5 career skills historians can achieve by writing for Wikipedia

The American Historical Association has identified five career diversity skills that historians with PhDs said they didn’t learn in grad school, but that have been vital to their success beyond the academy. Rarely does a single professional development experience hit on all five: communication, collaboration, quantitative literacy, intellectual self-confidence, and digital literacy. But Wiki Education is continually developing one such avenue for achieving them: our Wikipedia professional development courses.

In our three-month-long virtual courses, participants are immersed in the world of Wikipedia. They comb pages for inaccuracies and gaps, while gaining the technical skills and knowledge of Wikipedia practices to make necessary changes.


In a variety of media and to a variety of audiences

Historians are increasingly looking for opportunities to share their expertise more widely, both within academic communities and beyond. Learning to ‘edit’ Wikipedia presents a solution: scholars become equipped to channel their field’s knowledge into the place where the public is looking most to learn.

Lucy Branham, in prison dress, speaking on the Prison Special tour.

For example, a past participant in our historian-focused course in collaboration with the National Archives created a brand new Wikipedia page for an important event in the history of women’s voting rights. By filling in this area of history on Wikipedia, she helped correct Wikipedia’s gender content gap and reached thousands with her work. The article about the “Prison Special” details a train tour around the United States in which suffragists who had been detained for their activism could speak about their experiences. The Wikipedia article was deemed so interesting and well-researched by the Wikipedia community that it was featured on the site’s homepage under the “Did you know?” section on January 20, 2019.

Did you know that American suffragists arrested for protesting at the White House later toured the country on the Prison Special while dressed in their prison uniforms?

On that day alone, the article was viewed 4,150 times.

Wikipedia is a living archive – one in need of constant updates, vigilance, and engagement. This historian made this important knowledge repository more reflective of diverse history and has already reached thousands with that knowledge. As another past participant in our Wikipedia course for historians remarked, “Wiki Education offers a compelling model for how historians can engage with the public.​”


Especially with people who might not share your worldview

“I have come to realize that the pursuit of knowledge can be undertaken by an individual, but it can only be advanced in partnership with others,” writes another of our course alumni. Wikipedia offers historians a chance to shape public knowledge on a massive scale. But because it’s also a site “anyone can edit,” understandably there are a number of checks and balances that the Wikipedia volunteer community employs to keep the site’s information as accurately representative of world knowledge as possible. When historians engage these checks and balances in our courses, they enter this particular online community of people devoted to free, open knowledge. Course participants also convene with each other through weekly video calls, where they discuss progress, roadblocks, and successes. Participants often choose to directly collaborate in their Wikipedia writing, thus building up their network of likeminded scholars and getting the chance to research together across disciplines.

Quantitative literacy

AHA defines quantitative literacy as “a basic ability to understand and communicate information presented in quantitative form, i.e., understanding that numbers tell a story the same way words, images, and artifacts do”. * While we do not currently have professional development offerings that support this learning outcome, we have big plans for new programs related to public data repository Wikidata in the future. Stay tuned historians!

Intellectual self-confidence

Defined by AHA as “the ability to work beyond subject matter expertise, to be nimble and imaginative in projects and plans,” * intellectual self-confidence allows for the cross-disciplinary thinking that makes for great scholarly work and discovery. Wikipedia is ripe for these sorts of opportunities.

Course alumnae Zoe Brigley Thompson and Amy Dye-Reeves presented with Wiki Education Program Managers Will Kent and Ryan McGrady at Wiki Conference North America.

Through our courses, scholars target key areas in their field to improve on Wikipedia. Many participants find that one venture can lead to an editing rabbit hole (in a good way!), where they find themselves jumping from link to link to improve related topics. The web of knowledge woven on Wikipedia allows for a creative intellectual activity that many find inspiringsatisfying, and even a little addicting.

Entering the Wikipedia world as a scholar also opens possibilities for creative new scholarship. Many of our high-performing alumni have presented with us at academic conferences relevant to their field. Still others have transferred their new skills into their pedagogy. Some have done both!

Dr. Jenn Brandt presents at the National Women’s Studies Association 2018 regional meeting about incorporating her new Wikipedia skills into curricula.

Digital literacy

A basic familiarity with digital tools and platforms

Wikipedia is one of the most well-known and well-trusted information platforms in the world. Understanding the site’s operating principles and cultural practices is not only an interesting ethnographic pursuit, but a highly relevant one. Participants in our courses learn technical skills and knowledge of the workings of this digital environment that they can take into their classroom and beyond.

As part of our ongoing professional development offerings, we will be opening registration for our historian-focused course again in late spring. For more information or to sign up to receive updates, please visit our course landing page.

ImageFile:BRANHAM, LUCY. SUFFRAGETTE LCCN2016869830.jpg, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


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