Blog Post

07. Wikipedia in the History Classroom

As someone who is a fan of open knowledge, and who very much hopes to see the Wikipedia project bring in a more diverse group of editors than it currently does, it's always irritating to me to hear professional historians insult Wikipedia in casual conversation. I don't expect academics in general or historians in particular to go out and become power editors (for one thing, we simply don't have the time for that!) or even to be like my undergraduate history professor, who copy-edited random Wikipedia articles for fun instead of playing Minesweeper. But I do believe that academics have a responsibility to meet their students halfway in terms of our teaching and our engagement with wider society, and that Wikipedia can be a great way to foster both student and instructor engagement with the material.

The central practice of history is doing historical research, but unfortunately, in many history classrooms, doing historical research is the aspect of history that is de-emphasized the most. Instructors are often focused on helping students master the materials for exams rather than on giving them the chance to go through the process of researching and writing a history paper in a structured fashion. I'm lucky enough to be teaching, this semester, for a class where the opposite is the case, and I've also been lucky enough to be given the freedom to make up my own assignments. I'm not sure I'll be able to fit the Wikipedia assignment I've been tinkering with into my course plan this semester, but I'm putting it up here so that others can see it, and hopefully adapt and/or use it themselves, or just give me feedback!

 

Wikipedia assignment

Most history courses are focused, conveniently enough, on a relatively well-defined subject area, whether comparative, chronological, geographical, or thematic. For this assignment, students will split up into groups of three to four people and choose a topic on which they wish to collaborate to write or to expand a Wikipedia article.

You may choose your topic in a variety of ways: you may decide to focus on a historical figure or a topic mentioned in one of the course readings, or you may look at Wikipedia articles on subjects that are part of the course material and decide to expand a "stub" article into a fuller discussion. Requirements: you must choose a topic relevant to the course, and you must obtain approval from your instructor for your topic. Given that Wikipedia users are predominantly male and predominantly from the "global north," choosing topics related to women, people of color, or non-Euro-American subjects will definitely earn you some brownie points from your instructor.

Wikipedia articles are subject to community review, which means that it is essential that all of your facts be well-researched and well-cited. (Indeed, copious citations of scholarly sources are one of the best ways to avoid articles being challenged or deleted on grounds of "relevance"!) Thus, writing a Wikipedia article will give you the chance to do research and to work collaboratively, both of which are essential skills in contemporary society (and employment). However, unlike writing a history paper, Wikipedia articles should not employ original research using primary sources. You may draw on primary sources if you are focusing on an individual figure (i.e. their writings), but you may not go beyond the "scholarly consensus" about your topic to make your own arguments. So, writing a Wikipedia article is a great way to practice figuring out what the scholarly consensus about a topic actually is.

Groups will complete this assignment over the course of six weeks. In week one, students should: form groups; choose a topic; and register for Wikipedia accounts. Weeks two and three will be occupied by research: we will talk about how to do it and where to find scholarly sources, as well as by in-class exercises practicing wiki formatting and writing. In week four, you will begin drafting your article--it is a good idea to use a collaborative writing program, whether through saving files in Dropbox or using a Google Doc. For week five, you should submit a rough draft of your article (length: 1500 - 2000 words) to your instructor, who will return it to you with feedback for week six. In week six, you will upload your article to Wikipedia itself, making sure to employ correct wiki formatting in general and Wikipedia style boxes and templates in particular. Take screenshots of your article immediately after you upload it. Two weeks later, go back to your article and see how your edits have fared!

 

Questions? Comments? Has anyone done anything like this before? I'd love to hear about it!

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