Dr. Royal G. Cravens, III is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Bowling Green State University. He recently participated in our Wikipedia Fellows pilot, an opportunity for subject-matter experts to learn how to contribute to Wikipedia. Dr. Cravens is a member of the Midwest Political Science Association, one of the three associations that collaborated with us in this pilot. Here, he shares what he’ll take with him from the experience.
Remember that time when Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, discouraged college students from citing Wikipedia articles in their research or term papers? Admittedly, it was more than a decade ago, but the ramifications for Wikipedia in higher education continue. I was an undergraduate pursuing a degree in Political Science, a reading- and writing-intensive field. Since that time, many college professors have banned Wikipedia citations in their syllabi for the same reason Wales discouraged students from using them in the first place, concerns over reliability.
Based on this and a previous experience using Wikipedia to locate information for a research project, I was somewhat surprised and intrigued when I learned of an opportunity to work with Wiki Education in my capacity as a college professor. I was partially motivated by curiosity, but I also saw an opportunity to contribute my knowledge to our collective conscious in a new way. Now that the Wikipedia Fellows pilot is over (although I will admit my editing days are not), my reflection on this experience leads me to highlight two related points about Wikipedia. One is its capacity as a learning tool and the second is its potential to amplify marginalized voices in the academy.
To my first point, and I am late to the game in realizing this, Wikipedia is an educational tool. During this Fellowship, I learned about the myriad ways Wikipedia is being used in higher education classrooms across the country. Under the guidance of an instructor and with assistance from the Wiki Education team, students are making contributions to bodies of knowledge which shape popular understandings of both complex and mundane topics in ways traditional journal articles might not. They interact with each other and with strangers in an online community built upon shared interest in a topic.
In my experience, however, Wikipedia editors rarely stop at one topic. Instead, there appears to be a shared curiosity and appreciation for knowledge which leads editors to form massive lists of pages which they ‘watch’ or make contributions to on a regular basis. I, personally, found myself contributing information about events in history, individual biographies, and places I have lived. When information was incorrect or lacking, I felt a responsibility to edit, correct, or add what I knew – all with proper citation, of course!
The infectious and cross-disciplinary nature of editing was a reoccurring topic that I and the other Fellows discussed in our weekly conversations. To me, this is the great contribution of Wikipedia to higher education: the inspiration to remain a life-long learner in a social and political environment which seeks to undermine facts and erect barriers to higher education.
In proceeding to my second point, I feel the need to clarify something. I am not advocating the abandonment of traditional academic publications. I now realize, however, that those sources can be used to reach audiences far beyond academe. However, to quote Uncle Ben from Spider Man “with great power comes great responsibility.” The power of Wikipedia to reach a massive audience and influence popular understanding of numerous topics is still only harnessed by a relatively unrepresentative cross-section of society. (I use the preceding quote to illustrate another point. Wikipedia articles more often than not contain correct information, however, they are not as thorough as academic journals. Uncle Ben’s Wikipedia entry notes that this quote is often attributed to the character, but this is not the original source.)
This leads to my second point. During this fellowship, I learned that Wikipedia editors are not representative of the general public and that this has ramifications for the visibility of minority groups and information about them in open-access forums. One of my goals for this Fellowship was to increase the reliability of information related to LGBT politics, my own research focus being LGBT political behavior. In reflecting on this experience, it is now apparent to me that Wikipedia provides a platform to amplify minority scholarship.
In the academic age of @WomenAlsoKnow (website here), @POCAlsoKnowStuff (website here), and @LGBTscholars, it is more important than ever to recognize the contributions of those scholars (and their research agendas) whom the academy has long marginalized. I must say, however, this is not the same as #promoteyoself – a popular movement to encourage marginalized scholars to promote their own work. Although I encourage scholars to promote their own work, for the purposes of Wikipedia editing, scholars should use their knowledge and resources to cite underrepresented authors and edit/create pages related to underrepresented topics. Only then can the full power of Wikipedia be brought to bear in enhancing the voice and scholarship of underrepresented people.
It is my final assessment that Wikipedia has been underutilized by people like me – early-career scholars with perspective on minority populations and underrepresented research agendas. We could do better in making open-access information, with which the general public is more likely to interact, more representative and complete. As I previously stated, I will continue as a Wikipedia editor and hope to incorporate Wikipedia editing as a component of my future classes. I encourage those who share my curiosity and desire to magnify the voices of marginalized scholars and topics to join me.