When students evaluate Wikipedia as a class assignment, they learn how to understand the mechanisms of a resource they use every day. More broadly, this process teaches them about knowledge production. Whose knowledge is represented on Wikipedia, and whose is missing? What barriers prevent a more inclusive, equitable knowledge landscape? How should a reader evaluate an online publication’s trustworthiness? Through a Wikipedia assignment, students question power structures as they relate to knowledge, gaining critical skills in digital literacy, research, collaboration, and writing for a public audience. And they make academic scholarship (often restricted behind paywalls) available to the public.
Wikipedia is built by volunteers, many of whom are young, Western men with specific interests. The authorship’s cohesive demographic inevitably creates content gaps, and those gaps on Wikipedia often relate to women and people of color. Writing about groups that have been historically underrepresented in scholarship can be difficult because Wikipedia’s content relies on that scholarship. Even when the academic sources do exist, they are locked behind paywalls, meaning Wikipedians may not have access to them. That’s where our Classroom Program comes in. Students, who have access to these invaluable sources through their university libraries, make a big difference in making previously underrepresented knowledge and histories available to Wikipedia’s global readership.
Amanda Foster’s course at Wake Forest University this spring is one great example of how students are changing the fifth most-accessed site in the world for the better. Students created and expanded articles on a number of topics, including two indigenous tribes from North Carolina that no longer exist. The documentation of diverse histories is an important step in improving equity on Wikipedia.
One student created the article on Weapemeoc Indians, a Native American tribe in Raleigh, North Carolina, whose name is believed to translate to “People of the First Light,” or “People of the Dawn Land.” Depending heavily on maritime resources, the Weapemeoc tribe established itself along coasts and rivers. They were at peace and held alliances with many surrounding tribes and spoke the Algonquian language. When they were first recorded in European literature in 1585, there were about 700-800 people. But the tribe hasn’t existed since 1780 due to European colonization and events like the Indian Massacre of 1622.
Another student significantly expanded the article on Keyauwee Indians, an indigenous tribe from North Carolina near present day Randolph County. Because the village was vulnerable to attack, the Keyauwee often made allegiances with surrounding tribes. The first known European account of their culture in 1701 describes the village as being surrounded by “high wooden walls, large cornfields, and a large cave where about 100 people could have been able to dine in, all situated by very high mountains.” The Keyauwee people spoke the Siouan language and were geographically close to other tribes, which eventually prompted their merging with the Catawba tribe.
Students can bring histories to light that have previously been overlooked on Wikipedia and in other sources. To learn more about how you and your students can make an impact outside of the classroom, visit teach.wikiedu.org or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.