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.


Intro. to Sociology field trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Last December I heard that the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was soon to open up its online ticket system for large groups. I set the date on my calendar, waited until the day arrived, and put in a request for both of my Introduction to Sociology classes to visit the museum. We got lucky – sixty tickets were allocated to us on the day I had requested, a Saturday in early March.

I made the field-trip a required part of both of my Introduction to Sociology classes, and will likely continue to do so in the future (though the Museum seems to have suspended the group pass ticket program for the moment due to continuing high demand). The idea was not just to expose the students to the museum’s content, but to ask them to engage with it sociologically. I wanted them to practice identifying sociological ideas outside of the classroom. For example, they were tasked with looking for where the museum content illustrates the idea of the social construction of race, which we had read about in class, though I told them the exhibits that did so wouldn’t use those specific terms.

For teachers who live in Washington DC, the NMAAHC is a great place to take students. It’s free, easy to access by metro, and, of course, has incredible content. I had been through the lower floors once before, which helped me decide how to direct our visit. We arrived early to make sure all 60 students were assembled by the time the museum opened at 10am, which was also the time our tickets gave us entry. The space set up for large groups to wait and enter worked fine. I used the time in line to hand out worksheets and give reminders about what time we would meet again as a group. The worksheet served the purpose of directing their eyes toward things we had already been discussing in class, and giving them lots to talk about in our group discussion. Take a look at it here.

The students were free to peruse the museum individually or in groups at their own pace. The only requirements were that they take notes on what they saw on the worksheet, and meet on the ground level at noon for discussion until 1pm, at which time they were free to go. I encouraged students to start at the bottom of the museum in the earliest section of the history floors. Because we entered at the beginning of the day, most of the students reported not spending more than 20 or 30 minutes waiting in line to go down the elevator to enter the exhibit at the bottom floor. The few that didn’t begin there and tried to go down later in the morning reported that the line had ballooned out significantly, making those floors inaccessible within the time we had available.

Because I didn’t get around to looking into classroom space within the museum until it was too late, we had our discussion on the entry level of the museum instead, with most of us sitting on the floor in a large group by the windows. This was fun in a way, as we were very much in the mix of the museum-goers (one curious soul even stopped to join us for a short time). However, the ambient noise and the size of the group made it hard to hear ourselves talk, so next time I’ll inquire earlier about those classrooms. Next time I might also give the students a bit more time in the museum itself before asking them to meet for discussion – probably 10-12:30 on their own and then group discussion from 12:30-1:15.

Next semester I’d also like to make time during the next regular class meeting after the field-trip for discussion, especially to revisit some of the more conceptually challenging content on the worksheet. I’ve started a small collection of photographs of specific museum exhibits that relate to course content that I think will be useful to show in the classroom. As I show an image of a particular exhibit,  the students that saw it at the museum but didn’t think to link it to our course readings will make a new connection, and students that missed it at the museum will get a chance to see it for the first time.

Check out photos from our trip below, or if you are reading this in your e-mail inbox, online.


Interview: Book chapter on California-Chiapas-Acre climate change policy

My colleague Aaron Soto-Karlin and I are wrapping up final revisions on a book chapter for inclusion in Sustainability Now! Sustainability How? Situating Sustainabilities through Interdisciplinarity and Social Justice, edited by Julie Sze. The book is under contract with NYU Press and hopefully will come out in 2018 or early 2019.

Our chapter analyzes an international memorandum of understanding between California, Chiapas (Mexico) and Acre (Brazil). The agreement would allow greenhouse gas emitters in California to comply with a California cap on greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing offsets designed to preserve forests in Chiapas and Acre instead of reducing emissions in California. Our chapter presents the global policy debate over forest carbon offsets as it plays out on the ground. More specifically, we situate global policy within local reality by demonstrating how support for and against the MOU was affected by preexisting political conflict in two of the three participating jurisdictions: California and Chiapas. To do so, we present the historical and political context of the debate in each location.

Research on forest carbon offsets gets very technical very quickly. Aaron and I took pains to make our chapter understandable to people unfamiliar with the terms of the debate, so we were happy to share a draft for inclusion in an interdisciplinary, undergraduate course on “Water and Sanitation Justice.” (One piece of the course focuses on climate change – see the syllabus here). The course was developed by a group of scholars located at multiple campuses of the University of California and taught online by Ben Crow for the first time this spring. Teaching Assistant and PhD student Abby Brown helped develop the course and interviewed me about our chapter for use in the class. I listened to the interview last week and have shared it below.* The interview lasts for 20 minutes.

* Subscribers who get my posts delivered by e-mail will need to click through to the original post online in order to access the interview.