The University of Michigan’s William P. Malm Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Student Writing in Japanese Studies is awarded each year for an outstanding undergraduate paper. Past honorees were usually honored for writing traditional academic papers. But this year’s award went to Aja Brandmeier for improving the Wikipedia article on Birth control in Japan.
“I have never won an academic award before this, so when I got the email of congratulations I had to do a double take!” Aja says. “Beyond that though, I think it’s a nice way of also acknowledging the kind of work that can exist on Wikipedia. One of the things I loved about this project was the idea of being able to improve something on a public platform and offer substantive research that could be helpful to someone who might not have access to the same resources we are so lucky to have as students at the University of Michigan.”
Aja edited the article as part of a class assignment for Allison Alexy’s Society and Culture in Contemporary Japan class, supported by graduate student instructor Areli Arianna Balderrama.
“I have noticed that English language pages about Japan can be awful – full of stereotypes, very out-of-date scholarship, and generally orientalizing images,” Allison says. She gave students the choice to create a new article or improve an existing one; Aja chose the latter.
“We had discussed in class the damaging ways in which articles on Wikipedia can be written, perpetuating stereotypical views of Japan, so I wanted to apply what I had been learning in class to an article on Wikipedia in order to enhance content that was already available,” Aja says. “I choose to write about ‘Birth Control in Japan.’ Before I began working on the article I don’t think it included much more than a general description of the history of birth control in Japan. Nothing can be that straightforward, so I thought it would be an excellent piece to work on!”
With Areli Arianna’s help, Aja researched the topic and learned the ins and outs of writing for Wikipedia. She says she was nervous at first, not having any idea of what writing for Wikipedia was like; “Turns out there is a lot of consideration that goes into writing, or editing, a Wikipedia article,” she says.
Armed with the foundation from Professor Alexy, Aja did a deep dive into researching her topic. She says the biggest thing she learned in writing a Wikipedia article is that nothing happens in a vacuum, and many factors, people, organizations, and agencies had influence on the development of birth control in Japan. Throughout it all, Aja kept a focus on what Wikipedia’s readers need to know.
“I put the same amount of time and energy (if not more!) into this project as I would have a traditional research paper, the difference being that the work I did in Professor Alexy’s class will potentially have a meaningful impact on people beyond the walls of the University of Michigan,” she says. “It’s a cool feeling to know that the work you are doing is improving something beyond just yourself, which is why I think I took such great care when approaching the project. This feeling also kept me engaged and motivated the whole time and I have even kept my research and hope to be able to continue adding to what I have already created.”
Aja, who just graduated this spring with a degree in the history of art, hasn’t yet had much collaboration from other Wikipedia editors, but she says she’d love connecting with other contributors to make the article even better.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to know you are contributing an article to a public platform that can help encourage a more dynamic conversation,” she says. “I will also add that to publish a piece of your writing that you are proud of and that you put a lot of time, effort, and research into is pretty cool!”
“I was honestly blown away when I first started to read her entry, especially because she had done all the wonderful work entirely on her own. She brainstormed the topic, found and read the relevant literature, and organized the entry to be logical. I want to emphasize that ‘birth control’ was not a significant topic in the course; although we talked a lot about families and pronatalism, I didn’t lecture on this topic. She figured this all out on her own and then built very thoughtful links to other Wikipedia pages on related topics,” Allison says. “I am deeply impressed by the work Aja did here to reach a more general audience and inform them about this particular set of topics. For instance, her writing is now the second hit if you google ‘birth control in Japan,’ and I am thrilled that anyone seeking information on this topic can read her smart, thorough, and scholarly entry.”