I love, love, love when assignments have real-world applications and immediate, tangible effects. It really makes a connection in students’ minds that, lo and behold, these things we teach them actually have practical uses — that students learning something that will actually help them accomplish tasks not just in the future, but today.
In this hastac.org blog post, Cathy Davidson begins by lamenting the term paper, which not only do students hate to write, but instructors hate to grade. “It’s pretty pointless,” she writes.
Instead, Davidson asks, “Why not use the knowledge gained in a class and in research outside class to change the world a little?” By having students edit or create Wikipedia entries for underrepresented individuals or groups, she writes, forward-thinking instructors are using their time in the classroom to promote social change and connect students’ writing to the real world outside the classroom. Students are giving a voice to those who have traditionally been voiceless.
But the project not only benefits students and those whose entries are being created or improved upon — it benefits the Wikipedia community, at large. Davidson points out a disturbing statistic in her post:
“We know that less than 10% of the editors and the contributions on Wikipedia are by women. Scholars and performers of color, queer scholars, activists, and others are vastly under represented. “
Contributing, she adds, “does a public service — and Wikipedia welcomes it.” But Wikipedia’s rules “are tough, rigorous, even picky,” which means students need to be held to a higher standard. Creating or improving upon a Wikipedia entry, she says, “is research, writing, theory, critical university meta-study, critically responsive pedagogy, individual and collaborative work, agency, activism, professionalism, and learning how to do what scholars do: all rolled into one contribution to the larger public good.” And the finished product is not a term paper — it is a piece of published content that helps provide the world with an important piece of knowledge that can be used and added to.
And, by using resources like WikiEdu.org, which “provides analytics that allow you to track every edit that every student makes,” instructors are able to ensure students are taking what they are learning in the classroom and applying that knowledge and those new skills in a truly meaningful way.
Davidson highlights the work of Berkeley professor Juana Maria Rodriguez, who has pioneered the Wikipedia research assignment in her classrooms. Rodriguez writes that, through the project, students not only learned to create annotated bibliographies, but they created or improved/expanded upon several entries for underrepresented individuals or groups:
“Jose Esteban Muñoz finally got a page that might begin to approach his significance (he originally had two tiny paragraphs). They also created pages for Essex Hemphill, Justin Chin (still needs his birthdate!), Martin Wong, Gil Cuadros, and some local Bay Area queer luminaries Adela Cuba, Chili Felix, Cecilia Chung, and a beautiful page for tatiana de la tierra. They also added to a host of other pages, these pages are by no means perfect but they are a start towards making Wikipedia a more queer and colored space.”
This project is absolutely brilliant and relevant in so many ways. And it helps empower a generation of students who are growing up in an era when, especially following the 2016 presidential election, the rights of the underrepresented (which I would argue includes younger students, who lack the political and financial clout that baby boomers, Gen Xers, and, to a lesser extent, millennials, enjoy) are in a precarious state. These students want their voices to be heard, and they want to make a difference. Why shouldn’t we help them along?