Blog Post

How to Go from Standard-Issue Term Paper to Social Change: Here's One Model

How to Go from Standard-Issue Term Paper to Social Change:  Here's One Model

Is there anything students (and professors) dread more than the dreary, conventional term paper--the kind written the night before it's due, that may or may not be read by a prof or TA, that may or may not get comments, that may or may not help students write better in the future? It's pretty pointless. There is so much expediency and deadline hysteria--and sometimes grade and requirement cynicism--cooked into the tired form of the end-of-semester "summative" term paper.  No wonder plagiarism is rampant in the standard model!  We're always looking for better ways.

Here's a great one:  Instead of a term paper that lives and dies in the prof's inbox (profs don't love reading and grading papers written the night before any more than students like writing them), why not use the knowledge gained in a class and in research outside class to change the world a little?  There are many ways to do this but an incredibly rigorous and important one is by making Wikipedia more representative, by either adding to or editing entries especially on people from under-represented groups on Wikipedia.  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.  So contributing does a public service--and Wikipedia welcomes it.  So long as you follow the rules.  And the rules are tough, rigorous, even picky. 

So learning and abiding by the rules are the best form of student-centered, formative pedagogy:  you have to do great, meticulous work in order to do good.  You have to be careful, you have to have secondary sources, you can do archival work, you do research, you learn proper form.  No writing the night before it is due.  Your whole editing history is tracked in the Discussion section.  It's not just a one-off paper.  It is a process of learning and writing, feedback, editing, mastery.

Nor is it just facts. You are doing the incredibly difficult work of taking in a complex body of work and then translating it into the form of a concise entry, explaining terms, linking outward to the most complex of those terms (that then require their own entries with their own bibliography), understanding how knowledge is connected, what the genealogies of ideas might be, how communities of understanding, theory, convergence, influence, and citational practice are and how this all works---and can be corrected and improved in your own entry.

This 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.   Brava!

When you finish, instead of something in an inbox, you have made a public contribution to knowledge  that others can learn from and add to.  (In professional terms, you can list it on a resume too.)  It does good in the world, it does you good, you have learned content, and you have learned scholarly rigor.

For the prof?  The process of writing a Wikipedia editor is more scrupulous than any typical grading we do.  It is an entirely integrated process of learning and doing and contributing to the world.

Professor Juana Maria Rodriguez's undergraduate class at Berkeley took on the task (this is not easy) of doing original research, including archival research and impeccable bibliographical research, and writing entries for a number of Wikipedia pages. 

The folks at were their usual helpful selves. provides analytics that allow you to track every edit that every student makes.  They also provide pre-fab course modules that include Wikipedia training.  They have resources a professor can customize as well.

And the students did a truly amazing job.  

Professor Rodriguez writes:    "This semester my undergrads did Wikipedia projects, and I just wanted to share some of those with you. 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."

In addition to the Wikipedia entries, her students compiled annotated bibliographies to start collecting sources, and also to gain a sense of the larger context of each person about whom they were writing entries.  They used Zotero to collect all of their citations and references, to begin to understand the connections between and among figures, and to understand the whole landscape of the people and theories they were describing.  They made oral group presentations of their work to gain feedback from the rest of the class and set standards for one another of the quality of the Wikipedia entries.  And they wrote reflection ("meta-cognition") papers on the whole exercise and the experience. 

The students worked on topics in pairs in some cases and in others worked independently but it was still collaborative intellectually, with everyone sharing ideas and insignts.  Professor Rodriguez gave them a list of topics to get them started and they went from their, including editing one another's sites on Wikipedia itself and being part of the discussion pages.  The editing of one another's work was part of the course grade too.  

The students loved the assignment and it was only slowly that the realized the impact they would have long beyond the course, after the course was over.   They took in the fact that lives that had been erased were now publicly on record.

Even a theorist and critic as important as the late Jose Munoz had a relatively skimpy entry before.  Now it is a model of research, theory, explanation, and even has some of the Jose's wit and wisdom.


Here's it isr Jose Munoz.  Amazing!


Professor Rodriguez has served as a Mentor to two HASTAC Scholars.  With this wonderful assignment, she has mentored us all.  Special thanks to her and to her superb students!


Photo credit:  John Andrews, Wikipedia  Creative Commons License.





I had all kinds of trepidation about doing a Wikipedia assignment in class, in part because it meant turning the bulk of the responsibility for learning over to the students; they become mini-experts on these figures, creating the content for their own learning. And in the end, that was what really changed the class dynamics in the best ways possible. The students felt an investment in their projects that I had never witnessed before, they owned their work because they knew it would be public. We talked a lot about "information privilege" and how they had access to all of these library databases and resources and how Wikipedia functions as a way for them to share that with others outside of Academia. Many of them also proudly shared the Wikipedia pages they created on their own social media platforms, expanding the reach, conversations and impact of the class even further. I also need to give a special shout out to the two students responsible for José Esteban Muñoz's page, Moisés Santos and Omi Salas Santa Cruz, they did an amazing job and even translated his page for Wikipedia en español! I think my biggest success was creating a class full of future Wikipedia editors. These students not only have the technical chops to create content and edit on Wikipedia, but they also developed a deeper appreciation of how knowledge is produced, consumed, and circulated and left feeling more emboldened and prepared to intervene in these processes.


I don't see how this could be more inspiring.  In fact, I plan to do this next year.  Thank you!