Expanding African Archaeology

Turkana Boy.jpg
“Turkana Boy” by Claire Houck from New York City, USA – Turkana Boy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

English Wikipedia articles tend to favor locations where English speaking editors live. That means that finding information about African historical sites on Wikipedia can feel like an expedition in and of itself.

Dr. Kate Grillo’s African Archaeology course at University of Wisconsin La Crosse showed us some great examples of student editors helping to contribute content about geographical gaps to Wikipedia. The course required students to contribute an article of research-paper length to Wikipedia, built from her list of missing or stub articles.

“Articles on African archaeology are few and far between on Wikipedia,” Dr. Grillo said, “and those that do exist are often in need of substantial editing. I saw an opportunity, then, to both improve Wikipedia content and to teach my students a new set of skills.”

History and Archaeology double major Michelle Kelly was one of them. She created an article on Kenya’s Kariandusi prehistoric site from scratch. Discovered by Louis Leakey in 1928, the site is believed to have been a kind of factory for axe-making, and artifacts include some early examples showing variety in dominant “handedness” in humans. It’s an interesting and important site, and until last fall, it didn’t exist on Wikipedia.

Michelle had no technical knowledge of Wikipedia when she came into the assignment, she said. Initially, adapting to Wikipedia’s expectations was a challenge.

“With Kariandusi, [a course paper] would include a paragraph or two on whether or not I believed in the theories archaeologists put forth regarding the site, whereas on Wikipedia I can only mention and explain them,” Kelly said. “It’s very hard to be unbiased.”

Furthermore, knowing the assignment was going to be published on Wikipedia inspired her to find more diverse sources than she might have otherwise.

“I know there are people, like me, out there who go to Wikipedia for references,” she said. “If I were just writing a research paper I would have probably copped out and just found articles by the same few people.”

While many students come into a Wikipedia course without much background as editors, in this case, they were learning along with their instructor.

“I had never edited a Wikipedia page in my life prior to the start of last semester,” confessed Dr. Grillo. “So there was a huge learning curve for me as well as for my students. Once we all got past the initial trepidation and confusion, editing became simple and (dare I say?) fun.”

Dr. Grillo said that most students saw the Wikipedia component as an initial challenge that ultimately rewarded their time.

“My students were initially reluctant to embrace my crazy Wikipedia idea, but came around once they had gotten some practice with editing,” she said. “Almost all said it had been a worthwhile experiment.”


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