Assigning Wikipedia

Not long ago, the fabulous students of my Scientific Revolution grad seminar completed their second of two assignments to create or contribute to a Wikipedia article on a topic relevant to the course. I had considered using such an assignment in previous courses, but harbored some doubts about it: Is this a useful type of writing assignment for a history course? Is it really a helpful way of engaging with course material? Isn’t Wikipedia far too un-academic? Too superficial?

After students finished their articles, we discussed (on several occasions) the process and their products. I wanted their perspective on some of the above questions, and a better sense if it was worth doing again. Despite the variety of topics they wrote on (the transit of Venus, science in the early modern university, lesser known figures of early modern science, etc), and having rather limited technical skills, the students considered it an overwhelmingly positive and useful experience both for learning and connecting course materials as well as for thinking about historical scholarly practice in the 21st century.

For just about (if not actually) everyone, students were resolutely enthusiastic for the assignment because they felt like they were making a real contribution to the historical conversation. It was a learning exercise, but the work really mattered. They reported that they worked on their articles much more than other typical class assignments (not just those in my course) because of their visibility: they knew that anyone could see their work at any time, and that it would persist long beyond the course. Most student edited articles related to their own, fixing small issues on relevant topics and adding links to their own articles. They were proud of what they had done and wanted it to be used. This was done with full knowledge that they didn’t own their article or have their name attached to it.

They were surprised, unnerved, and glad to find that their articles were edited almost immediately. Most changes were trivial (adding categories, fixing small typos, standardizing citations, etc), but they illustrated the collaborative process that humanists often talk about but rarely embrace. An active (if not slightly bizarre) discussion page for one topic (the university), brought up a number of issues about possible western bias in the article, which added a new dimension to our conversation. Discussions about bias in Wikipedia can often accelerate down the path to nowhere, but they provided a perspective on relevant topics that transcended the usual course boundaries and encouraged further reflection upon bias in more typical scholarly work.

Discussions about the assignment itself led to productive conversations about the nature of scholarship in the digital age. We discussed scholarly legitimacy and authority, and critiqued processes of knowledge production in terms of new media. Although they did not consider Wikipedia as scholarship per se, students questioned why they had been told to stay away from it by other professors. They got the impression that it was entirely untrustworthy and worthless. It led to a discussion of digital literacy, scholarly values, and the nature and aesthetics of scholarship. What is it supposed to look like? How flexible are the accepted modes of knowledge production? Can scholarship happen on a wiki? Perhaps more practically, how do we understand and discuss the limitations of Wikipedia? Contrary to the approaches they had encountered before, they gladly kept their heads out from under the sand.

The assignment also induced discussions about intended audience, writing style, content organization, web formatting and layout, and the challenge of situating ideas in complex hyperlinked spaces. Needless to say, these kinds of issues should be considered for any assignment. But because this wasn’t the largely invisible x-page essay for a course, these questions had no easy answers and thus encouraged more engagement with them. Our first post-mortem discussion (as well as the articles themselves) revealed that just about everyone had operated under totally different stylistic presumptions. They energetically discussed and reevaluated those once we looked at the range of articles they produced. Students in my Digital History course always enjoy these topics, but now it’s obvious that students benefit much more when they struggle with these issues first-hand, rather than just discuss them in theoretical terms.

There were no technical difficulties, even though I provided absolutely no technical guidance. I simply pointed students to the Wikipedia introductory pages. At the beginning of our meetings, some students reported trouble with a particular formatting code; invariably, other students who had already addressed the challenge would share their wisdom. They had no trouble with the wiki format and language, and I think just about everyone found it considerably easier than they expected it would be.

What would I do differently next time? I deliberately left the assignment vague to see what people would do rather than to see how well the students would follow specific directions (which might be too restrictive, anyway). It was perhaps a bit too vague. In retrospect, and now that I have a better idea of what to expect, I would point to a range of example articles, and be more explicit about issues (audience, style, etc) to consider before writing. A number of authors deliberately imitated a bland encyclopedic style at the expense of their usual engaging and energetic style that they used on the class blog. They recognized, perhaps later than would be ideal, that their participation was helping to shape the very nature of the modern encyclopedia.

I didn’t indicate strongly enough how much their articles should integrate course materials and relevant outside resources, so many articles tended to draw from a small number of (academic) sources. Of course one does not require many sources to write a good encyclopedia article, but one motivation of the assignment was to encourage synthetic work, and I wasn’t fully satisfied with the extent to which that happened—but it seems that more direction upfront is the relatively easy solution. Even though many students did it anyway, I would explicitly require that they add links back to their articles on pages of related topics in order to encourage careful thinking about topic selection and their contribution to a larger knowledge network.

I’ve long considered experimentation to be a cornerstone of my teaching philosophy, and I’ll be the first to admit that many of my experiments don’t work out so well. So it’s a pleasure to report when one far exceeds expectations, even if crucial improvements are now obvious. More importantly, I hope it’s a kind of assignment that others will consider as well. Perhaps most valuably, it can help students engage with skills that are far too often reserved for communications or “digital” humanities courses, but provide a digital literacy that should underlie every university degree.