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.