Discussing disability studies and Wikipedia at SFSU

Disability studies is an interdisciplinary field. Wikipedia, and other sources, often frame disability as simply a clinical issue. But disability, like most forms of knowledge, is a complicated interaction between bodies and culture. Disability studies is focused on critiquing these intersections. To do that, students must draw from a vast interdisciplinary field connecting history, sociology, psychology, medicine, cultural studies, feminist theory, and more.

That’s why students engaging in disability studies can make an enormous impact on Wikipedia. They can expand representations of disability far beyond their clinical definitions, and add another position to Wikipedia’s spectrum of knowledge. Students in this field bring unique, critical insights into assumptions that form existing knowledge on Wikipedia.

Educational Partnerships manager Jami Mathewson and I visited San Francisco State University on May 11 to talk with faculty interested in exploring and applying these insights through Wikipedia. We stopped by the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability to discuss how disability studies can impact Wikipedia. Associate Director Emily Smith Beitiks brought up ways that Wikipedia and other sources of information online often misrepresent disability as primarily a medical issue. She, along with Catherine J. Kudlick, Director of the Longmore Center and Professor of History, saw the potential in connecting a Wikipedia assignment to disability studies classes.

We also spoke to a group of writing instructors about using Wikipedia in writing and research classes. During our workshop, we had a great conversation with Dr. Richard Harvey, Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Education, about Wikipedia’s subtle impact on public perception.

As an example, he brought up the study of fight-or-flight responses. Much of the research in this area involved male researchers studying male rats, which has left a gap of research information about female response. The same is likely true for representations of heart attack symptoms in television and movies, which are primarily shown with male victims displaying male symptoms. Wikipedia’s lack of information in these areas is a great way for students to begin exploring knowledge gaps in their field, while working to address those gaps on the most-visited educational resource in the world.

If you are an instructor who would like to try a Wikipedia assignment, please send an email to contact@wikiedu.org!

Photo: San Francisco State University – John Paul Leonard Library by Webbi1987Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


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