Students improve articles on how bills became laws

Wikipedia’s articles about US federal laws tend to have high numbers of pageviews — despite the fact that they’re often incomplete. Like all articles, those about public policy tend to focus in on what was of particular interest to the volunteers who have contributed to it in the past, leaving other sections missing or underdeveloped. That’s where Nicole Mathew’s Capstone Course in American Politics came in. Her Oakland University students each took a federal law from 1947 to 2012 and updated them. Since the students’ work this fall, the articles they edited have been viewed more than 300,000 times.

One popular article was that of the National Security Act of 1947, which restructured the military and intelligence agencies in the United States post-World War II. The student overhauled the article, which used to have only seven paragraphs and six citations. Today, thanks to the student’s work, it’s a fully developed article with twenty-one citations as well as detailed descriptions of its legislative history and provisions.

Another article the class expanded was the Civil Rights Act of 1960, which addressed voting rights and a number of other civil rights issues. The student editor added significant information about the background and legislative history of this act, helping place it in its historical context.

Another civil rights legislation article to get improved was the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the landmark law establishing hate crimes, the Indian Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Anti-Riot Act. Since 2019, the article had included a warning banner asking readers to expand each section about the ten Titles in the act; the student editor finally did, extensively documenting what each one covers. The student also added sections to the background and legislative history of the article.

Like civil rights, immigration is still today a topic of legislative discussion. A student editor in the course expanded Wikipedia’s coverage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, significantly documenting its legislative history. The student also added information about its background and more effectively detailed the provisions in the legislation.

Before another student editor worked on it, Wikipedia’s article on the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act was what’s known on Wikipedia as a stub — a short article without much information or many citations. A student editor significantly expanded it, adding sections on the act’s background, legislative history, and provisions.

Other students in the course also added information to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, the McKinney-Vento Homess Assistance Act, the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, which has been in the news recently.

In all these examples, students are better enabling United States citizens to understand the laws of their country — the context they emerged from, the path they took to become law, and what they state. Having an informed citizenry requires having neutral, fact-based information about laws and other public policy topics — a key role Wikipedia can play.

If you’re a politics or public policy instructor interested in having your students help improve Wikipedia’s coverage, reach out! Visit teach.wikiedu.org for more information.

Image credit: Ralf Roletschek (talk) – Infos über Fahrräder auf fahrradmonteur.de Wikis in der Ausbildung, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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