Writing with a purpose: history teachers revise Wikipedia

Rachel Tamar Van is an Assistant Professor of early American history at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona (Cal Poly Pomona). Here she reflects on what a Wikipedia assignment meant for her history classroom.

For many writing assignments, the exercise is in the writing.  Students cherish every word of feedback. They thoughtfully apply comments to future writing or analysis.  Oh, wait. No. Realistically? Even fabulous students read feedback and then slip the paper to the back of their notebook rarely to be viewed again save to be incorporated into a future exercise or exam.  And yet, when students write for a broader audience, the process changes significantly.

I fell in love with the idea of revising Wikipedia with students when another history professor raved on Twitter about the benefits of having students revise historical pages.  For my history M.A. students, largely comprised of current and future teachers, the assignment worked well. Many within the class came of age with the “don’t trust Wikipedia” mantra to the point that we pushed up our sleeves and embraced our role as muckrakers.  What’s in the meat? Or, for our purposes, how can we be critically engaged users of and contributors to Wikipedia?

I pitched the assignment as follows:

Your assignment is to locate an individual from early American history whose Wikipedia page could use revision.  There is no page or word requirement, but instead you must use at least four secondary sources.  Grading will be based on how effectively you use the sources.

Why revise Wikipedia?

Two primary reasons.
First, students often start here for their research.  Google now pushes Wikipedia pages up in their searches to combat the tautology of confirmation bias in a lot of searching (query a conspiracy theory and you can very well get sucked into a vortex of websites claiming to affirm the conspiracy).  Thus, it is helpful to pull back the curtain and understand Wikipedia’s own process and epistemology.¹
Second, updating Wikipedia means contributing to the edifice of public knowledge.  In order to combat circular logic and reductionism in their algorithm, Google itself selects Wikipedia entries as top results for its search engine.  Thus, it is in our best interests as a society to improve upon this base of historical knowledge.

First off, a caveat.  The very thing I enjoyed about this project – having students write for a generalized public – was the very thing some students found intimidating.  Were they right in how they represented the history?  Was their research fair to the subject?  Was their writing accessible and sufficiently proofread?  These were the very things I wanted them to contemplate.  How wonderful to have this be an organic part of the assignment.  Before constructing a similar assignment, ask yourself, is it fair to expect every single student completing this assignment to have sufficient skills to perform this work?  To put themselves out there? On the flip side, I had other students who shrugged at this—not a concern.

Assigning this project for a graduate seminar worked well. As graduate students, their research and writing skills were sufficiently developed for this assignment. As a seminar, having fewer than twenty students allowed for providing feedback for individual research and writing.

Researching the Past for the Sake of the Present

Our class focused on Early American biography, with a particular eye for contributing to one of Wiki Education’s stated goals: to strengthen the pages of marginalized figures.  Focusing on one mode of history (biography) enabled methodological focus. In class, we discussed biography as a field, historians’ perceptions of “notability” versus those outlined in Wikipedia policy, identifying “content gaps,” search tips, and the importance of historical context.  All of these issues enabled pragmatic discussions on epistemologies of historical writing, and comparing notes on our challenges and triumphs. (Sample challenge? Circular citing in which you find several sources, but citing each other, relying upon a smaller number of primary sources and thus giving little new content). And we did have triumphs.

While Wikipedia policy explicitly prefers editors use secondary sources, primary sources are also clearly used.  In my handout, I advised my students, “Often it incorporates the primary sources in more illustrative than evidentiary ways – less to substantiate an argument and more to illustrate the history for viewers.”  In practice, this went out the window. Students in the class fell in love with their subjects. They dug deep, first in secondary sources, and then reaching out to organizations in a position to know more about their subject.

Several students found people – local museums, Native American tribal associations, a military academy (West Point) – who were delighted to have researchers evince knowledge and appreciation for their biographical subjects.  These organizations passed on resources and permission to post new materials. One student reached out to a second organization only to be referred back to the Wikipedia article with effusive compliments on the page’s revisions, not realizing her role in the updates.  Students began with secondary materials and approached their research with respect and appreciation for the impact their edits could have on people alive today.

Students also shared sleuthing tips with their classmates, from the trenches.  For some understudied yet notable individuals, for example, looking at sources focused on people close to that individual yielded more information than researching their person.  Students also shared tips for bolstering the recognition of their individual, such as editing related pages to ensure links back to their page. All of this illustrated the contingency of history and historical writing.

You are not alone:  Wiki Education

Wiki Education and their wonderful staff made this assignment possible.  They provide useful tools to train students in the technology and process of editing Wikipedia.  They raise concerns familiar to researchers: plagiarism, sourcing, evaluating materials.

Our point person answered questions from anyone in the class throughout the course and served as a touchstone about resources within Wikipedia.  This became especially valuable as students navigated the complex community guidelines expected of them by other editors on the site. Policies are both community-written and enforced, which brought up interesting in-class discussions about how Wikipedia content is ultimately regulated.   How does the community of volunteers decide when competing editors wrangle over content? As users, there is an entire behind-the-scenes world of discussion. The same is true in the historical profession, albeit for the latter, in a more hierarchical framework of expertise, affiliations, and peer review.  Ironically, both rely on an astounding amount of free labor.

Editing & Teaching the Tool

One of the common challenges of this type of assignment is that it requires a certain amount of time to teach the tool that is therefore time taken away from teaching desired skills.  Thankfully, while there was a learning curve here, it was not steep. The technology is very accessible. Also, again, Wiki Education helped with this by providing a platform, tutorials that I could select to assign or not to assign, and a kind and generous contact person.

For my class, teaching the tool was itself a part of the project.  Because they are students and teachers themselves, I explicitly made reflecting upon Wikipedia’s organization as a content-tool for students and the public a part of the assignment.  For my class, the consensus view about Wikipedia was straightforward. The good? It’s easy to edit. The bad? It’s easy to edit.

Interested in incorporating a Wikipedia writing assignment into an upcoming course? Our free resources and student trainings help you do it. Read more or get started by visiting teach.wikiedu.org.

1. See, for example, Louise Matsakis, “Don’t Ask Wikipedia to Cure the Internet:  YouTube and other tech giants have repeatedly turned to Wikipedia to help solve some of their biggest problems,” Wired 16 March 2018 https://www.wired.com/story/youtube-wikipedia-content-moderation-internet/.

Header/thumbnail image by Victorrocha, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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