How editing Wikipedia empowers students – a reflection

Katie Webber is a student at Rice University, where she edited Wikipedia for an assignment in Diana Strassmann’s course on Poverty, Justice, and Human Capabilities in Fall 2016. In this post she reflects on her experience developing the articles about domestic violence in same-sex relationships and the Montrose Center, a Houston-based organization that provides mental and behavioral health services for the LGBT community. Katie has gone on to create or improve several other articles in both student and volunteer capacities.

My initial feeling about the Wikipedia project was dread. If I’m being horribly honest, I really was worried sick that I was going to have to do this huge daunting project, and that I felt like I had no idea of what sort of things I could actually contribute. I know for a fact that my initial proposals for article topics were incredibly subpar, and I visited Dr. Strassmann’s office after getting the reviews on it back because I really didn’t know what to do going forward. Now, I am writing this reflection about twelve weeks later at the end of the semester, with a completely different attitude about Wikipedia, and an almost fervent passion for it moving forward.

After I had moved on from my initial proposal, I began to really thoroughly do research for my article on domestic violence in same-sex relationships. Finding research was not easy, especially research that was relevant or that did not simply repeat what other articles had already stated. I had to order quite a few articles through the library, because so many of them came from obscure journals that I could not access. Finding research, especially any research from outside of the United States remained difficult throughout the project, however I was able to find a lot of relevant information about cultural aspects of domestic violence in same-sex relationships that I hope will be relevant cross-culturally. Additionally, I hope that as the years go by and more and more information about the subject becomes available, people will continue to add to the article without all the activation energy that it takes to make a brand new article from scratch.

Despite the problems I had in finding research, I really did come to enjoy editing Wikipedia. Once I got over the fear of doing it and having people be mad at me, I was surprisingly eager to make changes where I found them relevant. Then, through my main work on the domestic violence in same-sex relationships article, I came across the Montrose Center article. The article was just a stub, with really only one sentence and one source. I have never personally used the Montrose Center for serious health services, but I have been to enjoy some of their free recreational activities, and having them in the community has meant a lot to me when I was moving to the Houston area from Ottawa, Kansas, which had no such organization. So, I set about making a few changes. Along the way, this accidentally escalated into a full fledged project, with many sources. I even physically went to use the microfilm reader in the basement of the library, because I found an article about the Montrose Center in a 1990 issue of the Houston Chronicle that wasn’t available online, and to the Montrose Center to take pictures. I submitted a fact from the Montrose Center article for the Did You Know (DYK) section of Wikipedia’s main page, which was initially rejected. However, the original rejector of the DYK has since been helping me with the article, mostly by verifying citations and fixing computer and layout type errors, and has now submitted another fact from my article to the DYK page. So, that’s still under works and I’m holding out some hope that it will be accepted. [Note: the nomination was accepted and the article appeared as a DYK soon after Katie wrote this.]

Going forward, I feel like I will probably continue to work on Wikipedia to some degree. I have several plans to introduce Wikipedia editing to the Rice campus. The first is to host an edit-a-thon during our Rice Pride Week through the Queer Resource Center, where we could come together as students, alumni, professors, and community members to improve or create articles about LGBT issues or specifically Houston LGBT culture or historical events. Additionally, I am taking COLL 300, Pedagogy for Student Instructors, next semester and for six weeks I’ll work to create a syllabus for a one hour credit class that that I will teach to approximately 20 other Rice students in the next semester. My idea is to create a class to teach people about the value and power of Wikipedia, and then to teach them how to edit, and create or improve their own articles. I am really excited about this idea, and I hope that it will come to fruition. I just think about how lucky we all are at Rice to have access to any articles and publications we want through the library as well as the educational opportunities to learn about things that many people will never be formally taught, and how we can use all these resources to increase the general knowledge of the whole world.

I think that throughout this project I’ve come to feel really empowered, which seems a little silly to say about Wikipedia editing, but I mean it very genuinely. I’ve shared this passion with all of my friends, and even a lot of my family and adult friends. I can’t get over the fact that I can go to a page on Wikipedia and see a whole article about an important topic, and know that it only exists because I put it there. I have struggled a lot at Rice because I feel like the work I’m doing isn’t as meaningful as what other students are doing. Sometimes it’s hard with so many STEM students, who often make disparaging comments about the humanities and their worth, to feel like what you’re doing has value. So to have done this project and feel like I really accomplished something, and seeing that people are looking at my articles every day and learning because of me, has been really amazing. I want to contribute to the world in some meaningful way for my whole life, and sometimes I feel like that’s utterly impossible, especially when I spend so much time in classes talking about how NGOs, political actions, and aid can backfire. So to have some concrete thing that I feel like I can really do right now has made me really feel more confident that I can find other ways to create change going forward. I call my senators, I vote, I donate to the ACLU, and now, I edit Wikipedia.

Image: Montrose Center Rainbow Windows.jpg, by Katie Webber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


One thought on “How editing Wikipedia empowers students – a reflection

  1. Thanks a lot, an important topic (especially the part on HIV/AIDS, which has serious healthcare implications). I hope the article (and surrounding articles) will also manage to grow with sources providing a worldwide view on the matter.

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