Liz Clarke is Assistant Professor of Media Arts & Cultures at the University of New Brunswick. In this post she shares her experience incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into her course on The History of Women Screenwriters, which she taught while at Concordia University.
In my film history courses a primary concept that I teach students is that the historical narratives we learn are shaped by who writes the narratives, what evidence is available, and what narratives have become dominant. As a feminist historian of film, this often means casting a critical eye on the ways that women are obscured from historical narratives. In the film industry, in particular, while there is still a dearth of women working in roles of production, they have never been entirely absent. Yet, the knowledge of women’s contributions to film is still hampered by the lack of visibility of their work. Incorporating an assignment where students were required to create Wikipedia entries for women and trans screenwriters allowed me to illustrate for students that Wikipedia still has holes in the information it provides, and that these holes can be linked to larger structures of historical knowledge and historical evidence.
In my course on The History of Women Screenwriters (Concordia University, Montreal, Winter 2016), a major intervention was required in the research materials available on the numerous women writers who have worked in film production since the origin of narrative film. The assignment required students to find a female screenwriter who either did not have a Wikipedia page or only had a stub article. The results were varied but almost all were successful. There were a variety of countries and time periods covered in our 60 student class: Anna Frijters, a silent film writer from Belgium; Nina Agadzhanova, who wrote an early version of what would become Battleship Potemkin; Jennifer Konner, the co-showrunner for HBO’s Girls; Melanie Dimantas, a contemporary Brazilian screenwriter; Sumie Tanaka, a Japanese screenwriter who worked heavily in film during the 1950s.
The success of the Wikipedia assignment in my course had a two-fold purpose: first, it allowed my students to become contributors to the information available for others to access online. Second, it taught students to think critically about who writes history and how the demographic of contributors can alter the content online. As part of the assignment I required students to do a reflection paper after completing and migrating their articles into the Wikipedia Mainspace. I tailored the reflection papers to ask them to discuss either what they had learned about gender bias on Wikipedia, what they felt about contributing to a public repository of information, or how their understanding of and interaction with Wikipedia had changed after becoming editors. The reflection papers revealed that the assignment worked on a variety of levels. First, it helped students better understand how Wikipedia articles are created, and how they can use Wikipedia with more critical awareness. Many students stated that they found it useful to learn about how Wikipedia articles are created, rather than simply being told by professors not to use it. A number of students also suggested that they were initially worried about the research involved because, many admitted, Wikipedia was often a “first stop” for them when trying to find information. However, the necessity to find original sources and the time we spent in class discussing how to do such research, helped many develop confidence in research skills. In my own experience with this assignment, I also noticed a significantly higher level of writing precisely because students were aware that their work would be public. The only challenge that I came across was answering the usual question, “what word count are you expecting?” Articles ranged in size, making it difficult to pinpoint a specific word count. Because the final product would necessarily be more varied than the process itself, I decided not to weight the grade of the article higher than other important parts of the process (the reflection paper, the peer reviews, etc) so that students would focus on crafting a strong Wikipedia article rather than word count alone. Finally, so many students expressed their enthusiasm about contributing to gaps in Wikipedia’s materials – of women and screenwriters. They felt as though they had made a difference, rather than just simply learning about the problem of women’s lack of representation in film history and on Wikipedia.