Giving local history a global audience on Wikipedia

By on November 9, 2017

Giving local history a global audience on Wikipedia

By on November 9, 2017

Giving local history a global audience on Wikipedia

University of Mississippi student Skylar Sandroni was already excited about working with Wikipedia in a college class, even before beginning Robert Cummings’s Writing with Wikipedia course. An enthusiastic friend, who had done a Wikipedia assignment previously, recommended the course to her. The curriculum itself also sparked interest for the English major, who is all too familiar with traditional academic assignments.

“He was excited about it, and it made me excited about it,” she says of this initial exposure. “At the time, I was pretty tired of writing the typical paper. So changing the medium of writing was a very interesting concept to me.”

As part of his course learning objectives, Robert wanted students to gain confidence and fluency in collaborative online writing environments.

“I firmly believe that our students need practical experiences writing in team environments, collaborating online over networks, resolving conflict online, building consensus around facts, producing (rather than merely consuming) information, learning to adapt to an external rhetorical framework, and learning to write beyond academic conventions,” he says. “And, oh yeah, it’s fun!”

Skylar took this new writing opportunity as a chance to better understand and to build upon her city’s history. She chose to focus her research on a well-known public figure where she lives in Oxford, Mississippi: American chef and recipient of the James Beard Award, John Currence.

“Before starting this project I hadn’t known the profundity of accepting a James Beard Award, only that it was another notch in the belt buckle,” Skylar says of her early research. “Only the best chefs in America can claim this title, and I ended up doing a bit more research about Currence and found no one had written an article about him!”

“This article has value as Currence is an award-winning chef, who has had success in blending Louisiana influences into contemporary (US) Southern cooking,” Robert says of Skylar’s work. “By creating a freely available encyclopedia article on Currence, a global audience will now be able to identify him and his work, and his regional significance, and a local audience will be able to better understand the significance of his career within the context of larger cuisine traditions.”

Thus, not only does the Currence article benefit curious Mississippi residents wishing to know more about local history, but as Robert says, because of Wikipedia’s platform, this local history has a global audience.

“Sometimes our faculty feel that our campus and our students can be a bit isolated,” Robert says. “Writing for Wikipedia is like running your own micro-internationalization program within your classroom. Outside of Study Abroad programs—which would expose students to one selected environment—there is no better way to help students engage different perspectives than asking them to write for a global platform.”

With this initial fire to learn more and to tell Currence’s story, Skylar began familiarizing herself with the ins and outs of Wikipedia editing. “I knew virtually nothing about Wikipedia much less writing on the forum,” Skylar says of her previous understanding of the platform. Editing Wikipedia had seemed to her “like a club that we weren’t invited to.” Skylar soon found, however, that writing an article was a natural process, yielding an outcome that exceeded her expectations. Even after encountering technical challenges, such as understanding the difference between hyperlinks and citations, Skylar completed the course more knowledgeable of the platform and proud of the work she had produced.

As the instructor, Robert also had a positive experience with Wiki Education’s infrastructure of support.

“The Dashboard tool was fantastic. It helped me, and, more importantly, my students, visualize our contributions in one space. It was much easier for us to understand our collective and individual impacts on Wikipedia by using the Dashboard. It became the focal point of our classroom as we worked together and individually to make contributions to Wikipedia.”

Skylar embraced the collaborative editing process, accepting input from other Wikipedians about her work. Fellow editors deemed parts of her article promotional, to which she gracefully concedes: “Looking back on it, they were right.” Skylar looks forward to how her final product may continue to evolve this way.

“I enjoyed writing this article and it has become something that I can be truly proud of,” she says. “I think it will be exciting to look back five years from now and see how much my article can and will change!”

Robert’s reflections on what students had learned over the course of the semester are consistent with Skylar’s experience.

“In addition to becoming much more aware of how knowledge is produced through Wikipedia, students became much more confident about writing collaboratively and standing up to challenges on the appropriateness of their contributions,” he says. “They learned to admit when they made mistakes, but along the way they began to better understand why certain mistakes happened. They also learned a different approach to research: they quickly understood that on most pages they absolutely needed to have their facts in order before they could make contributions which would stick.”

Robert isn’t new to Wikipedia; he literally wrote the book on teaching writing in the age of Wikipedia. But this was the first class he’d done with the support of Wiki Education.

“Thirteen years in, writing for Wikipedia is just as fun, just as challenging, and just as innovative as it was in 2004,” he says. “Only now, I have the tremendous help of Wiki Education!”

If you’re interested in learning more about the free educational resources Wiki Education provides, reach out to us at contact@wikiedu.org.

Interview with Skylar Sandroni by Ryan McGrady; interview with Robert Cummings by LiAnna Davis; and blog text by Cassidy Villeneuve.

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