Wikipedia and public-facing scholarship in the classroom

By on December 1, 2020

Wikipedia and public-facing scholarship in the classroom

By on December 1, 2020

Wikipedia and public-facing scholarship in the classroom

Heather J. Sharkey has been working with undergraduate and graduate students on Wikipedia projects since 2019, with the goal of promoting public-facing scholarship. She is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Heather Sharkey
Image by CallMeBarcode, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Becoming a Wikipedian

I started to write for Wikipedia less than two years ago, when I enrolled one of my courses at the University of Pennsylvania in Wiki Education’s Wikipedia Student Program.  As my students followed the weekly tutorials, I followed and learned along with them.  Within a few weeks we were editing extant articles by adding links and citations, as well as doing research and drafting new articles.  By semester’s end, I had become a strong believer in Wikipedia’s potential for involving students in the production of high-quality, inclusive, public-facing scholarship.  It surprises me to recall, therefore, that it was frustration with Wikipedia that prompted me to sign up with Wiki Education in the first place.

Facing the Gender Gap

For years I had admired Wikipedia’s commitment to encyclopedic and universal sharing of knowledge.  For that reason, I had been donating to the Wikimedia Foundation during its annual fundraising appeals.  I questioned my support, however, when I read about the case of Donna Strickland.  A professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Strickland won a Nobel Prize in 2018 for work in optical physics and pulsed lasers. According to articles that soon appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, and elsewhere, Strickland had no Wikipedia page to her name when the Nobel committee in Stockholm announced the award.  Apparently someone had posted an article about Strickland several months earlier, featuring her accomplishments in physics, but an editor had expunged it, reasoning that she failed to meet Wikipedia’s threshold for notability.  Journalists who covered this incident mentioned the low percentage of women – seventeen percent at the time – who featured in biographies on Wikipedia’s platform in English.  One cited Strickland’s lack of a page as a “metaphor” for gender bias in the Nobel circuit and in the academic world at large.

The case of Donna Strickland prompted me to think deeply, for the first time, about who wrote and edited Wikipedia articles and how they did it.  It also alerted me to Wikipedia’s “gender gap” and its uneven coverage of various groups and subjects.  Reflecting on these issues left me feeling frustrated for weeks.

But then good luck intervened.  Reading the newsletter of the Penn Libraries, I spotted an article about art historians on campus who had organized a group-writing event – an “edit-a-thon” (I am not sure if I had known the term before!) – to enhance the representation of women artists on Wikipedia. At the event, I found out about Wiki Education’s programs.  The prospect of learning how to contribute to Wikipedia struck me as very exciting, and led me to brainstorm about how Wikipedia could fit into my teaching plan.

Until that time, I was not aware of anyone at my institution who had incorporated Wikipedia-writing into a course, and I did not consider myself a tech-savvy, coding-skill-type person.  Signing up therefore required some courage.  Without the user-friendly interface of the Wiki Education tutorials, I would not have dared to make the leap.

Developing Skills, Sharing Scholarship, and Reflecting on the Politics of Knowledge

At Penn, I teach small research- and writing-based seminars for students ranging from first-year undergraduates to PhD candidates. I have incorporated Wikipedia-writing into these seminars while emphasizing to students the importance of maintaining rigorous research standards and conveying ideas in clear and jargon-free prose.

Writing for Wikipedia benefits students by making them more conscious of their audience and their literary style; they know that direct, accessible language must be a priority.  Contributing to Wikipedia also confronts students with copyright – something that may otherwise seem like an abstraction – especially when using images.  I have seen how the skills they develop with Wikipedia flow into the other forms of other academic writing that they do, whether for research papers or theses.

While engaging students with writing for Wikipedia, I have also asked them to read studies about Wikipedia published by anthropologists, political scientists, and other scholars.  Together we have read and discussed works that examine Wikipedia’s culture of editing and its gaps in coverage, not only vis-à-vis women and gender but also, for instance, with regard to certain regions, including rural places like Appalachia.  We have considered the phenomenon of Wikipedia’s edit wars by reading about a case study entailing a river in India (is it the Ganges, or the Ganga?), and have applied these insights to our own topics.  This semester, for example, in the seminar I am teaching about Middle Eastern food history, one student alerted us to an edit war surrounding the article on manakish, which is a kind of Levantine flatbread.  We discussed what it meant that acrimonious exchanges on its talk page, entailing Arab and Israeli claims to the bread, had prompted Wikipedia moderators to flag the article for “Active Arbitration Remedies.” We were also able to connect the case of manakish to another course reading, about the origins of the cherry tomato, which also cited a Wikipedia dispute.  By comparatively discussing gaps and wars in coverage, my students have become more conscious of their own participation in the world of Wikipedia and about the politics of knowledge more broadly.

Writing Solo and Together

The first time I used Wikipedia in a course, students wrote articles individually, while seeking feedback from classmates once they had drafts to share.  In the semesters since then, I have worked with students to produce team-written articles instead ­– something that works well in seminars that have fewer than fifteen students.  Our process occurs over several weeks, like the Wiki Education tutorials themselves.  We target an article to write (i.e., a gap to fill) early in the semester, compile a list of sources and read them, plot a rough outline, and apportion paragraphs to write independently or in small groups, designating parts of weekly class time to work together. We go on to assemble and revise our text, adding and pruning.  Along the way, we deliberate over wording, organization, and sourcing, and discuss the possible inclusion of images.  We upload our work together, with students taking turns as they add text, citations, and links, and as they ensure proper formatting.

The topics we address build on our course content.  For example, in one seminar, which focused on the history of our institution and its involvement in the Middle East, one student wrote about a treasured object in our university’s museum of archaeology and anthropology (the Penn Museum): a 4,500-year-old lyre which archaeologists from Penn had excavated at the Mesopotamian (Iraqi) site of Ur.  For another seminar, on the history of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish relations, students wrote about the mosque which is down the street from our campus in Philadelphia, and which occupies a former 1920s cinema designed in the “Moorish” architectural style.  In another course, which commemorated the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by studying the history of women scholars at our university, students wrote about figures including the Native Alaskan ethnographer and weaver, Florence Shotridge (1882-1917), who had curated exhibits and led school-group tours in the Penn Museum.  This semester, in a seminar on the history of food in the Middle East, we have been developing an article about a prominent Iraqi-American food scholar and cookbook author named Nawal Nasrallah, who has written extensively about ancient Mesopotamian, medieval Arab, and modern Iraqi cuisines.

Wikipedia beyond the Classroom

My efforts with Wikipedia have begun to move beyond the classroom into other forms of public engagement.  Two examples stand out.

First, in November 2019, a Philadelphia-area consortium of university and college librarians invited me and a student to speak at a conference at Temple University, dedicated to the study of open-access data and pedagogy.  They asked us to present our experiences in writing for Wikipedia as a way of “rethinking the disposable assignment.”   While I discussed the benefits that writing for Wikipedia brought my students, in terms of skills and public engagement, my student, who comes from Saudi Arabia, discussed the Wikipedia article that she wrote in my seminar as well as her subsequent efforts to contribute to Wikipedia’s Arabic-language platform (

Second, in March 2020, when COVID-19 struck, I was in the midst of co-organizing an edit-a-thon ­­– my first! – for Women’s History Month, in collaboration with the Penn Museum.  When the pandemic prompted our university to shut all in-person operations, we decided to take our event online.  We recruited a group of Penn undergraduate and graduate students, alumni, and museum staff, and spent an evening working in teams to expand or produce articles on women associated with the Penn Museum. We wrote about figures like the philanthropist and civic activist Sophia Wells Royce Williams (1850-1928), the U.S. Navy veteran Mary Virginia Harris (1911-2004), and the anthropologist Zelia Nuttall (1857-1933).  I have gone on to participate in three online edit-a-thons since then, including one that aimed to help fill Wikipedia’s coverage gap vis-a-vis African-American scientists.

Conclusion: Wikipedia and the Online Classroom in the Time of COVID-19

This semester, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, my teaching has functioned completely online.  The tutorials of the Wiki Education program have provided an asynchronous element in one of my courses, complementing the live discussions and collaborative writing that we have conducted during weekly video conferences.

In the past two years, writing for Wikipedia has added intellectual substance and verve to my courses, while giving me and my students a sense of accomplishment as we produce and disseminate knowledge.  This semester, with classes online, writing for Wikipedia with my students has felt especially meaningful: it has helped to build esprit de corps and to keep up morale in classroom, even as it has enabled us to feel connected to the worldwide community of Wikipedia readers and writers.

Thank you, Wiki Education, for providing my students and me with such a valuable opportunity for learning and sharing!

Hero image of Penn campus: Kevin83002, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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