Making History: Wikipedia Editing as Pedagogical and Public Intervention
Guest Authors: Alexandra Thom and Saisha Grayson
On the first Saturday in February, the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art hosted an Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon in partnership with Project Continua and in tandem with the nation-wide initiative organized by Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York. We were thrilled by the turnout and enthusiasm of the participants—who ranged from professors of art history and women’s literature to long-time editors of Wikipedia to novices in both categories—and we posted on the Museum’s blog about several of the personal interactions and specific changes that made the day memorable and impactful. With an estimated six hundred participants in all the satellite events, and approximately one hundred articles edited, the day also created enormous momentum for this ongoing campaign to address the well-documented gender gap in Wikipedia’s editorship and content, specifically as it impacts the representation of art and art history on this incredibly popular reference website. The day garnered significant media attention and continues to inspire a cascade of similar events around the country.
At our event, Gina Luria Walker, Project Continua’s Director, noted that by editing articles about historical women, participants were “making history by providing an alternative narrative of the past.” Similarly, by learning to edit Wikipedia and making it an integrated part of art history assignments and classroom discussion, students can be given the tools and ability to actively make history… by writing it themselves.
For quite some time, Wikipedians have been thinking about how to use the encyclopedia as a teaching tool. There’s a strong precedence that demonstrates the growing viability of the free-content encyclopedia, not just as a source, but also as a didactic tool. By participating as editors—rather than just as passive consumers—of Wikipedia articles, students can become empowered to shape historical narratives, while also gaining a more critical understanding and awareness of how knowledge is shaped through the processes of writing history and by the biases (intentional or not) of those writing it.
Even as beginners in the subject of art history, students can discover that they are capable of identify missing information, finding reliable sources and having a hand in fixing or expanding an existing article. As they gain confidence, they can be encouraged to find and address gaps in the available articles on specific subjects, and to think about the implications and effects of something being absent from the Wikipedia universe. Through working within the bounds of Wikipedia and learning its rules and internal politics, students will find direct applicability for their college-level research and writing skills, seeing quality references and careful citations in a new light—as the primary safe-guards against the willful or misguided re-writing of history and as their best weapons for justifying a more inclusive, expanded or complex view of a particular subject.
Working with (and a deeper understanding of) Wikipedia also allows the class to debate—head on—pressing issues that stem from navigating a networked, pluralistic, and postmodern age. From the strange question of why historians continually revisit well-trodden events, to the difficulty of identifying and accounting for one’s own cultural biases, to what kind of control one has over their digital presence, to the pros and cons of a crowd-sourced encyclopedia, discussions grounded in the practicalities of Wikipedia can help make the stakes of seemingly esoteric issues relevant to our student’s lives. Instead of banning Wikipedia, assignments that engage with its content can help make clear the challenges and opportunities we all face in parsing the seemingly endless streams of information in the Information Age, and ultimately can allow students to become better consumers (and producers) of digital content.
Looking outside the Art History department, The New York Times published an article this past September about medical students at the University of California, San Francisco receiving course credit for editing Wikipedia articles about diseases. The article served up several justifications for the program that could extend to art history as well. Dr. Amin Azzam, who facilitated the program, noted that by contributing to Wikipedia, students fulfill a professional ethical responsibility to share privileged knowledge with the broadest public. While our students may not yet have a professional responsibility, thinking in terms of ethical responsibility can help inspire the class to think as digital citizens. What privileged information do we have (or want to amass) that we feel responsible to share? A long-term collaborative project (either class-wide or team-based) can empower the students to tackle something significant and become educators themselves.
This question of professional responsibility has also guided the Brooklyn Museum’s involvement with Wikipedia. In 2013, Alexandra Thom coordinated a Kress-funded project at the Brooklyn Museum to make scholarly and curatorial information about the collections available to the public on Wikipedia. Several things became clear over the duration of the fellowship. Namely, Wikipedia is an important platform to increase the accessibility of the museum’s content. By identifying gaps in knowledge that relate to our objects, through the lens and expertise of our curators, the Brooklyn Museum—and museums in general—can shape Wikipedia in a way that other cultural institutions cannot, by sharing object-based learning with the site’s millions of users. This may also point to unique opportunities within art history for student-generated content.
Most artists’ Wikipedia entries are predominantly biographical and infrequently reflect the art historical discourse, debates and insights generated around specific works of art. Developing assignments focused on object-centered additions or edits can fill a gap in the public understanding of our discipline as well as deepening our student’s facility with object-based arguments. For example, students in the survey who have looked at both Eduoard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (“Luncheon on the Grass”) and Mickalene Thomas’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe: Les Trois Femmes Noires” could add to both Thomas’ biographical entry and the article on Manet’s masterpiece by cross-referencing them and noting their relationship. More advanced students could work to summarize scholarship that analyzes the relationship between these two pieces, their significance in their particular cultural context and represents the range of methodological approaches used by art historians.