It’s rare that students return to a research paper or project after their work has been graded, and even more rare after their course has ended. That’s the power of a Wikipedia assignment. As instructors and students have recounted, when students learn how to evaluate and contribute to Wikipedia as an assignment, inspiration can reach beyond the classroom.
Haleigh Marcello learned how to improve Wikipedia in Ulrike Strasser’s course, Early Modern Women, at the University of California, San Diego. In an interview with Wiki Education, Haleigh explains why she has continued to contribute to Wikipedia – now as a hobby.
When Haleigh first heard that she would engage with Wikipedia as part of her course, she was intrigued by the digital literacy aspects of the assignment. “I very often use Wikipedia, and didn’t know much about the process behind writing the articles, besides the fact that anyone could contribute to them,” she says. “I thought it would be interesting to get sort of a behind-the-scenes look into how these articles are created.” As part of the assignment, students understand how knowledge is constructed on Wikipedia; how to evaluate information on the site for accuracy; and then how to participate in the creation and correction of articles.
The fact that her work would help round out the world’s favorite encyclopedic resource also appealed to Haleigh. “I enjoyed the idea of contributing to public knowledge. As a history major, I write a lot of essays, but they don’t often get more than a handful of readers. Knowing that my article could be read by people all over the world sounded very exciting!”
Haleigh began working to improve the biography of Sarah Crosby, the first female Methodist preacher. It was an article that was only a few sentences long.
“I had read briefly about Crosby in our class textbook, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe by Merry Wiesner-Hanks. When it came time to pick our articles, I compiled a list of everyone that Wiesner-Hanks mentioned in her book. From there, I eliminated women who had well-done articles. I looked over the rest of the list and settled on Crosby because I felt that she was an interesting figure, especially as I began to look into her more. She started preaching before it was allowed in the Methodist religion, basically following the saying, ‘It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to beg for permission.’ I am a big fan of historical women who went outside of the status quo, so I thought Crosby was really cool for doing this. Her article was also only five sentences long before I began working on it, and I felt sad that she was not well-represented. Overall, I was interested in her story, and felt that her article should have been longer.”
After identifying this gap in Wikipedia’s content, Haleigh took it upon herself to flesh out the biography. She contributed more than 11,000 words to the article by the end of the term.
“Writing for Wikipedia is entirely different from writing a traditional research paper,” says Haleigh. “The beginning of the process is the same; you have to find sources, mark the information you’re going to use, etc. But from there it becomes very different. If I were writing a research paper, I would have taken my sources and constructed an argument. But when writing on Wikipedia, there is no argument; you are simply stating facts. Instead, you have to take the information from the source, summarize/paraphrase it, and work it into your article. I found this to be pretty challenging, as my sources tended to jump around in time. I had to construct a timeline for Crosby, put my sources on this timeline, and then work on my article from there.”
Students master a unique skillset when engaging with Wikipedia. They must understand the norms of the editing community, as well as the nature of encyclopedic writing. Haleigh really took to the process and accepted these challenges.
“I wound up finishing Crosby’s article a couple of weeks before our class ended,” she recounts. “I didn’t want to sit around and do nothing while my peers continued to work on their articles, so I decided to look into working on another article. When I was researching for Sarah Crosby’s article, I would often read information about other prominent 18th century Methodist women. The woman who was most often mentioned was Mary Bosanquet Fletcher. Bosanquet had been mentioned in Wieser-Hanks’s book, but I decided not to choose her article since it had more information than Crosby’s article (Bosanquet’s article was rated start-class, while Crosby’s was a stub). Since I already had the sources from working on Sarah Crosby’s article, I figured I might as well improve Mary Bosanquet Fletcher’s as well. As I read more about her, I discovered that she was a pretty amazing figure as well. She and Crosby were both female Methodist preachers, but Bosanquet was the one who convinced John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, to allow all women to preach. Sarah Crosby and Mary Bosanquet Fletcher are two pretty amazing figures, and I am proud to have given the world some more information about them.”
The interconnectedness of Wikipedia articles is inspiring – some say addicting – and with the tools to make a difference, Haleigh took to the task. She continues to edit, although her course ended earlier this summer.
“Most of my edits have been fixing grammar and formatting mistakes that I see when browsing through articles. Though I did go in and add some content to the article on the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and I added a lot to the article for my college at UCSD, Eleanor Roosevelt College. My goals are to continue working on these articles. I did some research on the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp recently, so I want to use those sources and add to the article. Additionally, I want to find some more third-party sources for the article on Eleanor Roosevelt College, as the way I have it now relies a bit too much on primary sources… And of course, I want to continue keeping my eye out for grammar and formatting mistakes.”
As a history major, the Wikipedian commitment to comprehensive and accessible knowledge is aligned with Haleigh’s personal values. And this assignment has given her the tools to put that commitment into practice and make a real impact.
“One of the reasons that I became a history major is because I believe that history is often misconstrued as boring and uninteresting, when it’s so complex and fascinating. These articles are helping people around the world gain a better understanding of history, which is my #1 goal as a history major. I love to spread knowledge.” And she’s done just that! During the duration of her course, Haleigh contributed 33,700 words to Wikipedia articles, which have been viewed 494,000 times in total. And she continues to improve a wide variety of articles on Wikipedia in her free time.
“I find the editing process to be pretty fun,” says Haleigh. “And it’s going very well! I have learned so much about Wikipedia through exploring the site and with the help of other Wikipedians.”
The recent national study published by Strada and Gallup reports that students find education to be worth the cost when coursework is relevant to their lives. When a student contributes academic content to a Wikipedia article, they understand the workings of a resource they use all the time. They also understand that their words can be accessed by millions, and they feel an increased sense of responsibility to produce quality work. Students gain critical skills in digital literacy, research, writing for a public audience, and collaboration through the process. And they build up their confidence to participate in important modes of knowledge production and transmission. A Wikipedia assignment is a chance to take on an active role in their own education.
“I didn’t expect to become as passionate about Wikipedia as I did because of this course,” Haleigh reflects. “I took the course because I thought it would be interesting and very different from a typical class, and it was. But I did not expect to come out of it with a new hobby. I would tell any students out there that if there’s a class like this offered at your university: take it! It’s a very rewarding and fun experience.”
Interested in teaching with Wikipedia? Visit teach.wikiedu.org to get started or reach out firstname.lastname@example.org with questions.