (Charlottesville) in Albemarle County. … The deciding factor that led the commissioners to choose Albemarle County as the site for the university was exclusively its proximity to white people. The commissioners observed, “It was the degree of the centrality to the white population of the state which alone then constituted the important point of comparison between these places: and the board … are of the opinion that the central point of the white population of the state is nearer to the central college….” (Woolfork 2018, 99–100)
Like many of its peers, the university owned slaves who helped build the campus. They also served students and professors. The university’s first classes met on March 7, 1825. (“University of Virginia” 2020) For the first fifty years of its existence, the university relied on enslaved labor in a variety of positions. In addition, enslaved workers were tasked to serve students personally. … Jefferson believed that allowing students to bring their personal slaves to college would be a corrosive influence. … [F]aculty members, however, and the university itself owned or leased enslaved people. (Woolfork 2018, 101)

Table 1. Comparison of Wikipedia and Woolfork on why Thomas Jefferson established UVa in Charlottesville, and the role that enslaved labor played in constructing the university

Although the two Wikipedia extracts “avoid stating opinions as facts,” they expose how NPOV’s requirement that a writer weigh out different perspectives to represent all views “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible” is precisely where neutrality breaks down. In the first pair of extracts, the Wikipedia entry gives scant information about why Jefferson selected Charlottesville. Woolfork’s research, however, outlines that what contributors summarized as “some deliberation” was, in fact, a discussion about locating the university in a predominantly white area. The Wikipedia entry cites source number 24 to support the summary, but the link leads to a Shenandoah National Park guide that highlights Rockfish Gap’s location, instead of providing information about the meeting. Woolfork’s article, by contrast, carefully peruses the Rockfish Gap Report, which was produced in that meeting.

One could argue, as one of my students did, that perhaps Wikipedia’s contributors had not thought to investigate why Jefferson chose Charlottesville, and therefore did not know of the Rockfish Gap Report’s existence—and that is precisely the point. The Wikipedia entry’s inclusion of all three Presidents and the Chief Justice suggests that, when “weighing” different sources and pursuing a range of perspectives about the university’s history, previous contributors decided—whether knowingly or unconsciously—that describing who was at the meeting was a more important viewpoint. They fleshed out a particular strand of detail that would cement the university’s links to American nationalism, rather than inquire how and why Charlottesville was chosen. An entry that looks comprehensive, balanced, well-cited, and “neutral,” then, inevitably prioritizes certain types of information based on the information and the lines of inquiry its contributors choose to expand upon.

The second pair of extracts continue to reveal the fractures in the NPOV policy. Although Woolfork’s research reveals that the university used enslaved labor for the first 50 years, the only time the 10,000-word Wikipedia entry mentions slavery is buried within the three sentences I copied above, which undercuts NPOV’s claims to proportionality. Moreover, the first sentence carefully frames the university’s previous ownership of slaves as usual practice (“like many of its peers”). It is revealing that the sentence does not gaze, as it has done for the majority of the paragraph where this extract is located, on UVa alone—but expands outward to include all universities when conveying this specific fact about slavery. Interestingly, these facts about enslaved labor also come before the sentence about the university’s first day of classes. This means that the entry, which has so far proceeded in chronological fashion, suddenly experiences a temporal warp. It places the reader within the swing of the university’s academic life when it conveys that students and professors benefitted from enslaved labor, only to pull the reader backwards to the first day of classes in the next sentence, as though it were resetting the clock.

I want to stress that the purpose of this exercise was not to examine whether Woolfork’s article is “better” or “truer” than the Wikipedia entry, nor was it an opportunity to undercut the writers of either piece. Rather, the more complex concept my students grappled with was how the article and the entry demonstrate why the true/false—or neutral/biased—binaries that Wikipedia’s content policies rely on are themselves flawed. One could argue that both pieces about UVa are “true,” but the point is that they are slanted differently. The Wikipedia entry falls along an exclusively white axis, while Woolfork’s piece falls along multiple axes—Black and white—and demonstrates how both are actually intertwined due to the university’s reliance on enslaved labor. From a pedagogical standpoint, then, this exercise pushed my students in two areas often unexplored in Wikipedia assignments.

First, it demonstrated to my students that although phrases like “editorial bias” in Wikipedia’s NPOV guidelines presuppose an occasion where writing is impartial and unadulterated, such neutrality does not—and cannot—exist. Instructors in composition studies often ask students to practice NPOV writing for Wikipedia to improve their prose. This process, however, mistakenly conveys that neutrality is an adoptable position even though the comparative exercise I outlined above demonstrates neutrality’s impossibility.

Second, the comparative exercise also demonstrated to my students that Wikipedia’s inequalities occur at the linguistic level as much as the demographic level. Instructors in cultural studies frequently host Edit-A-Thons for their students to increase content about minority cultures and groups on Wikipedia, but this does not address the larger problem embedded in NPOV’s “weighing” of different perspectives. The guidelines state that Wikipedians must weigh perspectives proportionally—but determining what proportionality is to begin with is up to the contributors, as evinced by the two Wikipedia extracts I outlined. Every time a writer weighs different sources and perspectives to write an entry, what they are really doing is slanting their entry along certain axes of different angles, shapes, shades, and sizes. In the articles my students read, the most common axis Wikipedians use, whether knowingly or unconsciously, is one that centers white history, white involvement, and white readers. For example, as my students later discovered in Wikipedia’s “Talk” page for the entry about UVa, when two editors were discussing whether the university’s history of enslaved labor rather than its honor code should be mentioned in the entry’s lead, one editor claimed that the enslaved labor was not necessarily “the most critical information that readers need to know” (“University of Virginia” 2020).[3] Which readers? Who do Wikipedians have in mind when they use that phrase? In this instance, we see how “weighing” different perspectives not only leads one to elevate one piece of information over another, but also one type of reader over another.

As instructors, we need to raise these questions about audience, perspective, and voice in Wikipedia for our students. It is not so much that we have not covered these topics: we just haven’t sufficiently asked our students to engage with the social implications of these topics, like race (and, as Gruwell has said so cogently, gender). One way to begin doing so is by inflecting our pedagogical approaches with the discoveries in fields such as postcolonial studies and critical race studies. For example, my pedagogical emphasis on the impossibility of neutrality as I have outlined it above is partially indebted to critics like Gayatri Spivak. Her work has challenged the western critic’s tendency to appear as though they are speaking from a neutral and objective perspective, and demonstrated how these claims conceal the ways that such critics represent and re-present a subject in oppressive ways (Spivak 1995). Although her scholarship is rooted in deconstructionism and postcolonial theory, her concerns about objectivity’s relationship to white western oppression intersects with US-based critical race theory, where topics like objectivity are central. Indeed, as Michael Omi and Howard Winant have explained, racism in the United States proliferated when figures like Dr. Samuel Morton established so-called “objective” biological measures like cranial capacity to devalue the Black community while elevating the white one (Omi and Winant 1994).

I mention these critics not to argue that one must necessarily introduce a piece of advanced critical race theory or postcolonial theory to our students when using Wikipedia in the composition classroom (although this would of course be a welcome addition for whoever wishes to do so). After all, I never set Spivak’s “Can The Subaltern Speak?” as reading for my students. But what she revealed to me about the impossibility of neutrality in that famous paper prompted me to ask my students about Wikipedia’s NPOV policy in our class discussions and during our comparative exercise, rather than taking that policy for granted and inviting my students to adopt it. If instructors judiciously inflect their pedagogical practices with the viewpoints that critical race theory and postcolonial theory provide, then we can put ourselves and our students in a better position to see how digital writing on sites like Wikipedia are not exempt from the dynamics of power and oppression that exist offline. Other areas in critical race theory and postcolonial theory can also be brought to bear on Wikipedia, and I invite others to uncover those additional links. Disciplinary boundaries have inadvertently created the impression that discoveries in postcolonialism or critical race theory should concern only the scholars working within those fields, but the acute sensitivity towards power, marginalization, and oppression that these fields exhibit mean that the viewpoints their scholars develop are relevant to any instructor who desires to foster a more socially conscious classroom.

2. The Edit-a-Thon: Failure as Subversion

Composition classes that use Wikipedia usually conclude with an assignment where students are invited to write their own entry. For cultural studies courses in particular, students address the lack of content about minority cultures or groups by participating in a themed Edit-A-Thon organized by their instructor. These Edit-A-Thons mirror the Edit-A-Thons hosted by social justice organizations and activism groups outside of the university. These groups usually plan Edit-A-Thons in ways that guarantee maximum success for the participants because many are generously volunteering their time. Moreover, for many participants, these Edit-A-Thons are the first time where they will write for Wikipedia, and if the goal is to inspire them to continue writing after the event, then it is crucial that their initial encounter with this process is user-friendly, positive, and productive. This is why these events frequently offer detailed tutorials on adopting Wikipedia’s content policies, and provide pre-screened secondary source materials that adhere to Wikipedia’s guidelines about “no original research” (writing about topics for which no reliable, published sources exist) and “verifiability” (citing sources that are reliable). Indeed, these thoughtful components at the Art + Feminism Edit-A-Thon event I attended a few years ago at the Guggenheim Museum ensured that I had a smooth and intellectually stimulating experience when I approached Wikipedia as a volunteer writer for the first time. It was precisely because this early experience was so rewarding that Wikipedia leapt to the forefront of my mind when I became an instructor, and was searching for ways to expand student interest in writing.

It is because I am now approaching Wikipedia as an instructor rather than a first-time volunteer writer, however, that I believe we can amplify critical engagement with the encyclopedia if we set aside “success” as an end goal. Of course, there is no reason why one cannot have critical engagement and success as dual goals, but when I was organizing the Edit-a-Thon in my class, I noticed that building in small instances of “failure” enriched the encounters that my students had with Wikipedia’s content policies.

The encyclopedia stipulates that one should not write about organizations or institutions that they are enrolled in or employed by, so I could not invite my students to edit the entry about UVa’s history itself. Instead, I invited them to create a new entry about the history of student activism at UVa using materials at our library.[4] When I was compiling secondary sources for my students, however, I was more liberal with this list in the Spring than I was in the Fall. Wikipedians have long preferred secondary sources like articles in peer-reviewed journals, books published by university presses or other respected publishing houses, and mainstream newspapers (“Wikipedia: No Original Research” 2020) to ensure that writers typically center academic knowledge when building entries about their topic. Thus, like the many social justice and non-profit organizations who host Edit-A-Thons, for Fall 2019 I pre-screened and curated sources that adhered to Wikipedia’s policies so that my students could easily draw from them for the Edit-A-Thon.

In Spring 2020, however, I invited my students to work with a range of primary and secondary sources—meaning that some historical documents like posters, zines, and other paraphernalia, either required different reading methods than academically written secondary sources, or were impossible to cite because to write about them would constitute as “original research.” Experiencing the failure to assimilate other documents and forms of knowledge that are not articulated as published texts can help students interrogate Wikipedia’s lines of inclusion and exclusion, rather than simply taking them for granted. For example, during one particularly memorable conversation with a student who was studying hand-made posters belonging to student activist groups that protested during UVa’s May Days strikes in 1950, she said that she knew she couldn’t cite the posters or their contents, but asked: “Isn’t this history, too? Doesn’t this count?”

By the end of the Spring Edit-a-Thon, my students produced roughly the same amount of content as the Fall class, but their reflection papers suggested that they had engaged with Wikipedia from a more nuanced perspective. As one student explained, a Wikipedia entry may contain features that signal professional expertise, like clear and formal prose or a thick list of references drawn from books published by university presses and peer-reviewed journals, but still exclude or misconstrue a significant chunk of history without seeming to do so.

A small proportion of my students, however, could not entirely overcome one particular limitation. Some continued describing Wikipedia’s writing style as neutral even after asserting that neutrality in writing was impossible in previous pages of their essay. It is possible that this dissonance occurred accidentally, or because such students have not yet developed a vocabulary to describe what that style was even when they knew that it was not neutral. My sense, however, is that this dissonance may also reflect the broader (and, perhaps, predominantly white) desire for the fantasy of impartiality that Wikipedia’s policies promise. Even if it is more accurate to accept that neutrality does not exist on the encyclopedia, this knowledge may create discomfort because it highlights how one has always already taken up a position on a given topic even when one believes they have been writing “neutrally” about it, especially when that topic is related to race. Grasping this particular point is perhaps the largest challenge facing both the student—and the instructor—in the pedagogical approach I have outlined.

Notes

[1] The results for the Fall 2019 Edit-A-Thon are here. The results for the Spring 2020 Edit-A-Thon are here.

[2] Some of those in composition studies, like Paula Patch and Matthew A. Vetter, partially address Gruwell’s call. Patch, for example, has constructed a framework for critically evaluating Wikipedia that prompts students to focus on authorship credibility, reliability, interface design, and navigation (Patch 2010), often by comparing various Wikipedia entries to other scholarly texts online or in print. By contrast, Vetter’s unit on Appalachian topics on Wikipedia focused on the negative representations of the region within a larger course that sought to examine the way that Appalachia is continually marginalized in mainstream media culture (Vetter 2018).

[3] An extract from the Talk page conversation:

Natureium removed the mention of slavery from the lead as undue. I don’t see why that fact would be undue, but the dozens and dozens of other facts in the lead are not. I mean, the university is known for its student-run honor code? Seriously? (None of the sources in the section on that topic seem to prove that fact.) In addition, I see language in the lead such as “UVA’s academic strength is broad”—if there’s work to be done on the lead, it should not be in the removal of a foundation built with slave labor. If anything, it balances out what is otherwise little more than a jubilation of UvA that could have been written by the PR department. Drmies (talk) 17:40, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

I think this is an area where we run into a difficult problem that plagues projects like Wikipedia that strive to reflect and summarize extant sources without publishing original research. As a higher ed scholar I agree that an objective summary of this (and several other U.S.) university [sic] would prominently include this information. However, our core policies restrict us from inserting our own personal and professional judgments into articles when those judgments are not also matched by reliable sources. So we can’t do this until we have a significant number of other sources that also do this. (I previously worked at a research center that had a somewhat similar stance where the director explained this kind of work to some of us as “we follow the leading edge, we don’t make it.”) ElKevbo (talk) 19:36, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

But here, UvA has acknowledged it, no? Drmies (talk) 20:52, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

Yes and there are certainly enough reliable sources to include this information in the article. But to include the information in the lede is to assert that it’s the most critical information that readers need to know about this subject and that is a very high bar that a handful of self-published sources are highly unlikely to cross. Do scholars and other authors include “was built by slaves” when they first introduce this topic or summarize it? If not, we should not do so. ElKevbo (talk) 21:27, 18 September 2018 (UTC)

[4] The COVID-19 pandemic, which began toward the end of our Edit-A-Thon, meant that my students and I were unable to clean up the draft page and sufficiently converse with other editors who had raised various concerns about notability and conflict of interest, so it is not yet published on Wikipedia. We hope to complete this soon. In the meantime, I want to note that had the pandemic not occurred, I would have presented the concerns of these external editors to my students, and used their comments as another opportunity to learn more about the way that Wikipedia prioritizes certain types of knowledge. The first concern was the belief that the history of student activism at UVa was not a notable enough topic for Wikipedia because there was not enough general news coverage about it. Although another editor later refuted this claim, the impulse to rely on news coverage to determine whether a topic was notable enough is interesting within the context of student activism, and other social justice protests more broadly. Activist movements are galvanized by the very premise that a particular minority group or issue has not yet been taken seriously by those in power, or by the majority of a population. Some protests, like the Black Lives Matter movement and Hong Kong’s “Revolution of our Times,” have gained enough news coverage across the globe to count as notable topic. Does that mean, however, that protests on a smaller scale, and with less coverage, are somehow less important?

The second concern about conflict of interest also raises another question: Does the conflict of interest policy prevent us (and others) from fulfilling UVa’s institutional responsibility to personally confront our university’s close relationships to enslaved labor, white supremacy, and colonization, and foreground the activist groups and initiatives within UVa that have tried to dismantle these relationships? If so, will—or should—Wikipedia’s policy change to accommodate circumstances like this? These are questions that I wish I had the opportunity to pose to my students.

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Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1995. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, edited by Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. 28–37. 2nd ed. Oxford: Routledge.

Wikipedia. 2020.“University of Virginia.” Last modified 2020. In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=University_of_Virginia&oldid=965972109.

Vetter, Matthew A. 2018. “Teaching Wikipedia: Appalachian Rhetoric and the Encyclopedic Politics of Representation.” College English 80, no. 5: 397–422.

Vetter, Matthew A., Zachary J. McDowell, and Mahala Stewart. 2019. “From Opportunities to Outcomes: The Wikipedia-Based Writing Assignment.” Computers and Composition 59: 53–64.

Wikipedia. “Wikimedia Statistics – All Wikis.” n.d. Accessed October 13, 2020. https://stats.wikimedia.org/#/all-projects.

Wikipedia. “Wikipedia:Neutral Point of View.” 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view&oldid=962777774.

Wikipedia. “Wikipedia:No Original Research.” 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:No_original_research&oldid=966320689.

Woolfork, Lisa. 2018. “‘This Class of Persons’: When UVA’s White Supremacist Past Meets Its Future.” In Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity, edited by Claudrena Harold and Louis Nelson. Charlottesville: UVA Press.

Xing, Jiawei, and Matthew A. Vetter. 2020. “Editing for Equity: Understanding Instructor Motivations for Integrating Cross-Disciplinary Wikipedia Assignments.” First Monday 25, no. 6. https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v25i6.10575.

Acknowledgments

My thanks must go first to John Modica, my wonderful friend and peer. I am so grateful for his insightful suggestions and constant support when I was planning this Wikipedia unit, for agreeing to pair up his students with mine for the ensuing Spring 2020 Edit-A-Thon and for one of our discussion sessions, and for introducing me to Lisa Woolfork’s excellent article when I was searching for a text for the compare and contrast exercise. I am also indebted to UVa’s Wikimedian-in-Residence, Lane Rasberry, and UVa Library’s librarians and staff—Krystal Appiah, Maggie Nunley, and Molly Schwartzburg—for their help when I hosted my Edit-A-Thons; Michael Mandiberg and Linda Marci for their detailed and rigorous readers’ comments; John Maynard for his smart feedback; Brandon Walsh for his encouragement from start to finish; Kelly Hammond, Elizabeth Alsop, and the editorial staff at JITP; UVa’s Writing and Rhetoric Program for their support; and all of my ENWR students in Fall 2019 and Spring 2020, and John Modica’s Spring 2020 ENWR students as well.

About the Author

Cherrie Kwok is a PhD Candidate and an Elizabeth Arendall Tilney and Schuyler Merritt Tilney Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia. She is also the Graduate English Students Association (GESA) representative to UVa’s Writing and Rhetoric Program for the 2020–21 academic year. Her interests include global Anglophone literatures (especially from the Victorian period onwards), digital humanities, poetry, and postcolonialism, and her dissertation examines the relationship between anti-imperialism and late-Victorian Decadence in the poetry and prose of a set of writers from Black America, the Caribbean, China, and India. Find out more about her here.

Powerpoint slide reading "Crowd-sourced in-class project", featuring the Wikipedia globe logo.
0

When Wikipedia Fought Back

In this short essay, the author explains what went wrong when he asked his students to tackle an ill-conceived project—an in-class Wikipedia edit—and what he’d do differently next time.

In the fall of 2018, at my last institution, a smaller, teaching-focused university in the Pacific Northwest, I tried—and failed—to use Wikipedia in my survey of digital media course.

The assignment? I urged my students to attempt to edit our institution’s entry on Wikipedia. I had them first read Wikipedia’s own “simple” rules for editing entries (though these by no means are necessarily user-friendly or transparent to beginners, in retrospect). With these rules in mind, I tried to offer some guidance, and we spent the first twenty or so minutes of class creating profiles and discussing how, exactly, to add text, images, and links to Wikipedia entries. It was part of a larger unit on wikis and collaborative digital tools. I was excited. I figured that even if we just succeeded in adding some small bits of information to the page, that would be a success. Students, however, were technically going to be graded on a self-reflection forum post afterward, so it was not necessary that they “succeed” at the process. That helped lower the stakes, but provided enough motivation for students to at least attempt the assignment.

Like many of my colleagues, I had the best of intentions. I was going to lean in, darn it, to my students’ own learning habits (Wineburg 2018). Inspired by scholar-teachers smarter and savvier than I, I was going to have one of those collective “a-ha!” moments we all yearn for, when, in the silence of an air-conditioned, sun-lit space, the scent of marker lingering in the air, you turn, excitedly, from the whiteboard to gaze upon the newly enlightened faces of your students, who burst into applause.

That did not happen.

As I planned the in-class exercise the night before class, I realized too late that we might get pushback from Wikipedia’s infamously irascible and mysterious volunteer editors (Dougherty and O’Donnell 2015).

“But we’re just adding some innocuous info,” I thought—details like the names of buildings and programs. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

First Mistake

I soon learned, about 25 minutes into the whole affair, that, in fact, a great deal can go horribly wrong when you forget that the thing you’re toying with in real time—in our case, again, our university’s Wikipedia page—can fight back. Wikipedia, my friends, is very much alive.

It started innocently enough. One of my more engaged students raised her hand.

“Umm, Dr. Mari, I think Wikipedia doesn’t like how we’re all in this page editing it together right now.”

I strode over—surely, of all the pages in the wide world of Wikipedia, ours wouldn’t have some kind of odd editing cap on it, right?

And yet, lo, it did! “Hmmm,” I said. And then I improvised.

“Pair up with Joon,” I said.[1]

And sure enough, things continued well enough for a bit. My students added some benign, or so I thought, facts about our volleyball team, the names of our new degree programs, some of our campus ground’s highlights, and so on.

But then, one mischievous student decided to get a little… silly.

Second Mistake

“What if I just make up something dumb and put it in here?” he asked me.

“Like what?”

“Well, what if I add myself to the list of famous alumni?”

I thought about this for a second. On the one hand, I didn’t want to encourage the accumulation of garbage information in the world and turn my class into a fake news farm. I’d rather not become the subject of a cautionary tale in a journal somewhere.

But… we had just talked about how Wikipedia has a strong internal editing culture—as controversial and problematic as it can be—and I did want to show the students, instead of just prattling on about it.[2] I pushed aside the voice in my head that was saying, “wait a second here, sir.”

“Sure,” I said instead. “Try it and see what happens.”

And so he added his name, and the names of a few friends, for good measure. Within moments, it was deleted. I pulled up the editing log—a veteran Wikipedia volunteer editor, working under a pseudonym, had already corrected the record.

“There, everyone,” I pointed to the projected screen behind me, “just like I told you. This isn’t the Wikipedia of my time as an undergrad, a decade ago. Things have changed for the better and this engagement is part of why Wikipedia…” (see Ayers et al. 2008).

Various hands began shooting up, like baby asparagus shoots.

“Maybe this thing is working after all,” I thought, perhaps a touch too proudly. “Maybe I’m pretty good at this.”

It wasn’t, and I’m not.

My students’ careful and fact-based links, edits, and other changes were being erased and wiped clean, in rapid succession, by the original editor, but also now by several others. The word must have gotten out: we didn’t stand a chance!

We still had more than half of class left to go. But within minutes, all my poor students’ work was gone, vanished. They looked up, over the edges of their phones, laptops, and tablets.

They were not pleased.

I took great pains to try to connect what had just happened with our reading from the week, which had included articles both critical and supportive of Wikipedia and its potential as a kind of refuge, a stronghold of fact-checked information, and some of the irony of that.

I am not always fast on my feet with this kind of extemporaneous pedagogy. I have a stutter, and often need my slides and notes to guide me, as I talk fast and mumble more the more nervous I get, especially in front of twenty skeptical students. There’s almost always something else I wish I had said or added after these kinds of moments when teaching, especially with digital tools. I often write long notes afterward via email or post to our class page, debriefing disastrous assignments.

But in the moment, I just… sort of embraced the “successful failure,” to borrow from our friends at NASA (Leinfelder 2020).

I stopped talking. My students had questions: would they still get credit? Even though all their edits had been erased? What were we going to do now?

“Yes,” I told them, “you’ll get credit. We can talk more about this next time.”

Then I ended class early, thinking hard about power dynamics and hidden infrastructures and black boxes (Jemielniak 2015). In this case, “black boxes” are unexamined, taken-for-granted technologies that are not well understood outside of small circles of experts (Anderson and Kreiss 2013). Wikipedia has come a long way, and I need to be more thoughtful about how I unpack it, contextualize it in time and culture (Cummings 2009; Jemielniak 2015), and contrast it with other “legacy” sites such as Craigslist and Reddit (Lingel 2020, Lagorio-Chafkin, 2018). Wikipedia is not so easy to use as a teaching tool. I need to be less so-sure of myself.

But I think it worked out OK, for a first attempt working through an exercise like this with students. Later, on their course evals, at least one of my students mentioned that day as one of their favorites, because it made them think about the people behind the software curtain. That helped, but now I know—Wikipedia can fight back. Watch out!

I’ll be ready next time. And for next time, I’ll be more mindful of the power of “black boxes” that are a heady mixture of software and hardware, people and intention, momentum and gatekeeping. I will equip my students to better face these hurdles—and overcome them—by reading more critical accounts of the site and how it works.

Maybe we’ll write an entry about it, while we’re at it.

Notes

[1] Students’ names have been changed for the purposes of this essay.
[2] And as an avid fan of Stephen Colbert, I had enjoyed watching what happened when his team edited entries in the late aughts for fun—and to make a point: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikiality_and_Other_Tripling_Elephants.

Bibliography

Anderson, C.W. and Daniel Kreiss. 2013. “Black Boxes as Capacities for and Constraints on Action: Electoral Politics, Journalism, and Devices of Representation,” Qualitative Sociology 36, no. 4: 365–382. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-013-9258-4.

Ayers, Phoebe, Charles Matthews, and Ben Yates. 2008. How Wikipedia Works: And How You Can Be a Part of It. San Francisco: No Starch Press.

Cummings, Robert E. 2009. Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10314047.

Dougherty, Jack, and Tennyson Lawrence O’Donnell. 2015. Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/j.ctv65sxgk.

Dougherty, Jack, and Kristen Nawrotzki. 2013. Writing History in the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jemielniak, Dariusz. 2015. Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Lagorio-Chafkin, Christine. 2018. We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory. New York: Hachette Books.

Leinfelder, Andrea. 2020. “Lessons from a ‘successful failure:’ Apollo 13 astronaut, flight director recall famous mission.” Houston Chronicle, April 10, 2020. https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/APOLLO13-ANNIVERSARY-15192303.php.

Lingel, Jessa. 2020. An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of Craigslist. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Wineburg, Samuel S. 2018. Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Author

Will Mari is now an assistant professor at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, where he teaches media law and media history and continues to research the history of technology and news work.

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3

Engaging Women’s History through Collaborative Archival Wikipedia Projects

Abstract

This paper considers the potential of archivist–faculty collaboration to open and build engagement with women’s history–related collections. Collaborative digital scholarship projects built around institutional primary-source collections advance course- and discipline-specific goals and impart critical lessons about research and knowledge production to students. We share and reflect upon a dynamic Wikipedia project carried out in a feminist theory course, highlighting an accessible approach to archival research and digital methods. The project produced work that emphasized academic challenges and debates around sources of knowledge. Over two iterations of the project, students interacted with the library’s archival materials, analyzing and synthesizing this information into Wikipedia articles, and engaging in discussions of archival practice and feminist knowledge production.

We propose that Wikipedia offers a unique set of openings into women’s history for undergraduate students, providing an accessible platform with a low barrier of entry for students coming to a digital project for the first time. Wikipedia provides a compelling base for students to engage with global audiences while struggling with editorial criteria that value objectivity and notoriety. Through the collaboration between students, archivists, faculty, and Wiki Education Foundation staff, this project demonstrates the importance of a team approach to supporting students as they work through a challenging research project for a public audience.

Introduction

Wikipedia is an open access, online resource built on the creative and administrative contributions of thousands of individuals around the world. With more than 35 million articles in 280 languages, Wikipedia is a ubiquitous presence in popular culture and the classroom alike. An immediately familiar resource for students (and often the place where they begin their research), Wikipedia is increasingly recognized as an essential component of the research process, “an essential tool for getting our digital collections out to our users at the point of their information need” (Lally and Dunford 2007; cf. Head and Eisenberg 2010). The openness of the platform to anyone interested in contributing, however, has exposed some biases and deficiencies in the encyclopedia’s coverage and editing community. Wikipedia has a major gender imbalance in contributing editors—women are estimated to make up 9 to 13 percent of them (Wadewitz 2013; Bayer 2015)—and the editing community has largely minimized women’s history, with an estimated 15.5 to 17 percent of the biographical articles focusing on women (Proffitt 2018; Moravec 2018).

Feminist activists and scholars have developed a set of approaches to address the Wikipedia gender gap. In 2012, undergraduate student Emily Temple-Wood founded the WikiProject Women Scientists, which sought to ensure “the quality and coverage of biographies of women scientists.” Alongside Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight, she co-founded WikiProject Women in Red. On Wikipedia, red links mean that “the linked-to page does not exist‍.” The Women in Red project continues to create lists of links that are either about “a woman, or a work created by a woman.” These efforts garnered Temple-Wood and Stephenson-Goodknight the first co-awarded Wikipedian of the Year award. Aaron Halfaker (2017) notes how Temple-Wood’s efforts not only improved the quantity of content related to women on Wikipedia, but also the quality of entries.

Collective gatherings have shown promise for supporting new editors, as groups like Art+Feminism, AfroCROWD, Fembot, and FemTechNet have taken a “do-it-yourself and do-it-with-others” approach. Wiki edit-a-thons hosted by such groups take place in public spaces like coffee shops and museums, and at libraries ranging from New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to Connecticut College’s Shain Library, the site of this study (Boboltz 2017). Librarians have taken on a key role in facilitating the work of groups seeking to add content about marginalized people and issues to Wikipedia. They have sought out ways to not only support activists doing this work, but also to institutionalize engagement with Wikipedia. For example, at West Virginia University, academic librarians worked to enable students to receive required service credit hours for editing Wikipedia, drawing sorority groups and graduate students into this work (Doyle 2018, 63). Finally, as evidenced by the work of Wiki Education, classes are increasingly bringing together student learning with editing Wikipedia: in the Fall 2018 session, 321 classes participated across a wide range of academic fields.

Over three iterations, a feminist theory class and the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives at Connecticut College collaborated on an in-depth Wikipedia archival research assignment (Appendix 1) with a twofold goal: first, to address some of these Wikipedia deficiencies by creating and editing articles through a feminist scholarship lens, and second, to engage students in the process of knowledge creation for a public audience (Appendix 2). This project built upon an ongoing collaboration between faculty and archivists to develop project-based learning opportunities in institutional collections, and reflects a growing recognition of Wikipedia’s potential for generating “meaningful service learning experience[s]” for students (Davis 2018, 87). The first iteration of the course allowed students to develop topics that were far ranging, but this initial approach resulted in some issues with their engagement with Wikipedia (e.g. overly specific topics or concepts that were difficult to document). The second and third iterations of this course focused on identifying gaps in Wikipedia that could be directly tied to the Lear Center’s collections. The team reviewed course learning goals and developed a list of relevant material in the Lear Center (Appendix 3) which connected to themes in feminist theory such as women’s leadership, ecofeminism, poverty, and racial and disability justice. Students conducted research using these collections and worked to either generate or modify existing Wikipedia content. Students then summarized their experience in public presentations at the end of the semester. The resulting project represents a collaborative approach between students, faculty, and archivists, and showcases the community of shared interests and values that are fundamental to the digital humanities (Scheinfeldt 2010). This paper argues for the power and potential of this type of collaboration in developing projects that challenge students to engage in practical feminist praxis and to make connections between theory, archives, and public digital engagement.

Digital engagement with Wikipedia offers a unique set of openings into feminist theory and history for undergraduate students. Wikipedia serves as an accessible platform for students to consider questions of evidence, representation, and knowledge creation. While many use Wikipedia as the first stop for information, few understand how this information is created. The project team recognized that the platform’s ubiquity and familiarity could serve a dual purpose: first, to emphasize the importance of contributing reliable, accurate information to a site used by so many, and second, to help mitigate potential nervousness about working with digital technology in the public realm. This pedagogical approach ensures that students understand the historical and political context of Wikipedia and its community. They can draw upon their experience with this platform to ask questions and actively engage with media.

The team partnered with the Wiki Education Foundation (Wiki Ed), a non-profit entity separate from Wikipedia that supports faculty who incorporate Wikipedia into their curriculum. The program emphasizes that students “gain key 21st century skills like media literacy, writing and research development, and critical thinking, while content gaps on Wikipedia get filled thanks to [their] efforts” (Wiki Education, n.d.). Wiki Ed provides tools and resources, including interactive tutorials about the tenets of Wikipedia and basics of editing and adding content. The Wiki Ed Dashboard serves as the digital home for the class, enabling faculty to create and manage their Wikipedia assignment and to monitor student progress. For students, it contains the tutorials and relevant information for the Wikipedia assignment and allows them to track the progress on their article as well as that of their classmates. Faculty and archives staff use the dashboard to design and monitor students’ work in real time.

A key aim of the project was that students experience the process of conducting and presenting research. Much of feminist theory is based in intensive critique of research and representational practices. Students risk becoming either highly critical of all scholarship without engaging the merits of the work or fearful of creating their own work, believing that it will also be easily criticized. In this assignment, students learned to balance rigorous critique with a strong understanding of knowledge production. Editing content for a general audience on Wikipedia raised the stakes for students: the challenge of writing for the public proved more rewarding than the perceived standard of writing for only the instructor (Davis 2018, 88). The team presented Wikipedia’s overlapping gender and racial imbalance as a problem that students had the power to address as part of a broader scholar-activist community. Student feedback about the challenge and meaning of the assignment supports scholars’ arguments that structured opportunities for student interaction with institutional special collections and archives generate deeper engagement with and investment in research and its meaning (Tally and Goldenberg 2005).

Institutional Context

Connecticut College is a private, undergraduate liberal arts institution in New London, Connecticut. It offers 56 majors, minors, and certificates to approximately 1850 undergraduates. As with many liberal arts colleges, Conn’s culture is deeply rooted in teaching and learning. These efforts are supported by several campus resources and partnerships, including the Center for Teaching and Learning and the Technology Fellows Program, as well as by collaborations between faculty and staff in the six academic centers across campus, the campus’ Charles E. Shain Library, and the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives. The Lear Center is home to Connecticut College’s collections of rare books, manuscripts, and archives. The Center works extensively with faculty to develop projects which engage students in active primary source research, both in the classroom and increasingly as a part of the College’s emerging Digital Scholarship program. The Digital Scholarship program provides technological, project, and platform support for student, staff, and faculty digital projects with a focus on the pedagogical, classroom-based side of digital scholarship. The Lear Center has been involved with the College’s Digital Scholarship efforts from the start, as it sees digital scholarship as a natural extension of outreach and use activities. By combining primary source research with digital methodologies, the Lear Center offers students a unique opportunity to become active producers of knowledge, rather than passive consumers, and to convey this knowledge to a real-world audience.

Wikipedia as a Space for Feminist Praxis and Skill-Building

Gender, Sexuality, and Intersectionality Studies (GSIS) emphasizes feminist praxis, the “philosophy and practice of participatory democracy and situated knowledges” (Naples and Dobson 2001, 117). At its heart, feminist praxis is a call for hands-on engagement with core questions within the field, particularly in how each person can participate in the creation, circulation, and usage of knowledge. While feminist theory can be taught in a manner that solely focuses on theories of gender, sexuality, and other categories of analysis, the course provides an opportunity to enact a praxis-based pedagogical strategy. This approach can deepen students’ understanding of theory, asking them to apply theory to their work and consider its accuracy or limitations when put into practice.

Feminist theory presents a challenge to undergraduate students who are drawn into GSIS through varying avenues. As feminist theory is interdisciplinary, students encounter authors that may be writing from fields or on topics they have yet to study. They also may not have developed necessary reading skills or frustration tolerance (that is, the ability to navigate work that is dense, references unfamiliar ideas and academic jargon, or challenges their perspective). Scholar Gloria Anzaldúa (1991, 252) argues that “[t]heory serves those that create it” and that as a queer woman of color, she had to challenge existing theories to adequately account for her knowledge and experiences. Indeed, students may struggle to see themselves or their concerns in texts that are written in a language and for an audience far removed from themselves, or in the disproportionate amount of scholarship written by white Western cisgender women. However, Anzaldúa also reminds us that works have “doors and windows,” or entradas (1991, 257). As readers come with a need to find themselves in texts, having multiple entradas through diverse course readings and assignments creates a range of opportunities to engage with and find connections to feminist theory. It is imperative for instructors to find ways to address these concerns while ensuring that students directly work with the scholarship that undergirds the field and its contributions more broadly.

The Advanced Readings in Feminist Theory course is a required annual offering for both GSIS majors and minors (see Appendix 4 for the 2017 syllabus). This 300-level class is for some students their first undergraduate course that heavily centers theoretical work. This course draws students from a range of disciplines including English, Music, East Asian Studies, and Psychology. In the 2017 version, McCann’s and Kim’s edited collection, Feminist Theory Reader (2016), and Moraga’s and Anzaldúa’s edited collection, This Bridge Called My Back (2015), served as the core texts, along with additional readings. Key themes included theorizations of inequality, violence, and intersectional feminism along with epistemological frameworks such as standpoint theory and feminist phenomenology. The learning goals for the semester sought to ensure that students would be able to:

  • Knowledgeably discuss key forms of feminist theory in terms of their content and implications
  • Articulate the significance of feminist theories to their own research and education
  • Effectively present their research to a public audience online and in person

It was important to devise course assignments that asked students to put into practice the frameworks they were using so that they could more critically understand the stakes of feminist theory, articulate key ideas in their own words, and apply these concepts to unique projects.

The platform of Wikipedia offered a novel means to take feminist theory out of the ivory tower and illuminate the value of the course content for students. Positioned as editors, students were challenged to make meaning out of theory and archival materials for a broad audience. Working with Wikipedia made coursework relevant by making it accessible to a public at large, thus enabling to students to find a compelling reason to stay engaged throughout.

Collaboration in the Archives, Navigating Wikipedia’s Norms

Coupling the Wikipedia platform with archival research provided a set of connections and resources to facilitate the achievement of these pedagogical aims (see the Fall 2017 course dashboard). Faculty and archives staff reviewed course learning goals and core themes and identified relevant, robust topics in the collection that either had underdeveloped pages or were absent from Wikipedia. Collections were assessed to ensure each had sufficient primary and secondary material to build an entry that would meet Wikipedia’s standards. Students used primary source material such as photographs, correspondence, and reports, while drawing upon secondary sources to verify their claims and authenticate their subject’s notability, a critical standard of Wikipedia.

The practice element of feminist praxis requires skill building and serves to reinforce the content of feminist scholarship. As students worked with Wikipedia, they practiced what feminist theorist Donna Haraway describes as learning the ins and outs of knowledge production and representation. She argues that “understanding how these visual systems work, technically, socially, and physically, ought to be a way of embodying feminist objectivity” (Haraway 1988, 583). Through the process of conducting research in the archives and in secondary sources, drafting and revising content for Wikipedia, and then presenting and reflecting on this work, students were challenged to consider multiple facets of knowledge production. Moreover, they encountered those questions and challenges at the heart of feminist debates about epistemology, as they considered the perspectives included in the archival source material, their own positionality in relation to their research, and the dynamics that exist within Wikipedia vis-à-vis its standards and editing community.

Wikipedia’s policies and practices hold both potential and barriers for its usage in a feminist classroom. The formal policies are expressed most directly through the Five Pillars that address the basics of Wikipedia. While the first and third pillars state basic elements of Wikipedia (it is an encyclopedia; free content that is edited), the second, fourth, and fifth pillars present elements of Wikipedian culture. Pillar two, “Wikipedia is written from a neutral point of view,” contains the key conflicts that are perennially navigated in our feminist theory assignment and have been challenged by feminist scholars (Gauthier and Sawchuk 2017). It states:

We strive for articles in an impartial tone that document and explain major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence. We avoid advocacy, and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them. In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in others, we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context rather than as “the truth” or “the best view.” All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial or is on living persons. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong. (Wikipedia 2018)

In response to standpoint and situated knowledge theories, it is de rigueur in feminist theory to recognize and acknowledge one’s relationship to a topic (Collins 1986; Haraway 1988; Harding 1992). While feminist scholars range in their approach to academic tone, there is generally an acceptance of taking stances that explicitly embrace values such as antiracism and antisexism, rather than avoiding any direct acknowledgment of their interest in a subject and the stakes of inquiry (hooks 1998; Mohanty 2003). The encyclopedia form of Wikipedia thus at once provides an opportunity to build a broader audience for feminist-themed topics while disavowing the motivation that drives feminist engagement with the platform.

A critical analysis of power and the circulation of knowledge also conflicts with the assertion in the second pillar that as members of Wikipedia, “We strive for articles that document and explain major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence in an impartial tone.” Michelle Moravec’s essay “The Endless Night of Wikipedia’s Notable Woman Problem” provides insight from the field of women’s history about why assumptions about prominence continue to stymie the work of feminist Wikipedians. She argues that it is important to:

consider the difference between notability and notoriety from a historical perspective. One might be well known while remaining relatively unimportant from a historical perspective. Such distinctions are collapsed in Wikipedia, assuming that a body of writing about a historical subject stands as prima facie evidence of notability. (Moravec 2018)

The presumption of prominence fails to address the ebb and flow of cultural memory, and in practice requires that women rise to a level of exceptionality to register as worthy of inclusion in Wikipedia. Moravec cites the reality that the “‘List of Pornographic Actresses’ on Wikipedia is lengthier and more actively edited than the ‘List of Female Poets.’” While arguably both lists could serve as useful sources of information, this gap highlights an editorial priority based on editors’ personal consumption practices rather than the quantity or quality of an artist’s contributions. Wikipedia itself has articles addressing the challenges of notability, and includes discussions of the two camps, deletionists and inclusionists, who struggle over either stringent adherence to the requirement or the allowance of entries that are viewed as “harmless.” The ongoing struggle over how to best balance the intention of Wikipedia to serve as a reliable source of information with the demand for increasing inclusion of diverse content, and editors who echo broader debates within feminist scholarship and our society at large, is critical for students to take on in their learning.

Screenshot of a Wikipedia article featuring poet Eli Coppola.

Figure 1. A student created a new Wikipedia entry for Eli Coppola, a poet whose work addresses disability and sexuality.

Assessment and Outcome

The project’s aims—archives staff’s desire to develop extended, class-based community engagement with library resources and collections, and the faculty member’s desire for students to participate in the collaborative process of planning, conducting, and presenting their research to a public audience—were met. The project’s design allowed students to demonstrate their learning through multiple formats (archival research, work with Wikipedia, a poster presentation, and a reflection essay), as well as to provide feedback through the reflection essay, in-class discussions, and the anonymous, end-of-semester teaching evaluation. While students at times struggled with the assignment, the project team determined that they not only gained skills related to feminist theory, metaliteracy, and critical reading, but recognized the long-term value of their work for their future careers.

Students presented their work publicly in the college library through poster presentations. Along with a final reflection essay, these components served to assist students in recognizing the level of effort that they put into this project and its significance to their understanding of feminist theory. Students’ projects were assessed on their work in the archives, the Wiki dashboard, effort and collaboration with classmates, and their poster presentation and reflection essay (Appendix 5, Appendix 6). This assessment approach emphasized students’ engagement and centered the need to connect their work with archival material and Wikipedia with course readings. The assignment set a clear expectation that students engage in feminist praxis, considering how the work they were doing in researching and creating public-facing content was informed by feminist theory and vice versa.

Course outcomes

Students’ reflection essays[1] provide insight into how they understood the work they did throughout the project and what doors opened for them. They were asked to make a unique argument about the assignment in terms of feminist theory and a core facet of the project. Students highlighted their priorities, including gaining a deeper understanding of key questions in the course content, challenging the limitations of Wikipedia, and preparing for post-graduate life. One student made explicit how the assignment addressed theoretical questions within the field:

Similar to how feminist epistemology seeks to change, redefine, and rewrite mainstream theories which exclude women’s narratives … metaliteracy “challenges traditional skills-based approaches to information literacy” [Mackey and Jacobson 2011, 62].

By putting questions of epistemology into conversation with metaliteracy, the student emphasized the ways that the assignment helped students think and act critically in their project work.

Two students’ responses to engaging with Wikipedia demonstrate the struggles they encountered and their differing attitudes to the project’s outcomes. The first student’s response centered on the importance of working in the archives. They wrote, “Through the use of primary documents and news clippings found in the archives, I was able to navigate the problematic limitations that Wikipedia exhibits.” They found that the collections provided the necessary content to ensure that they were showing notability and to avoid challenges raised by Wiki editors.

Screenshot showing the revision history for a Wikipedia article on Audre Lorde’s “Sister Outsider.” A highlighted revision from 20 December 2016 shows an editor’s challenge to the inclusion of Lorde’s self-described sexuality in the article.

Figure 2. A Wiki editor claimed that naming Audre Lorde’s “sexual preference” was offensive. Lorde was a famously self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who emphasized the importance of naming herself in her writing. This editing challenge suggests a bias against public identification of LGBTQ people.

In contrast, another student was frustrated by the constraints of Wikipedia. They argued that due to Wikipedia’s neutrality standards “feminist knowledge is neither present in its full unapologetic extent, nor is it accessible to the global web users.” The student recognized the potential of Wikipedia to reach many people and was thus frustrated that the process of composing work for Wikipedia required both a tone and selection of content that did not align with either the student’s understanding of feminist knowledge or course readings that were unapologetically explicit in their political aims. While this response may be viewed as a negative outcome, it showed students’ conscious engagement with a critical question about how feminist knowledge circulates and is constrained, as well as a deeper understanding of how Wikipedia operates.

A final example of student reflection essay suggests why collaboration is key to the assignment. They observed that:

collaborating with the Wiki Education Foundation and the Linda Lear Center gave me confidence… as well as built upon my skills… being able to see the results of our work on such a public and well-known domain, shows that our work as students is valued and relevant to scholarship; we don’t have to wait to enter the professional realm to have our work recognized.

In this case, the student recognized how they were supported by archives and Wiki Ed staff as they worked toward creating a public-facing article. The student identified this assignment as opening a door into a public realm that they had previously assumed would only become available after graduation. Teaching evaluations showed that students thought about the value of the assignment. One student emphasized the role that writing for Wikipedia had in their investment in the project, noting:

The work I did on Wikipedia will be looked at by hundreds of people even after the project is done, instead of just a paper that will only be read by my professor… I was surprised [by] how much it exposed me to new and constructive ways of research.

The student found that knowing that their work would be read by a wide audience rather than simply by a professor for evaluative purposes was motivating. Moreover, the assignment introduced archival research and pushed them to delve into how what they were exploring in the archives could be put into conversation with other sources. For another student, “The Wikipedia project was difficult but it was one of the most important projects I have ever done for a class.” This student echoed a sense among many students that the assignment was higher in difficulty because of the effort required to collect, analyze, and create multiple representations of their findings. By the end of the semester, students recognized the value of learning how to create and share information with an audience beyond the walls of their institution.

Sharing this project with a broader Digital Humanities community through blog posts and conferences produced further positive outcomes. For example, Alex Ketchum, feminist food scholar, tweeted that the description of this digital project at the Women’s History in the Digital World conference in part inspired her own digital project (Ketchum 2018). Each project adds to the network of possibilities, inviting conversations and collaborations that move ideas forward and create a rich community experience.

Archives outcomes

The use of Wikipedia to develop an online presence for underrepresented archival collections offered a meaningful opportunity to generate greater access and exposure to these collections, as well as to create a valuable public-facing resource. Working with faculty and students provided an opportunity to examine collections through a feminist lens, bringing to a global audience the lives and histories of women with little public representation. Through multiple sections of the class, twenty-six entries were created on the work of women whose contributions ranged from environmental and labor activism to civic and institutional leadership. Each entry cites the Lear Center’s collections, increasing exposure of its archives and encouraging engagement on a global scale (Appendix 2).

Staff contribution at each stage of the project emphasized the power and potential of collaboration. Archives staff worked with faculty to develop course outcomes and select appropriate collections, and provided an important support system for students throughout the project. Staff engaged students in the work of primary source research, helping them think through ways of structuring their entries, find additional sources, and cite material appropriately. The intensive one-on-one work opened important avenues for conversations about the complexities of archives and archival research, the ethical issues surrounding privacy, the gaps in our collections, and the resulting archival silences.

Conclusion

The collaboration between faculty, students, archives staff, and Wiki Ed produced a successful project from both pedagogical and archival perspectives. It opened doors for students to engage deeply with feminist scholarship as they created content for Wikipedia on topics related to gender and sexuality. The topics chosen from within the archives were carefully selected to address gaps in Wikipedia. This approach led to important conversations with students about how sexist, racist, and other forms of bias are expressed in Wikipedia. As students became more confident as editors, they were able to identify and address more complex issues of bias: for example, the shortage of articles that focus on women and other underrepresented groups, the types of information certain articles emphasized, and the ways in which all that information was linked within Wikipedia. In individual meetings and in-class sessions, students discussed how these gaps are created and how their role as editors was vital in helping to fill them. Students also benefited from sharing their experiences with the Connecticut College community: they came to see themselves as knowledge-producers, educating others about the biases and gaps in Wikipedia, as well as about the potential of the platform.

This project also provided a supportive environment for students to undertake archival work. By collaborating closely with archival staff, students experienced first-hand the complexities of archival research, engaging with archivists on issues of collection development, privacy, copyright, and gaps in archival records. In addition, the project generated opportunities for discussion about what materials from these collections could be used as citable evidence in Wikipedia articles. These exchanges made working in the archives a richer experience for students and staff.

The ongoing pedagogical value of this project is clear to Connecticut College’s GSIS department. Now in its fourth iteration, under the direction of a new GSIS faculty member, the project has become a core component of the department’s approach to teaching feminist theory. This project is a flexible, extensible way for students to directly engage in feminist praxis, providing students with the opportunity to address real-world inequalities in Wikipedia and to consider how their own research is informed by feminist theory. The project has the flexibility to expand by incorporating the use of digitized collections from other institutions to explore topics and content not held in the Lear Center. This extension has exciting possibilities for students as they explore different collections and learn about the differences and similarities in using analog and digital collections. For faculty and archival staff, this project deepened an already positive working relationship and inspired further exploration of digital humanities work in other classes.

Notes

[1] Quotations in this section come from students’ reflection essays completed at the end of the Wikipedia assignment in Professor Rotramel’s courses in the fall of 2016 and 2017. Names are withheld to maintain student privacy.

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About the Author

Ariella Rotramel is the Vandana Shiva Assistant Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Intersectionality Studies at Connecticut College. Rotramel’s research and teaching interests include social movements, gender and women’s history, women and work, ethnic studies, queer and sexuality studies, community-based learning, and digital humanities and metaliteracy education.

Rebecca Parmer is the Head of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Connecticut. She has previously held positions at Connecticut College, the USS Constitution Museum, and Northeastern University. Her research interests include exploring archival pedagogy in undergraduate and graduate education and examining the impact of inquiry- and project-based engagement in college and university archives.

Rose Oliveira is the Linda Lear Special Collections Librarian at Connecticut College, where she preserves, describes, and provides access to the manuscripts, rare book, and art collections held by the college. She has previously held positions at Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives and The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Harvard University. She holds a master’s degree in Library Science with a concentration in Archives Management from Simmons College in Boston.

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