Wikipedia as a Scene of Writing, pt. 3

This week’s post is devoted to laying out the semester-long Wikipedia project. As with all facets of our courses, this project has  and is very much evolving from its earliest version. Actually my Wikipedia project itself stems from a writing assignment that my then dean, Andy Anderson, recommended, which still holds a central place in the project.

Step 1: Evaluating Wikipedia

So in the conversations about Wikipedia, I ask my students to visit the Wikipedia page on the 5 Pillars.  Essentially what these are core principles by which the Wikipedian community works. I usually devote an entire class discussing and unpacking each of these pillars, understanding how each relates to the underlying belief that a self-policing community of volunteer editors would be able to maintain such a powerful source of knowledge. The pillar that I spend the most time on pertains to Wikipedia’s neutrality policy:

We strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence in an impartial tone. We avoid advocacy and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them. In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in others, we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context rather than as “the truth” or “the best view”. All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial or is on living persons. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong.

Here I encourage my students to consider the difference that Wikipedia implies between neutrality and objectivity – that a Wikipedia article will acknowledge the controversy on a topic and will look to present and give due weight to recognized points of view. (Here I usual ask students how we might be able to determine major and minor points of view on a topic.)

The discussion of neutrality on Wikipedia leads into the first writing assignment. I ask students to select a Wikipedia article from a list I give them, emphasizing they should choose a topic they can imagine spending the term researching. After reading through the article and “Talk” page, I ask students to find 3-4 sources that were not cited in the Wikipedia article. From these sources, students identify key pieces of information that were omitted from the Wikipedia article. Based on their research, students evaluate the Wikipedia article to see whether it adheres to the neutrality pillar. (To help students wrap their minds around the assignment, I suggest a hypothetical: what if your only source of information about President George W. Bush was the Wikipedia article on him? Further, what if the article did not mention at all the Afghanistan or Iraq Wars? Would you then have an accurate view of his presidency? The idea here is that bias can be created through omission.)

Wikipedia Essay

The pitfall that some students encounter is that they understand the assignment as a typical informative research paper, one which the Wikipedia article simply becomes just one of the sources they cite. The best way I have come up with for anticipating this problem is by emphasizing for students that this is not an essay about the topic of the Wikipedia article but rather about the article itself . In other words, the essay is not meant to inform the reader about, say, school bullying in the United States, but the purpose is to evaluate the Wikipedia article on this topic. I remind my students that their essay should support their conclusion on how the article needs to change. (Given the complexity of the assignment, I am very generous in allowing my students to revise their submissions.)

Step 2: Wikipedia, What’s it Good For?

Once students have completed this part of the project, we have a class devoted to beginning editing their chosen Wikipedia article. Now there is quite a lot of content that I cover with my students in this class meeting, but the three major topics we deal with are 1) the parameters of the editing part of the project (I have image of the assignment sheet below), 2) the need to stay safe online, and 3) the user-interface for making edits on Wikipedia.

Here’s an image of the Wikipedia project assignment sheet:

Wikipedia Project

At this point, students will have done some cursory research on their topic. Based on the research, they have a starting point to make some edits. Students can be resistant to this part of the project. A common complaint that students have voiced to me is that the article is “perfect” and does not need to be edited. When I encounter this response, I ask students to visit the “talk” section of the article to see what other editors have to say about the article. Sometimes doing so gives my students  springboards for their edits. Another concern students have is that they are not experts in the topic and so have no right to edit the article. To this I like remind my students that Wikipedia is not for professionals or experts in the field – it is for those who care about the topic and want to ensure that the most accurate and neutral information is available. Further, I try to encourage them by pointing out that they do have a right to voice what they have learned through their research.

Here’s are some more tips that I have learned so far in introducing the overall Wikipedia project to my students:

1) Make sure that you are also an active Wikipedian. (During this class I introduce students to the Wikipedia article, “Works by Francis Bacon,” that I have been editing over the past three years under the username Atownnative. I will make an edit in class as a model for my students.)

2) Although a bit dated, show students this Youtube video on how to edit a Wikipedia article. (When students create their Wikipedia accounts, they will have to do so outside of the classroom. Wikipedia allows only one account to be created at a time on the same IP address.)

3) Discuss with students how to stay safe online. (I advise my students not to create usernames that in any way relate to their real life identities. Also, I warn them from giving out any personal information to other Wikipedia users – all communication should be done via website and not from personal emails.)

4) Finally, set some class time aside throughout the term so that students can work on their edits. You may have to reserve a computer lab for this part. (Even the most web savvy students will need some help making their edits through Wikipedia’s interface. You should become very familiar with how to do operate the edit feature on Wikipedia.)

My next post on the Wikipedia project will cover the progress reports and overall where I see the project being successful and where I would like to improve it.

Here are the above assignment sheet in WordDoc format:

Wikipedia Essay Assignment Sheet

Editing Wikipedia Semester Project

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About Anthony Funari

Hi, thanks for taking time to stop by my blog, Renaissnace Matters. So here's a little bit about me . . . I am student, scholar, reader, writer, teacher, and general enthusiast about the European Renaissance, a.k.a the Early Modern period. In May 2010, I graduated with my doctorate in English Literature from Lehigh University, focusing my dissertation on the literary reaction to the Scientific Revolution. I currently have an article in the recent issue of Early English Studies (EES). Also, keep an eye out for my forthcoming book through Palgrave MacMillan, Francis Bacon and the 17th-Century Intellectual Discourse.
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