When a Wikipedia research project becomes a thesis

Maria Murad
Maria Murad. Image courtesy Maria Murad, all rights reserved.

Maria Murad decided to take Heather Sharkey’s course at the University of Pennsylvania because it involved learning how to write a Wikipedia article.

“I was already working for my school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, and I wanted to explore more avenues that allowed me to create short form, accessible content on important topics,” Maria explains. “I find that academic articles can be pretty inaccessible for most. Wikipedia or news articles are more accessible to the masses. I know when I want to learn more about something, the first thing I do is search it on Wikipedia. This course felt like an opportunity to have a meaningful impact on a platform that virtually everyone uses to learn about new topics.”

The assignment provided a meaningful impact for Wikipedia’s readers — but also to Maria herself. Dr. Sharkey had provided a list of women connected to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (better known as the Penn Museum) as potential subjects for their Wikipedia assignment. One name on the list was Florence Shotridge, or Kaatxwaaxsnéi, a Native Alaskan Tlingit ethnographer, museum educator, and weaver who worked at the Penn Museum for several years. There was little to no information online about her. Intrigued, Maria set out to research her.

Florence Shotridge
Florence Shotridge

“I took a lot of trips to the Museum Archives and learned that she was one of the first American Indians  to lead an anthropological expedition (alongside her husband), an excellent Chilkat weaver, and a museum educator guide to schoolchildren who would visit the museum,” Maria says. “Her husband, Louis Shotridge, already had a Wikipedia article and there was a lot of information about him at the Museum, but it seemed like Florence’s legacy was mostly invisible.”

Maria made it more visible by creating her biography on Wikipedia. But the assignment inspired Maria further: She also made Florence Shotridge the focus of her senior thesis, including creating a short documentary film about her life.

“I think one of the best skills I gained from writing for Wikipedia was the ability to succinctly synthesize various sources,” Maria says. “Since little was written about most of these women before, I had to combine primary research I discovered in the Museum archives with object histories in the Museum with brief mentions in academic articles. I had to marry a variety of sources together in a clear and accessible way in order to publish it on Wikipedia. I think this is a very important skill to have in academic writing.”

It’s a skill Maria is now putting to use. A Kentucky native, she graduated from Penn in 2021. Now, she’s studying Visual, Material, and Museum Anthropology in a master’s program at the University of Oxford. While Oxford is keeping her busy, she hopes to get back to editing Wikipedia soon, especially creating new articles about women.

“Though supplementing details and information on extant articles was a worthwhile and rewarding task, it felt very special to contribute something new to the platform that would lead to so many more people learning about important women in Penn’s history that would have never known about them before,” says Maria.

To learn more about the Wikipedia Student Program, visit teach.wikiedu.org.

Image credit: Bain News Service, publisher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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