Wikipedia assignments in gender studies

Liam Lair, an instructor at Louisiana State University, shares the experience of teaching with Wikipedia in a Women’s and Gender Studies course. 

As an instructor in Women’s and Gender studies, I challenge my students to connect topics we discuss in class to their lives. I encourage them to see how our studies come to bear on their everyday interactions.

I teach a variety of courses, but I have three consistent goals:

  1. Expand my students’ range of knowledge in ways that incite their curiosity about the world.
  2. Offer models of feminist methods, epistemologies, and paradigms through which students can understand and engage with course topics.
  3. Promote a sense of community responsibility and a commitment to social justice, in their research and in their lives.

After five years of students writing research papers, I was frustrated. I knew these papers fulfilled the first two goals, but not the third. Their research was interesting and nuanced, yet I was the only person reading it. When the National Women’s Studies Association announced its partnership with the Wiki Education Foundation, it piqued my interest. Writing for Wikipedia presented itself as a research assignment that would challenge my students and expand their familiarity with feminist methods and epistemologies. It was an opportunity to produce knowledge for their communities, and for Wikipedia users across the world.

The support for instructors from Wiki Ed and on-campus at LSU was incredible. I had never edited Wikipedia, and was quite intimidated by the assignment. After meeting with the campus support team and emailing with Wiki Ed folks, I moved forward. I crafted the assignment and shaped my syllabus around research, writing, peer-review, and editing deadlines. My students were timid at first, but grew more confident over the semester. By the end, most were excited by the project, and I was able to learn a lot from my experience as well as theirs.

I always let my students choose their research topics. This semester was no different. The only requirement was to relate their research back to course topics. Most students chose to expand existing but underdeveloped articles, or “stubs,” and chose topics including: violence against women in Guatemala, discrimination against non-gender binary persons, gender-neutral language, gray asexuality, women in positions of power, Anne Koedt, Jennifer Welter, rape schedule, and Claiborne Avenue (a street in New Orleans where my student grew up).

Several students chose to add sections to already well-developed pages. One student researched and wrote about the history of the Band-Aid in relation to skin color and racism. Another student discussed the controversy concerning the trans character played by Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club.

Many of my students were initially apprehensive. They were anxious about learning how to use and edit Wikipedia. The tutorials were helpful, though, as were the many Wikipedia users that were in conversation with my students.

One student, Brittany, said that, “With our Wikipedia project, initially, I wasn’t very fond of the idea because I don’t consider myself a very tech-savvy person, so to speak. Once I got started with the project and completed research for my article, I was a little less apprehensive about it. The logistics of Wikipedia still irked me a little, but I liked my topic so much that I toughed it out.”

After becoming more familiar with how to use Wikipedia, as well as the vetting process for publishing there, she realized that she “learned that Wikipedia isn’t as unreliable as many professionals think. It takes a great deal of time and effort to make additions to an article, and even more effort and precision for that article to stay within Wikipedia’s main space. They don’t just let any old article [or information] get published on the site.”

My students found that writing for Wikipedia, rather than for their instructor, shifted their relationship to both their research and the final outcome. April, a junior, said that one of the best things about this work was “the experience of coming away from it knowing that, no matter how small, I’ve made a change that will be lasting and informative. Considering how wide-reaching and overwhelmingly thorough the internet is, it’s really empowering realizing how many people I can reach through a dedication to research and objectivity.”

Ultimately, the research and assignment were successful. Brittany mentioned what I hoped would be a major motivator.

“It’s one thing for a professor to see your work and progress and gain an interest in it,” she said. “It’s a whole other thing when your peers can see this project you’ve been working on for such a long time.”

My students understood that the impact of their work extended beyond the classroom. The experience was beneficial for them, and me. I plan on continuing this project in introduction to Women’s Studies courses.

Liam Lair
Louisiana State University


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