Reading Wikipedia’s editorial culture

By on February 26, 2020

Reading Wikipedia’s editorial culture

By on February 26, 2020

Reading Wikipedia’s editorial culture

With three terms of Wikipedia writing assignment experience already under his belt, Dr. Josh DiCaglio reflects on having students understand Wikipedia’s editing culture by participating in it. He is an assistant professor in the department of English at Texas A&M University.

Joshua DiCaglio
Image by Etherfire, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Although many instructors have used Wikipedia in class projects, these assignments usually focus on writing new content in a subject related to the course or remedying imbalances in editing. While these are excellent pedagogical tasks and essential for Wikipedia’s mission, my assignment focuses on the general editorial situation presented by Wikipedia. I ask students to take existing content, which is often a patch-work of years of different contributions and changes representing different interests and backgrounds, and intervene in the page in a way that will align it with Wikipedia conventions and facilitate future contributions. They are encouraged not to produce new content but to work with what is already there, with the assumption that other content-matter experts will come along (probably long after they are done with this project) to assist in working up the page. Doing so forces students to learn the elaborate conventions of Wikipedia, join and react to a live community of writers, figure out ways to facilitate an on-going writing process, and experience editing in an online setting—including using Wikipedia’s markup language. The public setting amplifies the stakes: every change is live for the whole world to see (4.12 million people viewed the pages students worked on during the 2019 project), every communication open for response, and every alteration a permanent part of the evolution of the articles they edit.

This assignment provides students with direct experience with a live and dynamic editorial situation that shares many of the attributes of editing in a technological environment—working with existing content, accommodating limits according to a prescribed genre, managing multiple writers that may or may not be present and may have contrasting uses, considering multiple audiences, accounting for past writing, and facilitating future work on a future document. One of the most valuable and elusive skills is the learning and accommodating an existing editing culture. In fact, the original assignment was inspired when some friends of mine asked me to assist in putting together a page for someone they held worthy of a Wikipedia page. To our surprise, we received quick and direct lessons in the difficulties of writing biographies of living persons, the constraints of Wikipedia’s policies (especially Neutral Point of View, Notability, and Verifiability), and the procedures that Wikipedians use to vet content. This provided a valuable lesson in learning to read an editorial culture, one that I wanted to pass along to my students.

As I developed the project, I came to see that there is a key skill needed for the continued success of Wikipedia that few beyond seasoned Wikipedia editors may be aware of: the need for advanced editorial sensibilities to perform the elaborate coordination needed to handle the diverse interests and contributions provided to Wikipedia. There are three major scenarios I try to get my students to focus on. The first are slowly developing pages that are the result of years (often well over a decade) of contributions that have been amassed without a global coherence. In these pages, decisions made a decade ago by one user might set the stage for years of edits even if they are not the most sensible organization. Often, there has been little discussion of what the page is actually for and what kind of content should be there (One of my favorite examples of this is the Concert page—what kind of information should go in a Concert Wikipedia page? What is it for?). The second are pages that have received attention from content matter experts but may not have the appropriate frame, organization, and style that fits with Wikipedia. These often have very active users who would welcome someone less knowledgeable in the topic; but this requires someone who is not afraid to work with these experts to dig into the writing and organization of the article to make it more accessible and appropriate. Sometimes these kinds of pages have controversies that could use an additional neutral voice to help figure out what might be done next and where the article could go. The third are pages that were created and vetted largely on the work of one contributor but which are not appropriately written for Wikipedia. Most common is the page that is ported from an essay into a Wikipedia page, such as this one on World War 2 US Military Sex Education or this one on Gender in Horror Films (the links are the pages before my students’ interventions). These pages usually have good content but become stalled because so much work is required to turn the content into something appropriate for Wikipedia.

Having students work with such pages provides both an incredibly useful editing scenario and a focused study of the difficulties of editing with a group over time. Many students struggle with the assignment only to return later to speak of how meaningful it was for them. Several students have mentioned referring to it in job interviews and several have remained regular Wikipedia editors since completing the assignment.

The Montague-CTE (Center for Teaching Excellence) Scholars program is an award and grant given at Texas A&M to one assistant professor from each college per year. As part of the award, they have you focus on one particular innovative teaching technique that you would like to develop. I received the award (which includes a small stipend in addition to general recognition) to work on my Wikipedia assignment that I developed for my Technical and Professional Editing course. My plan is to use this support to enlist an undergraduate in refining this course assignment, gathering examples from previous iterations of the course (this semester will be my fourth time running the assignment), and working up these materials into something that can be presented to others at professional conferences (including, potentially, the WikiConference) and through a publication for a composition journal.


To incorporate a Wikipedia writing assignment into an upcoming course, visit teach.wikiedu.org for access to free resources and assignment templates.

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