Ariella Rotramel’s Feminist Theory course was composed of 16 undergraduates at Connecticut College. They critiqued Wikipedia through a feminist lens to find gaps in available knowledge. The students then connected theory to practice, by researching and writing about missing topics.
Our Wikipedia assignment was designed to help students gain metaliteracy skills, such as critical thinking and collaboration, as they delved into studying feminist knowledge production. These goals were paired with a feminist praxis approach that emphasizes the understanding of theory and practice as dialectical. I hoped that students would reimagine theory not as an abstraction, but as deeply connected to our world — something that they could fully engage in the course.
The Wikipedia assignment was a means of working with students to translate theories into accessible knowledge. Each student created a new entry for Wikipedia on a topic related to gender and women’s studies. By creating knowledge for a general audience, students struggled with questions of representation that they otherwise would have engaged only as spectators.
I wanted to connect with projects that address the ongoing problem of gender and racial inequality in Wikipedia. There is a significant imbalance in participation and content (see Gender bias on Wikipedia). In 2015, the National Women’s Studies Association announced its Wikipedia initiative, which pairs instructors with the Wiki Education Foundation, whose staff have offer Wikipedia training and help for students and instructors.
I took a scaffolded approach to the assignment. Students started reading about Wikipedia through a critical perspective, including trolling and bias. We took a paced approach in completing the wiki training and beginning to add content. Wiki Ed’s course Dashboard shows how the training was organized. Next time, I plan to integrate the discussion of bias with an in-class editing session to break the ice.
One noticeable challenge that students encountered was in their attempts to bridge feminist praxis with Wikipedia’s principle of neutral point of view (NPOV). Our course examined common feminist texts such as:
- Sandra Harding’s “The Instability of the Analytical Categories of Feminist Theory”
- Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”
- María C. Lugones and Elizabeth V. Spelman’s “Have We Got a Theory for You! Feminist Theory, Cultural Imperialism and the Demand for ‘The Woman’s Voice’”
- Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider
- Cherríe Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s edited collection, This Bridge Called My Back.
These readings raise fundamental questions about claims to objectivity. They offer recognition of the reality of partial knowledge.
Concepts such as standpoint theory have proven to be a fruitful basis for understanding struggles within the study of gender and women. They’ve become part of a larger interest in academia to understand positionality, that is, the relationship between knowledge producers and their research. From this understanding of knowledge, students understood their Wikipedia work is based in their own interests. They also have political import. The content they were adding reflected the marginalization of women, people of color, and trans people as subjects and editors. Students encountered questions about the tone of their work and the need for further sources based on Wikipedia policies. While Wiki Ed’s Wikipedia Content Expert Adam Hyland was on hand to help students respond to these questions, the experience also furthered students’ consideration of the tensions among different understandings of the foundations of knowledge.
From my perspective as a professor, these struggles helped make real the normative approach to knowledge production. Feminist scholars have been engaging this approach for the duration of the field’s existence. Rather than checking out from this dialogue, students were pushed to thoughtfully engage with Wikipedia’s NPOV standard. Nonetheless, they were committed to adding content to Wikipedia that they considered important as gender and women’s studies students.
These challenges were more easily engaged because they were occurring within the context of a classroom assignment. Perseverance and support were readily available.
The work of the NWSA initiative, and recent Wikipedia edit-a-thons, demonstrates the need to develop more platforms to support editors whose own identities and interests may be most readily flagged as violating the NPOV standard. These identities require significant negotiation as they add content. In their reflection essays, students said the experience developed their understanding of theory as part of feminist knowledge production.
One student reported that the project was “a direct way to overcome the lack of connection between theory and praxis” as they created information for a general audience. Students found a sense of empowerment by creating content that will be shared and used beyond our semester together.
Interested in teaching with Wikipedia? Check out the Wiki Education Foundation’s resources and get in touch! Find out more at firstname.lastname@example.org.