Wikipedia in the art history classroom

Anne McClanan is a Professor of Art History and Digital Humanities at Portland State University, where she has incorporated Wikipedia assignments into several classes since 2011.

Since I first taught with Wikipedia-based research assignments in 2011, the process has gotten a great deal simpler for both teachers and students. My reasons for having the students create Wikipedia entries, rather than write traditional research papers, will be familiar to others who have followed this path. It allows students to hone their research skills, their ability to write to context, and to engage in an endeavor that feels (and is) more purposeful. They create a lasting contribution to the openly available resources on the topic, and take very evident pride in this work. Moreover since students in art history classes tend to be mostly female, it offers a way to impart to a cohort otherwise not well-represented in the world’s largest OER a skillset that can lead to future participation once the class is over.

In the range of content I teach at a large public university, I have discovered that the courses that present the best fit for Wikipedia writing assignments are those that are a little outside of the main canon of greatest hits in art history (for example, Sienese art had better opportunities than Florentine art, Byzantine art better than Gothic, etc). I’ve used these assignments most frequently for Byzantine art history, since it had the largest disconnect between notable topics with abundant scholarly writing and coverage on Wikipedia. I realized how much opportunity there was when an initial survey of a standard textbook, Robin Cormack’s Byzantine Art, found that only half of the key works illustrated from the period had Wikipedia entries. My students have also created new or expanded existing Wikipedia entries for courses in Gothic Art, Trecento Sienese Art, and Digital Humanities.

The Wiki Education course Dashboard structures the students’ training in how to create and edit entries, but parallel to that, additional assignment materials are housed on my course LMS site. Before the term begins, I scout out topics ripe for new entries or expansion. Other professors I know have students discover potential topics on their own, but given the ten-week quarter system at my school that exploration phase just doesn’t seem feasible. The students follow a research trajectory similar to that of traditional papers, in which they submit preliminary bibliographies in week 3, full drafts with peer review in week 7, revised versions week 9, and then, only after getting the thumbs up from me on the revised version, do they post their material to Wikipedia. Looking at examples from the winter 2017 quarter, students created new entries on more comprehensive topics such as Byzantine glass as well as on specific objects and sites. Some instead expanded existing entries such as those on Lazarus Zographos and Daphni Monastery.

Honing the ability to critically evaluate information is a central pedagogical goal in my classes, so I require student research to be grounded in peer-reviewed sources, with the same rigor as in my other courses’ non-Wikipedia research assignments. Teaching the students how to think critically about their sources is time-consuming, and inevitably I have individual meetings with many students who haven’t undertaken this kind of research before. In these sessions and final evaluations, though, students report feeling much more motivated to push hard on their research because they know that it will have an audience of the whole world on Wikipedia. Moreover, when I encounter students later, sometimes years after the class, they often say that they still check their Wikipedia entry, and when I hear that I know all of the work involved was well worth it.

Image: Byzantine Glass and Silver-Stain Bracelet.jpg, by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.


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