Wikifying Science Fiction’s “Grand Dame”

Dr. Ximena Gallardo C., Professor of English, and Ann Matsuuchi, Instructional Technology Librarian/Associate Professor, both at LaGuardia Community College, CUNY, share a case study for how Wikipedia assignments can work in higher education classrooms. These notes were condensed from their presentation with LaGuardia Community College alumni Julia Pazmino and Darrian Jemmott at WikiConference USA 2015.

Many college students assume that there is little left to contribute to Wikipedia, and that coverage in science fiction areas are both comprehensive and regularly policed by Wikipedia’s science fiction (SF) fans. Yet, as in areas addressed by the wonderful Art+Feminism project, in SF one can find examples of a diversity and gender gap. The SF universe has been wrestling with better inclusion of writers and fans, as seen in the ongoing debate surrounding the “Sad Puppies” Hugo awards controversy.

Octavia E. Butler, whose best-known books include Kindred and The Parable of the Talents, was the first science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. She was also an African-American woman. One could expect the comparatively brief entry for Butler’s Nebula Award-winning novel, Parable of the Sower, to receive as much attention as the entry for Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. For that to happen, more interested contributors must be invited into the room. There also needs to be more support of scholarly research on the literary works of SF writers such as Butler.

For these reasons, Dr. Ximena Gallardo C. chose Octavia Butler’s work as the course texts for her beginning writing and research classes. She has ambitiously designated the improvement of Parable of the Sower’s related Wikipedia entries as one of the objectives for these classes.

Wikipedia in the classroom

This usage of Wikipedia as an instructional tool is not limited to one assignment. It becomes integrated with the teaching of the course material over a twelve-week semester. A traditional, thesis-based research paper is written by individual students. The complementary Wikipedia assignment teaches writing in an explanatory and informative encyclopedic style. Students gain experience and exposure to how collaborative writing works online and off.

In small groups, students take on staged tasks with the goal of creating or expanding sections of the novel’s entry. Discussions about what to include or exclude teaches students more about how to analyze both their own writing, and that of the scholars they are reading. Debates about how to present their findings make them especially invested in the task, which can result in the construction of a single paragraph, or even a single sentence.

This kind of attention is beneficial to teaching both writing and close reading of texts. Wikipedia can be used for a wide variety of assignment types with different levels of time investment. Instructor flexibility and control over how, and to what extent, they make Wikipedia fit with pedagogical aims is essential. The Wiki Education Foundation can play an important role in providing this kind of responsive and accommodating administrative support needed to help professors experiment with new practices.

Students also become exposed to online collaboration. This happens on different levels, starting with other students in their class, with other students in other classes that are reading Octavia Butler and / or using Wikipedia in class projects, and with Wikipedia’s online community. Student editors bring different skills and strengths to this collaborative work. Some are better writers, others better at manipulating the markup and editing. Yet they all put something of themselves into the group’s work. After the first class session this spring, one student turned to me and expressed surprise at how much she felt that she had learned and accomplished over just a few hours.

This student work need not result in large numbers of new entries created, or large blocks of added text. Learning about the process involved in making lasting, small improvements and additions becomes one of the key lessons of using Wikipedia in the classroom. Students shift from being knowledge consumers to being knowledge producers online. Their work becomes visible to the real world — and they gain experience of the positive and negative feedback that this entails.

From Wikipedia to the library

Classroom projects such as this one also allow librarians to take on a partnership with a class that goes beyond the traditional “one-shot” library research orientation. When students add what they learn from paywalled scholarly journal articles to an open access, freely available information resource, they become aware of the special access that they currently have. They are both community college students and members of a scholarly community with access to library subscription databases that most people can’t reach. They feel a sense of responsibility to share what they learn through these articles and books with the larger world. It’s a tangible sense that the rest of the world might not know what it’s been missing.

Sharing what we’ve learned about Wikipedia classroom assignments with other faculty and librarians also becomes a unique opportunity. We’ve been able to create new kinds of interdisciplinary and thematic collaborations. Using instructional technologies and new platforms in academic settings can often feel like artificial attempts to demonstrating relevancy and responsiveness to administrative entities that control necessary funding.

Wikipedia is a freely available and entirely noncommercial resource. That’s in line with academic values that are often not emphasized enough. When other English department faculty heard about this classroom project, many were interested in learning more about how Wikipedia worked. Dr. Gallardo helped coordinate a local faculty edit-a-thon event for Women’s History Month devoted to building entries related to feminism. That helped introduce Wikipedia basics to interested professors from different disciplines. Participation in these thematic “edit-a-thons” at our college and other cultural institutions has fostered new possibilities for collaboration. We’ve worked with faculty and other professionals, and believe it has contributed to the growth of new connections and online educational communities.

Find out more about Ann Matsuuchi (User:Mozucat) and Ximena Gallardo C.’s (User:Doctorxgc) course here. If you’re interested in finding out more about Wikipedia classroom assignments, email

Photo: “Ximena Gallardo C., Ann Matsuuchi and former students at the National Archives” by Eryk (Wiki Ed)Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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