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 book chapter just published

My fellowship at the University of Arizona came to an end in late May, after which I drove back across the country to Washington DC. The drive was fun – it included stopovers to sightsee in the Four Corners and see old friends in Albuquerque. I also visited with activist Earl Tulley and others in Dilkon, AZ, at the 30th anniversary of the Navajo environmental group Diné CARE.

As much as I enjoyed my time away, it’s a pleasure to get back home to my friends and household routines. I was also happy to find this book waiting for me in the mail when I arrived:

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Sustainability: Approaches to Environmental Justice and Social Power, edited by Julie Sze, is newly available from NYU Press.  I contributed a chapter with Aaron Soto-Karlin titled, “Situating Global Policies within Local Realities: Climate Conflict from California to Latin America.” Aaron and I met about five years ago when we were both conducting research on the implementation of the landmark California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. My research was for my Ph.D. dissertation, his research was for a film. Aaron had long lived and worked in Chiapas, Mexico, while my work focused on environmental justice activism in California. Our interests converge in this analysis of a memorandum of understanding to tackle climate change through linking California’s carbon market to forest preservation efforts in Chiapas. The MOU also included the state of Acre in Brazil, but we focus on just California and Mexico in this chapter.

We wrote this chapter with the hope that it would be assigned in undergraduate college classes. Accordingly, we made a special effort to write something that doesn’t require prior familiarity with carbon offsets, carbon markets, and climate change politics. It should be of interest to anyone tracking US climate change politics, and California’s in particular. The chapter also helps readers think more broadly about how environmental policies designed for global use are impacted by on-the-ground realities in the places where they are implemented. It also highlights how difficult it is to create “win-win” solutions that meet both environmental and social justice goals. In the case of carbon offsets between California and Chiapas, tension emerged between meeting environmental goals, such as preserving forests and reducing carbon emissions, and social justice goals linked to land tenure and human health.

If you assign the chapter to any of your classes, I’d love to hear how it goes. There are also many other great contributions in the book, you can find a list of them here.

Hello, Tucson!

Hello from sunny Tucson, Arizona! I’m spending the spring semester here as a Visiting Associate at the University of Arizona through the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice.  Here’s a description of the project I’m working on pulled from the press release:

I’ll be using my time in Arizona to create a digital archive of a 1990s era campaign against a nuclear waste landfill. In particular, the project will highlight the role of five tribes along the lower Colorado River in the landfill’s eventual defeat. The visiting associateship at the Haury Program is enabling me to do the kind of scholarship that isn’t always well supported – projects developed with off-campus partners that create digital products designed to be available to a broad audience. I hope the rich stories that emerge will also inspire university libraries to create environmental justice archives out of the many personal collections currently being held in closets, garages and storage units. If these archives are lost over time, many of the experiences of environmentalists of color, in particular, will continue to be left out of the narrative of US environmental history.

 

Specifically, I’ll be working on the successful anti-nuclear waste landfill campaign in the Mojave Desert’s Ward Valley, with support from Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, and the AhaMakav Cultural Society, a Department of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. Campaign participants gather every year to celebrate their victory at the site where the landfill would have been built, but for their actions. I’ve been to this event twice before, and look forward to continued interviewing at this year’s 20th anniversary ceremonies.

In the lead up to that event, I’m enjoying meeting new people, exploring the desert landscape on the weekends, and having focused time to work on my research. See below for a few snapshots of what I’m seeing at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the surrounding Sonora Desert.

 

 

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The design of my building at the UofA was inspired by a slot canyon. I think.

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Arizona is an “open carry” state. Hence the signs.

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Chili pepper everywhere!

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Local foods from the San Xavier Co-op Farm.

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The food coop carries ceremonial white sage in the bulk section.

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Arizona turquoise on display at the annual Tucson Gem Show.

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The Sonora Desert!

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Sunscreen in the public bathroom. Hey, thanks.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

Teaching Environmental Inequality: Class research project

This is the fourth post in a series about the Environmental Inequality class I finished teaching in December. The first post shared the syllabus and class project, the second described how I’ve used the documentary Come Hell or High Water: The Battle for Turkey Creek, and the third described the first of two field trips we took – a boat tour of the Anacostia River. This post describes our class research project, undertaken in collaboration with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC 6D commissioner Rhonda Hamilton. Here is the project overview from the course syllabus:

This semester we will work on a collaborative research project with the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Empower DC, and ANC commissioner Rhonda Hamilton from the neighborhood directly adjacent to Buzzard Point in Washington, D.C. Buzzard Point is an industrial neighborhood that is currently being redeveloped. It will be the site of the new DC United Soccer Stadium and many other new construction projects. Our work will involve conducting oral history interviews with residents living near Buzzard Point to document their family history in the neighborhood, relationship to the community and to the adjacent Anacostia River, and experiences with pollution and gentrification. We will host guest speakers as well as go on field trips and conduct off-campus research activities as part of this project. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum will then add the transcripts to their archives and create a booklet based on your interviews to distribute to research participants after the class ends. When the booklet is ready (early 2017), there will be an optional reception at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to which you will be invited. This effort is a pilot project to upon which I hope to build a longer-term research relationship with our off-campus partners.

After working with the various groups involved to plan the project, I scheduled a number of “Class Project Days” in my syllabus to move the project forward. Here’s what we used them for.

Preparatory assignment: Research Ethics and the Institutional Review Board

Howard University requires all research plans, including research conducted by students as part of their coursework, to be approved by the campus Institutional Review Board (IRB). This process is designed to protect “human subjects,” or people that are the target of academic research, from potential harm. Accordingly, the students’ first assignment was to complete the IRB’s two required online short-courses on research ethics. They then submitted their certification of passing grades, along with their resume, to me. See the assignment prompt here. I submitted their certifications and resumes along with the rest of the paperwork for the proposed study to the IRB early in the semester. This was stressful as there was no guarantee that the campus IRB would approve the project in time for us to start and finish our work within the limits of a single semester. It worked out in the end, but I would recommend others submit and complete the IRB paperwork in the semester or summer before the class whenever possible. Then at the beginning of the class in which the research will be conducted, merely do the necessary paperwork to add students to the project as extra research personnel. I recommend this process even if your university does not require IRB approval for research conducted by students as part of their coursework. Going through the IRB approval process is educational for the students, reinforces the importance of taking seriously their interactions with the public as researchers, and enables the faculty member or students to publish out of the research they conduct.

Preparatory assignment: Practice interview

After covering the fundamentals of oral history interviewing, students were assigned a practice interview. They divided into pairs and interviewed each other outside of class, using modified versions of the same questions we intended to use with our real interviews later. Students had to record the interviews, write short papers about the interview (its form and content), and turn both in. See the assignment prompt here. In class we then discussed what worked well and what they would have done differently in order to improve their interviewing skills. After they conducted the practice interviews with sample questions I gave them, we also had a class discussion about what other questions ought to be added before we conducted our “real” interviews and I edited the list accordingly.

Guest speakers

On two different class days, I hosted guest speakers from our collaborating organizations to come tell us about their work and describe what they hoped to get out of the class project. Kari Fulton, Empower DC’s environmental justice organizer, spoke on the same day the students did a reading on the concept of cumulative environmental impacts – or the way multiple pollution sources add up to a cumulative health burden that is poorly understood by science and poorly addressed by regulation. Katrina Lashley, the Urban Waterways project coordinator at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, spoke to the students on the same day they read about oral history interviewing.

Field Trip

We also took a field-trip designed to help students better understand the local environment by taking a boat tour of the Anacostia River. See photos and a description here. Although many of the people living near Buzzard Point that we interviewed later in the semester had little contact with the nearby Anacostia and Potomac rivers, the field-trip still helped the students locate themselves and the project within Washington DC environmental concerns. If I teach this class again with the same research project, I hope to schedule a field-trip to the Buzzard Point neighborhood in place of, or in addition to, the river tour.

Readings

The topical readings of the course were relevant to the research we conducted. In addition, we read things designed to educate the students on the research process. These included the following:

  • Hunt, Marjorie. 2012. Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interview Guide. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved August 21, 2016 (http://www.museumonmainstreet.org/education/Oral_History_Guide_Final.pdf)
  • Cable, Sherry, Tamara Mix, and Donald Hastings. 2005. “Mission Impossible Environmental Justice Activists’ Collaborations with Professional Environmentalists and with Academics.” Pp. 55-75 in Power, Justice and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement, edited by D. Pellow, D. Naguib and R. J. Brulle. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

In addition, two other “Class Project Days” featured readings specific to our local research topic. One on the Anacostia River and was assigned the day before our river tour. The others included press coverage of the redevelopment efforts at Buzzard Point, neighborhood that was the target of our research. See the syllabus for details.

Outcome

By the time we got to conducting the actual interviews, the students were well prepared to do so professionally, though of course they still have room to improve their interviewing skills, as does any novice researcher. Our class traveled together to the Syphax Gardens public housing units to conduct the interviews after a meeting of the residents’ council. Some of the people there had been notified by our host, Rhonda Hamilton, that the interviews would be taking place, and others learned of our project for the first time that evening. Eight residents stayed after the meeting to be interviewed. The students individually reviewed the consent forms required by Howard and the Anacostia Museum with the residents before proceeding with the interviews. I floated through the two rooms in which the interviews were taking place to make myself available if any of the residents had questions the students could not answer.

In our next class, we discussed the following questions as a group to prompt the students to reflect on the interviewing experience and began to analyze the interviews themselves:

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?
  • What did you learn in your interview?
  • What new questions did the interview leave you with?

After discussing these topics, I then linked the above questions to the methods, findings, and future research sections of the final papers that they would write.  But before writing their final papers, the students had several other assignments. They wrote and sent thank-you notes to the people they interviewed, uploaded the audio files of the interviews to our course management system, and transcribed the interviews. Then they wrote final papers in which they analyzed not only their own interviews, but the interviews conducted by the entire group.

Overall, I’m pleased with how the project went. It was a good opportunity to learn more about ongoing environmental justice work in Washington D.C. for both myself and my students. The fact that many of the residents brought up similar issues that the students had read about during the course made everything more real to them. The students also seemed to enjoy the opportunity to take their learning outside of the university walls. For their part, the residents we interviewed seemed appreciative of the students’ interest and professionalism.

This semester, I continue to work on the project with one of my graduate student research assistants (Jesse Card), and one of the undergraduates from that class who has stayed on as a spring research assistant (Amanda Bonam). They did quality control on the student transcriptions by listening to the interview recordings and correcting the transcriptions as necessary, and then sending the corrected transcripts to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to place in their archives. Jesse is also sending copies of the transcripts and signed consent forms to all the participants. We are also conducting more interviews with other Syphax Gardens residents that were suggested during our first round of interviews. As a group, we will be reading through all the transcripts and recommending excerpts to feature in the booklet that the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is making. My undergraduate research assistant is also communicating with the project partners about organizing a spring event to launch the booklet, and establishing a review process for the creation of the booklet. Between the three of us we have been attending ongoing public hearings about the development of Buzzard Point and its impact on neighboring residents. Amanda has adopted the project for her senior honors thesis, and Jesse will lead us in writing one or several academic articles out of the interview data, which parallels his own master’s thesis research. After this spring, we will revisit the project with all partners to discuss to potential of continuing or expanding it with my next batch of Environmental Inequality students in the fall.

See photos of our interview outing, and links to the class syllabus and assignment prompts ,below.

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My students waiting for the residents’ council meeting to end and interviewing to begin.

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Project partners Kari Fulton (Empower DC) and Rhonda Hamilton (ANC 6D).

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Student Brittany Danzy interviews Ms. Mildred Young.

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Students Tyla Swinton and Joseph Dillard are having a good time interviewing Ms. Michelle Young.

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Students Ravelle Matthews and Romie Michel interview Ms. Mary Wilson.

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Students Angelyna Seldon and Amanda Bonam interview Ms. Gloria Hamilton.

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Kari Fulton’s son kept the students entertained when they weren’t otherwise occupied.

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The view from Syphax Gardens public housing.

Class syllabus and assignment prompts: