Using Wikipedia in the College Composition Classroom

Last semester, I partnered with the Wikipedia Education Foundation to organize a Wikipedia editing project for my first-year composition students. Using Wikipedia in the classroom has changed the way I think about the production and consumption of knowledge.

Like many academics, I had been indoctrinated to think of Wikipedia as a non-reliable source. Period. And yet, as I continued to live in the 21st century and use Wikipedia for a variety of personal and professional reasons, I could not ignore the potential power of this platform or its place in the production and consumption of knowledge. It started to seem like a gross oversight to simply ignore its existence and to caution students against using it in any meaningful way. Then in 2015 I took a webinar titled “Tackling the Gender Gap in Wikipedia” lead by Jami Mathewson of the Wikipedia Education Foundation and Adeline Koh of Stockton University. This webinar made me realize how much I take for granted the information I consume on this platform. Wikipedia’s association with the authoritative encyclopedias of old (my family had a rather battered set of encyclopedias before acquiring the first disks of Encyclopedia Brittanica) along with my teachers’ insistence that it is unreliable because “anyone” can edit it, resulted in some strange combination of unthinking consumption and deep mistrust of Wikipedia content.

In the webinar, we learned that the majority of Wikipedia editors are western men between the ages of 18-36 (80-90%). This naturally has an impact on the kinds of information that is prioritized on the platform. For instance, the most widely covered topics on Wikipedia are warfare, sports and recreation, and video gaming. Additionally, the way that the majority-male Wikipedia editors write about certain topics demonstrates inherent bias such as how articles on male historical figures focus on their accomplishments and articles on female historical figures focus more on their relationships with others. Even the language that is used to describe these two populations differs significantly.

Students might wonder why this matters on a platform that they aren’t supposed to take seriously anyway, but the fact is that they do the same unthinking consumption of information on this platform that I once did. As of 2014, Wikipedia was the 5th largest website and could boast 500 million unique visitors every month. Students use this resource all the time, but most lack the framework to think about what they’re reading with a critical eye.

I will admit that I was nervous about teaching a Wikipedia project in a first-year course. Like many composition instructors, I always feel like I have to teach so much in so little time – was I crazy to give up 10 weeks of class time to what is essentially an extended paraphrasing project?

We began the project on the heels of discussing issues of research in academia including viewpoints on the “ivory tower,” open access debates, and the many ways research is commodified in academia. The question I posed to students was, “Should academics take Wikipedia more seriously as a way to share research with the wider public?” I urged them to think about themselves as academics with privileged access to knowledge and whether they should use it for a purpose like this – to break open the pay-walled research vault and share it with the world.

I purposely tied this project to the students’ standard instruction in research methods. My assigned librarian gamely went along with my scheme even though I suspected she had doubts about this application of her expertise. From her the students learned how to think about key words, how to navigate databases, and how to trace citations forward and backward. From me they learned how to use abstracts and to skim articles to determine if the source is one to save for further reading. From the Wikipedia project, they learned how to locate content gaps and organize information – two of the hardest parts of this project according to my students. What I loved about this aspect is probably what they hated the most – the intense trial and error that we all experience when we are engaged in research. Instead of choosing a simple argument and slapping together a paper with the correct number of sources on said argument, the students had to thoroughly research what content existed on Wikipedia already, isolate potential gaps in that content that would be useful to know, determine if any discoverable research (which met Wikipedia’s source standards) existed on those gaps, and, very often, start the process all over again because the research doesn’t exist or the information available exists on another Wikipedia page already. Even after they found enough information on their topic, they had to make a myriad of decisions about organizing the information – both for content and for style (what should be a bullet point? Should this section go before that one? Should this be part of the page introduction? Should I organize this into a table?)

While they completed the Wikipedia editing training modules, we studied the merits of featured articles on Wikipedia and articles that needed substantial work to start building expectations about what passes as good work in Wikipedia writing. We modeled how to paraphrase without plagiarizing. Whereas normally my instruction in paraphrasing is isolated to one small assignment at the beginning of the course, I found myself devoting multiple classes to the difference between paraphrasing and patch-writing, how to use Wikipedia’s own Manual of Style and resources like “Writing better articles” to paraphrase successfully, and how to prioritize information from different sources for the same. Because I emphasized quality over quantity, the students’ final contribution was usually little more than a few paragraphs, but we spent weeks on those paragraphs. And after all that, many students mentioned in their feedback on the project that they wished we had spent even more time on how to paraphrase.

I had hoped that the public nature of Wikipedia would have some positive impact on the students’ investment in the project, but I was unprepared for how seriously they took their contributions with the knowledge that it could potentially be forever in the public eye. Even the prospect of having our Wikipedia editor (assigned to our course) look over their work inspired some of the best peer-reviewing sessions I’ve ever seen in a classroom. In their feedback on the project, many students noted that it would have been nice to have additional peer-review sessions prior to asking the editor to look it over.

The project was not without pitfalls. Although we had relatively few issues navigating the Wikipedia platform itself, some of my students experienced first-hand the hardship of working on a web-based platform subject to external forces. One student’s page became suddenly inaccessible because the previous editors had violated copyright law. One student’s work was in the mainspace one day and gone the next without comment on the talk page. However, lest these examples seem too risky to implement in your own classroom, know that the Wikipedia course dashboard records student engagement with the platform and that the students’ work is safely housed in their sandboxes even if it disappears from the mainspace.

I’m working on pulling these thoughts and experiences together in a longer article, but for now I wanted to share my positive experience teaching Wikipedia in a composition class and to urge others in higher ed to consider its potential role in their classes. Wikpedia has thousands of ongoing knowledge projects needing additional contributors and support. For example, Project Literature sounds like a great option for a literature studies class. So many authors (especially non-canonical and WOC) have incomplete or poorly-written pages and many works lack accurate summaries and updated literary criticism.

While I can say with certainty that this project was immensely valuable to my students’ understanding of research, writing, and editing, my biggest take-away was that, as academics, we should be more involved in creating and monitoring the information on a platform as widely used as Wikipedia. We have knowledge and access that many lack, and while it won’t count toward tenure and will take time away from things that do, it is one important way that we can make our research accessible to the public. This is more than a teaching exercise or an effort at public scholarship; it has great potential for bending the arc towards justice. Who’s with me?




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