Teaching students to contribute to Wikipedia

This week I crossed the threshold in which summer no longer seems to stretch out endlessly before me and I start to think about updating my fall classes. I’ll be teaching two, a graduate seminar on the Sociology of Environmental Health, and an upper-division undergraduate class on the Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Last year was my first time teaching the latter class. I have a few tweaks in mind for the readings compared to last year’s syllabus, and I intend to once again center the class project around teaching students how to contribute new content to Wikipedia.

I was pleased with how the Wikipedia assignment worked out last year. The good people at Wiki Education helped me set it up before the class began by walking me through the various assignment modules they have available for instructors to adapt to their own purposes. Some are short assignments that teach students how to add images or citations to existing articles. I chose the most extensive model, in which students spend the entire semester learning how to, 1) evaluate existing Wikipedia content, 2) identify areas that need improvement, 3) read the existing scholarly literature on their chosen topic, 4) summarize that scholarship on Wikipedia, and, 5) respond to other Wikipedia contributors who may alter, delete, or add to their work. These are all transferable skills for traditional academic research, as well as for critical thinking, writing and collaborative work in general.

The assignment also gave us an opportunity to discuss the social construction and politics of knowledge. Wikipedia contributors skew heavily white and male, and this impacts the kinds of content available on the site (articles on military history and video games are apparently particularly well-developed). This leaves a number of topics wide open for student contribution. Accordingly, one of my students created an article on Black Land Loss in the United States. Others added content to existing articles: one student added a description of the Freedom Farm Cooperative that Fannie Lou Hamer organized as part of her civil rights work; another added content on the challenges faced by female farmworkers to the Agriculture in the United States article. Another researched labor conditions on organic farms to add to the article on Organic Food, though her content was ultimately never added to Wikipedia.

This assignment generated more student interest in assessing the credibility of what they read and supporting their own work with strong citations than I have seen in other assignments. Some of this is likely due to the fact that real people all around the world will read their work. Indeed, Wikipedia has become a massive online encyclopedia with global reach. The dashboard available to instructors tracks how many “views” there are of the articles that students create or edit. Less than one year later, the articles to which my students contributed have been viewed 661,000 times (actually, I suspect the number is higher – students sometimes added their contributions without remembering to sign in to their user profile first).

While the Wikipedia protocols for adding content and interacting with other users are a bit cumbersome to learn, I was impressed by how much support Wiki Education offers. Beyond the adaptable assignment modules and training videos they have created, they also assigned my class two staff helpers. The helpers were on hand throughout the semester to answer my questions and to interact directly with my students, they even provided direct feedback on their writing.

This semester I’ll make an effort to streamline my assignment somewhat, which ended up confusing myself and the students with a few too many due dates for editing and revising. Beyond that, I plan to stick with last year’s winning formula. If you teach with Wikipedia, I’d be interested to hear about your experiences. And if you teach Food and Agriculture, send your students over to my students’ work to continue to improve upon it.

 

New course: Sociology of Food and Agriculture

Today was the first day of the fall semester here at Howard University, and also the first day of my new class: Sociology of Food and Agriculture. Check it out below! Students, if you are still looking for a class to take, I have room in this one so come on by. We’ll be applying our sociological imaginations to something we all do every day but don’t always think that much about: eating. To do so we’ll read about the origins of the US food system, labor organizing, the industrialization of the food system, land ownership and loss, shopping, eating, and hunger. We’ll also be using what we learn in class to contribute to Wikipedia with the help of the good people at Wiki Education.

Instructors, if you are interested in incorporating a Wikipedia assignment into one of your courses, Wiki Education has a lot of tools to help you do so – everything from sample assignments to training videos and semester-long timelines. They also offer individualized class support to you and your students.

As usual, thank you to everyone who helped me think through what to assign in this course. Friends, colleagues, the Food and Agriculture Specialty Group of the American Association of Geographers, and the Critical Race Theory and Food Studies list run by Breeze Harper all contributed.

Overcoming Corporate Threats to Academic & Community Research on Industrial Animal Production

I chaired a panel discussion on “Overcoming Corporate Threats to Academic and Community Research on Industrial Animal Production” earlier this month at the annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences. The panel was organized by Zoe Ackerman at the the Rachel Carson Council. It focused on the experiences of people whose health is impacted by the North Carolina hog industry. More specifically, panelists discussed industry intimidation and legal tactics designed to suppress research on the health impacts of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on their nearby human neighbors. Steve Wing, the leading scholar on this topic, was part of the panel design, but in the end was unable to join. However, the following panelists gave a great overview of the issue and how it relates to broader threats to research in the public interest.

Keep an eye out for more work to come on this subject coordinated by the Rachel Carson Council. Also look out for announcements about the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network’s annual summit. In the meantime, the video below provides a short overview of our conversation. See also the following pinterest board where I collected articles I used to inform my framing remarks, which are not included in the video. I linked Steve Wing to Ignacio Chapela, William Cronon, Tyrone Hayes, and Anita Sarkeesian, who have all experienced serious push-back from the industries and social groups threatened by their research. Like many of the other panelists, I emphasized how industry relation against scholars has a chilling effect on the kinds of questions that we ask.