Quoted in New York Times

I was recently quoted in the New York Times. The article is by Alisha Haridasani Gupta and is titled “The Mental Health Benefits of an Inclusive Outdoor Escape: Amid pandemic stress and racial violence, many communities of color have turned to wilderness areas for healing.” The article covers the mental health benefits of time outdoors for people of color. It addresses these in the context of the long history of racism and violence against people of color in outdoor spaces. Gupta quotes a snippet of the conversation we had to introduce readers to the eugenicist history of the US conservation movement:

Awe-inspiring natural spaces in the U.S., like national parks, are also tarnished with racist histories, according to Tracy Perkins, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who studies social inequality and environmental justice. Many environmental conservation efforts starting in the late 1800s were led by eugenicists, like Madison Grant, to create spaces for white people to get fresh air and exercise in order “to preserve the vitality of white race,” she said.

To be abundantly clear, my quote does not describe my beliefs, but rather the beliefs of some eugenicists of the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States. I’ve assigned this subject recently in my Environment and Justice class, as well as in my class titled The Multiracial American West. I’ve found that while some students are versed in the conversations about John Muir’s racism and ongoing symbolism within the environmental movement, none are aware of the early conservation movement’s connections to eugenics. I have used the following readings introduce the subject to them and further my own learning:

I highly recommend these readings. They provide an important historical reference point for understanding ongoing racism within the environmental movement. They are also vital to understanding contemporary efforts to return access and management rights to the resources and lands within national parks to the indigenous peoples who once lived there, as well as to indigenous land-back campaigns.


ASA presentation: Wikipedia and Black Feminist Thought

Last week I wrote a blog post for ASU’s Center for Gender Equity in Science and Technology (CGEST). It previews the virtual presentation I will be giving with my (former Howard University student) coauthors Sophia Hussein and Lundyn Davis later today at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting (coauthor Mariam Trent will not be joining us). CGEST focuses on women of color in science and technology, so it’s a great place to preview our presentation. Our talk is based on a paper in progress tentatively titled: “Wikipedia and the Outsider Within: Black Feminism and Racialized, Gendered Knowledge Construction Online.” The paper draws on our experience contributing to Wikipedia as part of a 2018 class on the Sociology of Food and Agriculture at Howard University. Check out the blog post, and come on by our virtual talk at 11:30 EDT if you are registered for the conference!

See also this other blog post where I describe the class assignment of contributing to Wikipedia.

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.