Teaching (and diversifying) classical music through Wikipedia

Kim Davenport, Lecturer, Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at the University of Washington, Tacoma, works with Wikipedia in her “Intro to Humanities” course for first-year students there. She shares her thoughts on student contributions to coverage of classical music on Wikipedia.

My course introduces the world of classical music. Through several projects, students explore the role of music in their lives and community.

With the luxury of small class sizes (capped at 25), I’ve been able to incorporate active learning, innovative projects, and collaborative work. I did have one tired old research assignment, though, which I was eager to revamp.

During a week-long diversity workshop on our campus, ‘Strengthening Education Excellence through Diversity’, a colleague shared her success incorporating a Wikipedia project into her Sociology course. I found the inspiration I needed.

My old assignment posed research questions for the sole purpose of building research skills. “Look up these facts”; “explore this database”; “compare these two encyclopedias”; etc.

There was nothing exciting, current, or personally relevant to my students. It showed. They lacked enthusiasm for the assignment, and I lacked excitement toward grading it!

I hoped that adding a Wikipedia-based assignment would achieve several goals. I wanted to place students, as editors, within a research tool they used on a daily basis. I wanted them to explore issues of bias within both classical music and Wikipedia. I also hoped to give students some room to choose which Wikipedia article they would create or expand.

I asked students to choose a classical music composer from Wikipedia’s lists of requested or stub articles. They would conduct research, write, and publish their new or expanded article. I was working with first-year students in a 100-level course, and my campus is on the 10-week quarter system, so I assigned it as a group project.

I introduced the project early in the quarter, while immersed in a ‘crash course’ in classical music history. It is impossible to study this history without noticing that most of the composers we studied were white and male.

My students do learn that classical music’s world has diversified through the centuries. While I work hard to share diverse examples in class, I wanted to do more to confront the issue.

Sharing Wikipedia’s own awareness of its systemic bias with my students helped me frame the issue. I could make it relevant both for my course content, and for students’ understanding. I made clear that my students could choose any name they wished from the lists of composers. However, I asked them to consider the impact they would have writing an article about, for example, a current American composer of color, or a female composer from the Renaissance. After this introduction to the project, the excitement among the students was tangible.

Deadlines throughout the quarter helped to keep them on task. I reserved a computer lab for two class periods: one mid-quarter and one late-quarter. The students used that time to work together under my (light) supervision.

I was pleasantly surprised with the group element of the project. I sometimes shy away from assigning group work, because of its well-documented pitfalls. In this case, I think it was the right decision.

By working together, students were excited and engaged in the topic over many weeks. It offered comfort to students who had worried that editing Wikipedia was beyond their comfort zone. Relying on another group member, or splitting up the group’s work to each student’s strengths, took some worry out of the process.

When the end of the quarter arrived, I had the opportunity to review the students’ final work. I was pleased with the outcome on several levels.

My diverse group of students had selected a diverse range of composers to research. Men and women, from various periods in history, representing Europe and the Americas but also other parts of the globe.

The vast majority of the articles withstood review by other Wikipedia editors with only minor edits. A few were edited substantially or, in one case, deleted. Even then, the students understood the weaknesses in their work. They took the learning experience in stride.

The experience of incorporating Wikipedia into my classroom has been an extremely positive one. I’m excited to repeat it.

I must also give a shout out to the tremendous staff with the Wiki Education Foundation. Going into this experience, I had never edited so much as one Wikipedia article. I was a bit concerned as to whether I had the expertise to guide my students through the experience. Given the online and paper training materials for instructors and students, and the staff’s help from start to finish, I felt confident — and it was a success!

Photo: Bartholomeo Bettera – Still Life with Musical Instruments and Books – Google Art Project” by Bartholomeo Bettera (1639 – 1699) (Italian) (Details of artist on Google Art Project)UwHQialctX43Hw at Google Cultural Institute, zoom level maximum. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.



One thought on “Teaching (and diversifying) classical music through Wikipedia

  1. This is very exciting. The idea that we are figuring out how to ask our students to participate in the shared construction of knowledge in public spaces is a LEAP for education. We have been so focused on ignoring the great social learning and sharing knowledge experiments that the internet created – most significantly
    Wikipedia. The shift is heart-warming. And the work Wikipedia is doing in the Education Initiative makes it easier, more relevant, less forced for the learner. Thank you Kim and Wikipedia!

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