Emerson performing arts students expand Wikipedia’s coverage of playwrights

Every empty Wikipedia article tells a story. When the public turns to Wikipedia for knowledge and nothing comes back, it tells us something about knowledge, culture, and science. Who tells those stories? Who gets a starring role?

At Emerson College, 50 students in Dr. Magda Romanska’s World Drama class tackled both stories. Looking at the blank or near-blank articles for underrepresented playwrights and authors, they decided to do something about it. The result was an assignment that connected students’ passion for literature and drama to a desire to improve public knowledge.

“We know that Wikipedia is a major knowledge resource for the general public, yet the scope of what it covers is very limited,” Dr. Romanska wrote. “For example, although 14 percent of the world’s population lives in Africa, only 3 percent of Wikipedia entries originate from there.”

She calls the assignment a form of digital activism. Her students have added entries related to writers who are neglected or unknown to Western readers. That includes works by African-American playwright Adrienne Kennedy, contributing articles on her plays The Owl Answers, A Rat’s Mass, and Black Children’s Day. Another student wrote about Alice Dunbar Nelson’s 1918 play, found in the pages of the NAACP’s news magazine, Mine Eyes Have Seen. The “lesbian noir” piece, Dress Suits to Hire was tackled by one student; another wrote about Antigona Furiosa, a Latino take on Antigone.

“In our field, it is increasingly important to engage in global outreach and to research, teach, produce, and know works outside of our own culture,” Dr. Romanska writes. “The Wikipedia project has given students an opportunity to contribute to the global discourse in their field.”

That’s clearly motivated students to contribute above and beyond expectations. Student editors in this course were in the top 15% of contributors in our program this term, writing an average of 2,200 words each.

One of her students, Krystyna Resavy, created the article Theatre and Disability.

“I found myself spending hours of research simply because of my interest for the topic,” Krystyna said. “My goal was to do this topic justice, and to give my audience a well rounded article.”

Many students found that contributing articles on important, but little-known works, gave their writing purpose.

“I realized that I was writing the first comprehensive overview of this incredibly important contemporary work,” said Travis Amiel, who wrote an entry for Branden Jacobs Jenkins’ play, An Octoroon. “People’s first impression of the play could be coming from what I wrote.”

He said he imagined auditioning actors, students, and prospective audiences reading the article.

“So I wanted to make this the article I would want and need to read. Every word I wrote gave me pause. How can I prove this? Where is the fact I am citing?”

Katharine Johnson wrote an entry on Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. She agreed that having an audience for her writing changed the way she wrote.

“It was a refreshing change from writing papers, and it was really great knowing that we were contributing to a much larger community than Emerson,” she said. “We helped to spread the word about theatre and plays, and added diversity to [Wikipedia’s] theatre knowledge. It was very rewarding working on a project that you know will have a larger impact than just in your college community.”

Kenzy Peach worked on an article for David Drake’s iconic play, The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me.

“Knowing … that research is accessible to millions of people is so rewarding. I also was able to share my work with the playwright himself, with the help of my professor, and he was very pleased with the outcome,” Kenzy said. “Unlike many other projects I’ve done in classes, this one had real-world outcomes and consequences, making its success so much more rewarding.”

Dr. Romanska worked with the Wiki Education Foundation, which offered online trainings for her and her students. Wiki Ed’s content expert, Adam Hyland, also worked with the class as it contributed content to Wikipedia.

“Adam was always available and extremely helpful spearheading glitches and any technical problems that the students encountered,” Dr. Romanska said. “Adam also offered editorial suggestions regarding the content and formatting of the article to make sure they fit Wikipedia standards, and won’t be removed by another Wikipedia editor. Working with Adam was a real pleasure as he was very responsive, diligent and thoughtful in his comments to the students.”

Wiki Ed is focused on our Year of Science in 2016, but courses like this one show the value of the Wikipedia assignment across a variety of fields. Connecting students to Wikipedia’s readers helps expand public knowledge, and gives students a sense that their writing is a real contribution.

“The project was a great success,” said Dr. Romanska, “and the students were thrilled to be able to contribute to the large body of knowledge and to share their love of theatre with the world.”

Interested in sharing these benefits with your students? Browse our resources, or start a conversation with us by emailing contact@wikiedu.org.

Photo: Red Curtain by Tom Woodward, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.



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