Wiki Ed and Digital Humanities: Pedagogy that works

Matthew Vetter, who has taught with Wikipedia in courses at Ohio University, shares notes on that experience as they relate to digital humanities and marginalized identities. These notes were condensed from his presentation at WikiConference USA 2015, which you can watch here

I’ve just returned from Washington DC, where I had the pleasure of speaking at WikiConference 2015, hosted by the National Archives, Wikimedia DC, Wikimedia NYC, and the Wiki Education Foundation. My talk, “Addressing the Gender Gap: Wiki Ed Projects for the Digital Humanities,” focused on a hybrid gender studies-writing course I taught at Ohio University in the spring of 2015, Women Writing in Digital Spaces, and the Wikipedia assignment students worked on as part of the course. As a research project, students were asked to address Wikipedia’s gender gap by adding or editing articles representing women, women’s studies, and LGBTQ topics. Because the course was themed around women and LGBTQ identities in digital spaces, this project also provided opportunities for the class to consider larger intellectual questions related to the representation of women and other marginalized identities in Wikipedia.

Working with Wiki Ed opens up possibilities for how we teach, how that teaching engages the world, what our students accomplish in the classroom, and what kinds of conversations we can have about critical issues related to humanities and digital culture.

I’m an academic specializing in digital rhetoric and humanities. I teach writing, rhetoric, and digital media. As a teacher, my goal is to move students toward meaningful action through critical writing and thinking. I want students to be more than consumers of media. I want them to be active producers and critics of discourse and culture. I want them to understand that language shapes the world, that they need to understand that process, and participate in it. I try to do this by making critical learning and thinking come alive through innovative and consequential writing assignments.

Working with Wikipedia is one of the best ways I’ve found to make this kind of pedagogy happen.

Teaching that Engages the World

Asking students to remediate Wikipedia’s gender gap by editing and adding articles provides an opportunity for these students to actively engage the world around them. I am fond of telling my students: “This is is not just another generic research paper. The writing you do in this project is real.” The writing students do in Wikipedia, especially when they tackle content gaps and marginalized topics, can have a real impact on public culture, on who and what is represented in a source these students use every day.

Such a message can be extremely motivating for students; but it also reminds them of what they can accomplish when they become producers rather than consumers of digital media. A de facto global reference source in this post-Britannica moment, Wikipedia is often seen by students as a neutral compendium of information. When they begin to consider how imbalances in the editor demographic (in terms of gender, yes, but also in terms of race, class, and nationality) influence content, they can also begin to realize how important it is to consider Wikipedia from a critical stance that questions and contributes to its content.

What Students Can Accomplish

Working to extend coverage and representation of women’s studies and LGBTQ topics in Wikipedia, or working with other content gaps, allows students to effect social change by acknowledging gender biases and social hierarchies in our culture, and actively trying to combat those conditions through targeted research and editing. This work is especially appropriate in courses dealing with gender studies, but could be applied in many other humanities contexts.

This changes our roles as educators. Think about how it opens up our classrooms. Academics in the humanities have a morbid fascination with the decline of their own disciplines as fields of study, but digital projects like these demonstrate just how vital humanities and cultural studies work remains, especially applied to digital texts and interfaces. What can academics, as teachers and intellectuals, accomplish by engaging in this work in our classrooms?

We Can Begin Vital Conversations

Both our Wikipedia project and the course theme prompted productive conversations about how and why the gender gap emerges. What became especially compelling for me, throughout the course, was the idea that knowledge-making practices in the encyclopedia contribute to disparities in content affecting marginalized topics and identities.

Wikipedia’s policy of verifiability, as an epistemological process, plays a significant role in a number of content gaps. Verifiability helps maintain quality in the encyclopedia by ensuring that article content is “backed up” by reliable sources. But such a policy ensures that Wikipedia will typically represent the dominant texts, sources, and authorities of the culture it represents: those that are mainstream, published, and most readily available. If we accept that we live in a patriarchal culture that already marginalizes women and LGBTQ identities, we can expect Wikipedia to reflect those conditions. The encyclopedia becomes a mirror of existing social hierarchies. It shows us what is already hegemonic in our culture: that which is already well sourced, that which is dominant. If we want to build an encyclopedia that can better represent what is nondominant, what is marginalized, we will need to think about challenging the encyclopedia’s prevailing epistemologies.

These are the conversations I have with my students. These are also the conversations we need to bring to public spaces. Partnerships involving Wiki Ed and digital humanities scholars and practitioners can help make that happen. Working with Wiki Ed on the gender gap assignment last spring helped bring these conversations out into the open.

As a graduate fellow with the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative, a public space for educators and researchers involved in teaching writing and rhetoric, I got the chance to publish a two-part reflection on the assignment: “Wikipedia’s Gender Problem and What We’re Doing about It.” I was also able to invite Eryk Salvaggio, of Wiki Ed, to write a blog essay introducing the Wikipedia Education Program. Reflecting back on these conversations reminds me, yet again, of the common goals shared by Wiki Ed and those in the digital humanities.

We’re committed to building pedagogies that work to effect social change, that build a better encyclopedia, and a better world.

You can watch Matt’s presentation at WikiConference USA here.

Photo: “Matthew Vetter at the National Archives” by Eryk (Wiki Ed)Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.



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