Rudolph Fisher was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance whose work has largely slipped from the public consciousness. The son of a Baptist pastor, Fisher was a physician, radiologist, and novelist. He also wrote short stories, plays, and music and was a skilled public speaker. Despite dying when he was only 37, Fisher made a significant contribution to the arts. This Fall, students in Delia Steverson’s African American Literature worked on expanding Fisher’s biography. This editing, in turn, caught the attention of Sean Carlson as he wrote a feature on Fisher and his work. The flurry of editing activity prompted Carlson to speak to Delia Steverson about their work:
At the University of Florida, Steverson included Fisher among two dozen literary figures and publications for a Wiki Education project to improve the quality of Wikipedia entries related to the African diaspora. Students in her survey course on African American literature conducted research, presented their findings in class, and drew from 275 references to make nearly 800 edits to improve the Wikipedia pages of their assigned topics. Within two months of their semester’s conclusion, their updated entries were viewed almost 40,000 times.
“Work like Wikipedia is going to help to provide open access to knowledge and help to fill these equity gaps,” said Steverson.
“Fisher demonstrates how certain Black voices get lost throughout time,” she said. “What we don’t want is for Rudolph Fisher to be lost in translation for the next 50 years or the next 100 years.”
While the students’ contributions to Fisher’s biography were substantial, the class made even more substantial contributions to other articles. The Voice of the Negro was an important literary magazine published between 1904 and 1907. Students in the class expanded the article from a little over a hundred words to nearly 2000. The biography of Benjamin Griffith Brawley, an African American author and educator who served as the first Dean of Morehouse College, was expanded from a short overview into a detailed look at his life and impact.
These are among a few of the important contributions made by students in the class.
Many people see Wikipedia as fairly complete, and assume that if something isn’t already discussed in the encyclopedia, it probably isn’t that important. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially when it comes to underrepresented minorities. When classes like Dr. Steverson’s contribute to topics like this, not only is Wikipedia made more complete, it’s made more complete in areas where representation matters.
Student editors who contribute to Wikipedia as part of a class assignment have a huge potential to make important contributions in these areas.
Hero image: Photograph of a scene from the Federal Theatre Project production of Conjur’ Man Dies, adapted by Countee Cullen and Arna Bontemps from the novel by Rudolph Fisher, Federal Theatre Project, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons