Agency from anywhere: Why you should learn to edit Wikipedia, and teach your students, too!

Recently, my younger child declared I have a new motto. He even put it on a shirt for me:

“When life gives you lemons, write Wikipedia pages about amazing women”

My child observed that I spent the afternoon of January 6, 2021, watching coverage of the insurrection in DC while editing Wikipedia furiously, and that I used editing to manage my worries during other periods of uncertainty over the last year. He is not wrong, but here is how I see it:

  • From my armchair I tangle with systemic inequities arising from the specific guidelines meant to make Wikipedia “more reliable.” 
  • Even while sheltering in place, I have the ability to broaden the narrative of our nation and our world as it is shaped by a source which is, arguably, a de facto arbiter of truth in our time.

While I have been guiding students in Wikipedia editing lessons since about 2010, I worked primarily with upper elementary and middle school students editing Simple English Wikipedia. When I joined the Castilleja faculty in 2013, I took over a similar project my library director, Jole Seroff, had developed. Along with the project came her notes on gender imbalance among editors and how the skew towards male editors (85% of editors, and something like 91% of all edits) impacted the content we see when we access Wikipedia. A 2011 article in the New York Times noted that who edits impacts the emphasis of the source, comparing a four-paragraph page on friendship bracelets (“A topic generally restricted to teenage girls”) to the much longer page about “something boys might favor” like baseball cards. Setting aside for a moment the gendering of topics, it is notable that today these discrepancies remain:

Sources: “All page views: ‘Baseball Cards'” and “All page views: ‘Friendship Bracelets'”

Similarly, a study released in October 2014, noted that only 15.53% of English Wikipedia’s biographies were about women. A number of groups, including WomenInRed, have focused on adding biographies about females, and they count that number rising to 18.79% as of 15 March 2021. Mountains of evidence point to lower number of pages being written about women and topics to do with women, as well as fewer editors adding information and a significantly higher deletion rate of pages about women/women’s issues because the subjects are apparently “not notable” (especially regarding STEM-focused topics).

If the numbers are so grim for women, imagine what inclusion might look like for other individuals and topics related to minoritized identities.

During the 2019-2020 school year some of my high school students became interested in hosting an edit-a-thon, and I decided it was time to actually learn how to edit for real. I attended my first in-person edit-a-thon at a local library in February, and then everything shut down. In June, my students and I decided to host a virtual edit-a-thon for Upper School students, and the real fun began.

In preparation, a number of our school librarian colleagues kindly joined me in an experimental edit-a-thon, which sufficed to demonstrate that I had picked a terrible way to organize my event. However, that afternoon also demonstrated the value of editing in community, as we each noticed different aspects of systemic prejudices in the structure of this venerated source. For example, one of our number is a classroom teacher in an English department, with a specialty in Southeast Asian American Literature. When she decided to work on the page Asian American Literature, another of our number called our attention to the Talk page, where editors discuss issues and challenges that arise in writing the page itself. In addition, due to the very reasonable desire to keep an eye on coverage in specific fields, and point out what work needs to be done, WikiProjects on various topics rate the importance of specific pages under their purview, like this:

Talk page for Asian American literature

…in which WikiProject Literature (that is, people who are interested in Wikiedia’s coverage in the field of literature) rated the Asian American literature page Low-importance.

Similarly, I was reading up on Patricia Roberts Harris. She was the first Black American female: 1. ambassador, 2. cabinet member (third Black American cabinet member overall), 3. dean of a law school, and 4. director of a Fortune 500 corporation. Here is her talk page:

Talk page for Patricia Roberts Harris

Over time, that original meeting of teachers grew into a weekly editing group. We learn by doing together, and we have learned very well just how hard it is to prove notability for genuinely notable people of color. It was actually in trying to set up a middle school Wikipedia editing project in 2018, covering notable female activists, that I really ran up against to problem of databases containing predominantly-white-perspective sources and the challenges that ensued in finding articles about non-white, non-cis-male individuals. That lesson has held firm as I try to write about women of color and struggle to meet the standard that Wikipedia articles should be “based on reliable, published sources,” meeting Wikipedia’s definition of reliable sources. There is no question that these guidelines are needed so that people do not fill pages with self-promotional material, as often used to happen. However, there is also no question that the guidelines to block self-promotion make it extremely hard to write about many genuinely notable people, as well, especially if they are not media darlings.

As an instructional librarian, I focus on teaching research skills. Therefore, I find joy in digging and in piecing together sources and arguing for their reliability (when necessary), all while avoiding running afoul of Wikipedia’s “No original research” policy. I’ve come to believe strongly in the many benefits of teaching others to edit and editing in community. I now help run three Wikipedia editing groups for: alums from my college, my students and colleagues, and other librarians/teachers.

Editing Wikipedia is a way to:

  1. “Do the work”:
    1. Decolonize your mind – if the only astrophysicist you have spent time thinking about is a LatinX transgender individual, then the picture you have in your head of an astrophysicist will be of a LatinX transgender individual
    2. Make people with minoritized identities discoverable
    3. Create or expand or improve pages that will be seen by millions of people – the least-used page I have worked on has been accessed 14 times since March 1, others have been accessed several thousand times
    4. Give others access to role models – a.k.a.: the perfect gift — I add women to Wikipedia as graduation gifts for young women who might not easily see role models in fields that interest them
  2. Build information literacy skills (for students):
    1. Explore the notion that “authority is constructed and contextual”
    2. Develop a strong sense of what a range of authoritative sources might look like
    3. Synthesize evidence to create a narrative
    4. Practice writing in the register of an encyclopedia
    5. Experience gatekeeping and its impact on knowledge construction
    6. Question why needed systems give rise to systemic prejudice
    7. Encounter systemic racism and other systemic prejudices and begin to understand their prevalence and impact
    8. Construct authority

If you would like to learn more about editing Wikipedia with students or for yourself, please join Corey Baker, Amy Pelman, Linda Swarlis, and myself at the upcoming AISL conference on April 9 for “Equity through Editing: Contributing to Wikipedia for Social Justice Inside and Outside the Classroom,” or reach out to any of us for more information.

4 thoughts on “Agency from anywhere: Why you should learn to edit Wikipedia, and teach your students, too!

  1. This is truly a noble endeavor, Tasha. Thank you for highlighting this important area where so much work is needed. Talk about “re-writing history”— this is how it’s done! I’m inspired.

  2. I love how this became a collaborative endeavor with other teachers, and that you add articles about people in the fields that students are interested in. Thank you for listing the information literacy skills.

  3. I was remiss (and unable to structure my narrative properly) not to note that I had great support from WikiEdu once I got going. I was lucky enough to find out about a summer scholarship from WikiEdu’s professional development program and had wonderful guidance in learning to edit. I’m also really excited to pay it forward by teaching other librarians as I was taught.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *