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.

The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America

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I’m happy to share my digital essay “The Environmental Justice Legacy of the United Farm Workers of America: Stories from the Birthplace of Industrial Agriculture.” It is published on the new “Humanities for the Environment” web platform funded by the Mellon Foundation, the Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes and by Arizona State University’s Institute for Humanities Research. I’m particularly excited to share the reflections of activists Lupe Martinez, Mary Lou Mares, Sarah Sharpe and Enrique Martinez in it. Thank you also to Zachary Singer for allowing me to use his photos of environmental justice activism in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Note (6.6.18): The Humanities for the Environment website continues to be redesigned. Find the latest url to my contribution here.

New digital project in honor of Teresa De Anda

Today I released a new digital project to honor the memory of California pesticides activist Teresa De Anda, and to help educate the public about the problem of pesticide drift. In Her Own Words is an expansion of the blog post I wrote the day before Teresa’s memorial service last fall. It includes photography, new and previously published oral history, suggestions for readings to use with the website in college classrooms, links to resources to help address the problem of pesticide drift in community settings, and a short essay I wrote about Teresa.

Thank you, Valerie Gorospe, for allowing me to continue to work with your mother’s stories, and to share them with others so they might learn from everything she accomplished. Thank you also for your support Linda MacKay, Lauren Richter, Tracey Brieger, Sarah Aird, Tracey Osborne, Rachel Deblinger, Zoe Stricker and Evelyn Torres Arellano.

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With Teresa, in front of a photo I took of her, at an exhibit of my photography in Fresno. February 10, 2011.

Link roundup: Resources for teaching environmental justice

I’ve come across a variety of intriguing online resources in past months that I keep meaning to write-up into a variety of teaching tools. But time is short so instead I’m posting them all here, with a few short ideas on how they might be used in the classroom. Happy teaching!

Race and the outdoors

  • Stuff white people like: camping A tongue-in-cheek send-up of camping, camping culture, and the disproportionate participation of white people in camping. Could be a great way to stimulate classroom conversation about outdoor activities and race. I could see reading the post aloud and asking the following kinds of questions to get the conversation rolling: How many of you like camping?  How many of you don’t? Does this post ring true to your experience of camping or not camping? Does this post seem like an accurate representation of camping? Does this post seem like an accurate representation of who camps? Why do you think white people are the dominant participants in so many recreational activities in the outdoors?
  • Diversity and the outdoors – google hangout with Allison Chin (Sierra Club), Audrey Peterman (Legacy On the Land), Javier Sierra (Sierra Club en Español), Juan Martinez (Children and Nature Network), Rue Mapp (Outdoor Afro) and Rusty White (surfer). People of color outdoor-leaders discuss how they got interested in the outdoors and how to get more people to join them. This video would be a good follow-up to the “Stuff white people like” blog post described above because it contradicts it in some ways. You could ask students to consider how the leaders featured in the google hangout might respond to the “stuff white people like” blog post.  Would they agree or disagree with its content?
  • America’s forgotten black cowboys This article could help students question racialized narratives of the American West, as well as to consider the historical experiences of people of color in the American outdoors.

Race, Nation, and Agriculture: The “God Made a Farmer” Videos 

I could imagine showing the first video without any introduction and asking the following questions at the end of it:  Did you notice anything odd about this video?  Was anything missing? If the students can’t think of anything, show the second video and ask them the question again. The point would be to launch into a discussion of the video’s startling use of white people to represent farming in America, in spite of the fact that the vast majority of people working in this industry are Latino. This could be a fruitful jumping off point for discussion about framing, narrative, representation, race, the history of farming in America, or any number of other juicy topics. Be sure to discuss what the difference between a “farmer” and a “farmworker” is. Child labor could make for an interesting and relevant topic for a follow-up conversation too.


Other data sources. See this activity for ideas on how they could be used.


I’m not sure how I would use these in the college classroom, but wanted to post them here for future reference.

24 hours with 5th Crow Farm

When I moved to Santa Cruz one of the first friends I made was a woman named Teresa Kurtak.  Teresa and her business partners  Mike Irving and John Vars were looking for land to lease so they could start a small organic farm.  They found what they were looking for in Pescadero, and are now in their third growing season there.

Most of the photos I see of small-scale organic farms present them as rural idylls – beautiful, bucolic, peaceful.  My experience watching 5th Crow Farm grow is that organic farms may be beautiful but usually entail working long, hectic days.  My urban lifestyle is probably a lot more peaceful!  Certainly that’s what I thought after tagging along with Teresa while she worked this weekend.  Here are some of my photos and a blow-by-blow account of what we did…


8:30 pm, Saturday night: I stop at the grocery store on my way to the farm to buy dinner for Teresa and Mike. They’ve been harvesting for the Sunday farmers’ markets all day and haven’t had time to think about dinner yet.

9:15 pm:  I arrive at Mike and Teresa’s yurt on the farm.

9:30 pm:  Teresa and Mike have dinner, and then Teresa starts to prepare the printed materials she needs for the next day’s special event at the California Academy of Sciences.

10:00 pm:  The printer isn’t working so Teresa heads out to find a working printer elsewhere.  I go to bed.

Midnight:  Teresa goes to bed.

3:16 am, Sunday morning:  Roosters start crowing.   : (

4:30 am: Alarm goes off.    : (

4:45 am: Teresa and I get in the market truck, which they loaded yesterday, and hit the road.

5:30 am: We stop to pick up coffee to help keep us awake on the road.  I also buy a pastry for my breakfast.

5:43 am: Dawn.

6:10: We’re the first ones to arrive at the site of the Inner Sunset Farmers’ Market in San Francisco.  I try not to feel too guilty for taking photos instead of helping Teresa unload the truck and set up her stand…

7:00 am:  Teresa’s market helper, Anne, shows up and pitches in.

8 am:  After they’ve unloaded the truck, we repark it in Golden Gate Park, and go back to finish setting up Teresa’s stand.

8:15 am:  Robert MacKimmie of City Bees shows up and begins to set up his stand next to ours.  Robert has become a good friend of the farm and is Teresa’s regular post-market dinner date.  Today he’ll also be featured at the California Academy of Sciences’ first Local Bites event after the market.

8:35 am.  I go across the street to Arizmendi Bakery to buy more coffee to help Teresa and Robert get through the morning rush.  By the time I get back the market is officially open for business and there’s already a long line at the 5th Crow stand.  Teresa spends the rest of the market lifting crates of produce and answering questions from the customers while Anne handles the money.

12:00 pm:  Two of Teresa’s dedicated regular customers show up to help out, giving Teresa and me a chance to get her strawberry samples out of the truck in Golden Gate Park and walk over to the California Academy of Sciences to get the lay of the land.

1:00: By the time we’re done at the Academy of Sciences, the market has officially closed so we pick up the truck and drive it back to the market to load.  Teresa, her helpers and Robert all pitch in to load the truck in a hurry.  We drive it over to the Academy of Sciences, unload onto small carts and wheel the goods into the event-space.  The vendors aren’t allowed to sell their products at the event, but Teresa brings some for display to give the guests a sense of what she grows.  We get there late and set up her table while the band plays and the guests are moving around tasting the samples.  Teresa gives out samples of strawberries, edible flowers and kholrabi, while continuing the lifting and talking that she’s been doing all day.

3:00: Bathroom breaks are hard to come by!

4:30:  The event winds down early and we start packing up the produce, loading it back onto the carts, and wheeling it out to the truck to reload.  

5:30 We take a break to stand around and talk with the helpers.  Then we drive the truck back to the market site, which is once more a parking lot, unload Robert’s stuff into his own car, and find a place to eat.  Teresa talks with her hands a lot.

6:15: Dinner! This is the first time Teresa has sat down since getting out of the truck at 6:10 in the morning.  Robert is still wearing his bee antennae  : )

7:30: We walk to a cafe to buy coffee to help Teresa stay awake on the drive home and get back on the road.

8:44: Dusk

9 pm:  We get back to the farm.  Teresa decides to postpone unloading the truck until tomorrow morning and I drive home.


To see more photos from my day with Teresa, click here.