Truth commissions and Wikipedia

By on May 4, 2017

Truth commissions and Wikipedia

By on May 4, 2017

Truth commissions and Wikipedia

David Webster is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Bishop’s University. In this post he explains how his students contributed to Wikipedia’s coverage of truth commissions in his Winter 2016 class on Memory, Truth and Reconciliation. The above image is a printed version of their work, which will be read by future students.

It’s not standard practice for students to write a textbook for other students. Still, while writing Wikipedia articles for my course on Memory, Truth and Reconciliation, students put together a solid collection that will be required reading the next time this course is offered.

This is an old story for readers of the Wiki Ed blog: all of the students in my course had consulted Wikipedia as step one in research projects. All of them knew it wasn’t considered an acceptable academic source by most of their professors. They thought of it as a traditional encyclopedia posted online as a disembodied source of knowledge – albeit one prone to error and occasional vandalism. They found that becoming Wikipedia authors and editors changed the way they thought about “the free encyclopedia” – and even their own approach to the nature of research sources and knowledge-sharing. Most students have read Wikipedia passively, as disembodied authority. Now that they are content providers, they won’t look at Wikipedia the same way.

In the Bishop’s University course, History 384, Memory, Truth and Reconciliation in the Developing World, we tackled the under-covered theme of truth commissions formed to address the troubled legacy of conflict or dictatorship. Originally created in Latin America and most famously implemented in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is now a ubiquitous piece of the “transitional justice” tool kit. A country emerging from civil war or foreign rule, or walking the tough transition from authoritarian rule to democratic government, almost invariably has to form a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of some sort. Truth commissions have even spread from the global South to the wealthier North, with Germany and Canada among the developed countries that have tried to confront violent pasts and heal historical traumas through truth-telling and truth-seeking.

And yet, this was not a topic well covered on Wikipedia. Some commissions had detailed articles; others had exhaustive entries that read more like lists; while the majority had to be content with uninformative stubs. In two offerings of a course on truth commissions, we tried to fill some of this gap. The result is 20 new articles on national truth and reconciliation commissions, from Bolivia to Yugoslavia. Many more articles on truth commissions await improvement or creation, but some impressive student research and peer-editing has, I hope, greatly improved Wikipedia’s utility as a first stop for research on truth commissions. Thanks to the beta version of the Pedia Press self-publishing platform (see top image), the 16 articles authored by students in the 2016 version of History 384 will be assigned reading the next time I teach this course – by which time, there will probably be plenty more truth commissions needing coverage.

The trouble with truth commissions, I think, lies in the way governments treat them as episodes rather than processes. A government commissions a report, appoints commissioners, assigns a budget, and then waits. Once the commission completes its work and puts together a final report – generally in multiple volumes including thousands of pages of information – the government can publish or not publish, act or not act. It may be better to see truth-seeking and reconciliation as a process, starting before a commission forms and continuing long after it reports. Activist groups campaigning for accountability, memorials and apologies, all become part of a broader process.

Wikipedia articles can be part of this. A truth commission report is read in full by a handful of people. Academic analyses are often excellent, but again their readership is limited. Some of the best are in hardcover books costing over $100, far out of reach for people in the affected countries. When the aim is truth-seeking and wide dissemination of findings, these are major shortcomings. Here Wikipedia’s strengths as an accessible platform for the dissemination of knowledge come to the fore.

On the down side, Wikipedia coverage is massively skewed towards wealthier countries. Truth commissions in Canada and other developed countries have tried to learn from the global South and apply a tool developed for the global South – with good success. Expanding Wikipedia’s coverage of these Third World truth commissions is a small contribution to making Wikipedia more just by increasing awareness of less-covered areas of the world.

And, of course, the process of writing Wikipedia articles builds student research skills, and especially collaborative research skills. As one student wrote in their response essay: “One of the main points I have taken away from this course is that public history, and by extension public memory, cannot solely be shaped by individual scholars. They must be created diversely and as collaborative works by all those whom it may affect. Wikipedia is optimal for this presentation.”

The value of Wikipedia as a way to conduct collaborative research is the main lesson I learned by using Wikipedia in the classroom. Other lessons I took away include:

  • Assigning a Wikipedia article as the major course assignment ends up being more work for the instructor since it requires multiple rounds of (formative) assessment and feedback, but that is the nature of collaborative article creation with a lead (student) author. This worked well in a small group, but might be more challenging in larger classes.
  • I had worried, and some students had thought, that the assignment would be easier than a final research essay. They found that the research process was similar, the writing was often more challenging.
  • Feedback was positive on the way students were forced to think about the nature of sources, freedom to follow own research, multiple interim deadlines preventing the assignment from being left to the last minute, and a lesson in reading online sources skeptically.
  • Challenges included writing in the open, with the whole scary world of the Internet able to read your work, and the difficulty of maintaining the much-feared NPOV – neutral point of view – for students trained to write a research essay with a clear thesis.

A Wikipedia assignment may not be for every class, but it definitely worked for this one. There are few assignments that better illustrate the nature of sources, the research process, and the relevance of student writing. I’m looking forward to seeing how the next group to take this class responds to using a textbook written by former students.

Image: MTR student book covers.jpg, by David Webster, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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