An assignment that changed a life: Kasey Baker

This fall, we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Wikipedia Student Program with a series of blog posts telling the story of the program in the United States and Canada.

Ten years ago, Kasey Baker was pursuing his master’s degree in public administration at Western Carolina University, when he took a policy analysis course that changed his life: It introduced him to Wikipedia editing.

The course was one participating in the pilot of what is now known as the Wikipedia Student Program, where professors assign students to edit Wikipedia as a class assignment. Kasey tackled the article on the nuclear energy policy of the United States. Then the Fukushima meltdown happened.

“More than 65,000 characters, hundreds of hours of writing, hundreds of hours debating with fellow Wikipedians later, I was off to the races,” Kasey reflects now. “Wikipedia was a jumping off point for my academic career, if it was not for that assignment and those in the community and Wikimedia who helped me blunder though such a massive undertaking, I honestly might have gone a different direction in my career. Looking back, the process of writing an article up to the standards of Wikipedia was just as difficult, rigorous, and rewarding as publishing independent research.”

After that first assignment, Kasey was hooked. He volunteered in future terms as a Campus Ambassador, helping the next generation of student editors. Now, as a political science professor, he’s taught Wikipedia assignments in many classes. And, with fellow Wikipedians in his region, he founded the North Carolina Wikimedians user group. He’s run many edit-a-thons, and supported countless new editors.

He loves sharing Wikipedia with people throughout academia, encouraging those initially opposed to shift their perceptions of Wikipedia. Kasey even admits one of his hobbies is breaking down teachers’ barriers by explaining the positive impacts of teaching students to critically use and improve Wikipedia. In the last decade, he’s shifted from writing articles himself to training others how to write articles; in the time it would take him to research and write one, he points out, he helps 30 students write their own articles.

“Over the 10 years teaching and sharing Wikipedia, I’ve never once met a student who thought this was a throw-away assignment. It actually has one of the highest engagements of anything I teach, because who doesn’t like telling their friends and family ‘Look what I wrote on Wikipedia,’ and seeing thousands of impressions each month on the page?” Kasey says. “Unlike most college assignments, even with harsh criticism from Wikipedians, students get immediate validation that ‘This work matters, I’m proud of what I’ve done.’ That fills a very important void for high school, undergraduates, and even master’s/PhD students.”

Kasey has a lot to be proud of in his decade of work on Wikipedia, but he points to his work preserving the written and oral history of Holocaust survivors on Wikipedia as the most fulfilling work he’s done. Through a series of edit-a-thons, students, faculty, and staff have expanded or created 200 articles, adding more than 600,000 characters to Wikipedia.

“I have even had a Holocaust Survivor speak to me about an article on him that some of my students adopted/expanded, and let me tell you, it is a humbling experience to be told we all are combatting Fascism/Nazism,” Kasey says.

Kasey has noticed a change in academia’s perception of Wikipedia since he was a student ten years ago. He attributes this in part to the community’s rigorous standards, and in part because of what Wikipedia is.

“A lot of it has to do with these pages being a battleground for the history of humanity,” he says. “It’s never a dull day editing articles here, and that’s a good thing in my opinion.”

Image: Derrick Coetzee from Berkeley, CA, USA, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


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