University of Wisconsin–Madison

Using Wikipedia writing as a learning tool

Using Wikipedia writing as a learning tool by Thomas DuBois

What I wanted:

  1. I wanted to help my first-year students understand the ways in which the authors of Wikipedia shape public understandings through what they choose to write about or not on Wikipedia.
  2. I wanted to reverse some of the erasure of Native American topics on our campus by making sure that the Native American presence at the University of Wisconsin was substantively reflected in the Wikipedia page for UW-Madison.

What I tried

I worked with my students on a collaborative project to create paragraphs about Native American culture at the UW-Madison to insert into the UW-Madison Wikipedia page, which at the time made no mention whatsoever of any having to do with Native Americans. We worked as a team to research, craft, and insert the paragraphs, along with images. We interacted with other Wikipedia authors on our additions, defended their inclusion, and negotiated compromises.

Next time I would…

Although I expected perhaps a little resistance to these additions from other Wikipedia users/writers, I was not prepared for the vehemence with which anonymous writers rejected the inclusion of Native American topics on the UW page! Angry writers immediately removed our paragraphs, labelling them as trivial and irrelevant. Even after we were able to reinstate them (in much abbreviated form), we had to defend almost every point in the paragraph on Effigy Mounds, as skeptical Wikipedia writers refused to believe any of our points without detailed evidence. As a result, the proof apparatus for these paragraphs is much more extensive than for any other part of the UW page! All of this was exactly the learning I had hoped students might experience, but I was unprepared for how hurtful it could be for them personally. I think I would warn students  much more beforehand now and ask them to write about their feelings in a journal that we could share. But I think the main idea–that “knowledge” is produced by individuals with access and agendas–got through loud and clear.

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