Digital Literacy and Women in Knowledge-Building Systems: #MOWomenOnWikipedia

PALS Note: We welcome this contribution from Megan Peiser on using Wikipedia in the composition classroom. Peiser holds a doctorate from the University of Missouri and is the creator of the Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820. Find more information about Megan here

Class: Digital Literacy and Women in Knowledge-Building Systems: #MOWomenOnWikipedia

Level: Intermediate Composition

Class Demographics: 15 students. ¾ of class upperclassmen

Classroom: Computer Lab

This past semester my Intermediate writing course also became a history course. Our focus was digital literacy, and I wanted my students to participate in digital writing, to do quality writing that required research, and to have a piece of digital writing they could put in a portfolio at the end of the semester. I also wanted them to participate in a digital writing community. So, we joined a movement to put more articles about women on one of the worlds most visited websites: Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia’s own research shows that women editors make up only 9% of their contributors, that articles about women are severely lacking, and that these articles are more likely to be tagged for deletion than those about their male counterparts. And while students have been warned not to use Wikipedia.org for most of their academic work, it does have significant cultural value. The average college-educated American uses Wikipedia as a resource to check facts, or look up quick information on a new topic. Many users worldwide are getting basic information about current events and history from Wikipedia. So, the lack of representation of women on the site contributes to an idea that women don’t contribute to their communities, that women don’t have achievements worth celebrating, and that women are invisible people in our human record. Our class hoped to help change this for Missouri women.

Prewriting Work

We collaborated with several groups across the course of the semester, including the Missouri State Historical Society and our University Library, to write articles about women from Missouri history. The organization that supported us the most was the Wiki Edu Foundation. They were easy to partner with—all I did was send an email and they set up a dashboard for my class and assigned me a WikiEdu support representative. The dashboard is completely customizable. I chose from modules that WikiEdu had already set up, which included readings, training videos, and practice exercises for my students. I created my syllabus in their “Timeline” feature, using some of the assignments they provided and adding some I wanted my students to work on. I was also able to list reading assignments and set deadlines in the dashboard. Students login with a code WikiEdu provides, and you can also track their contributions to Wikipedia.org. This way, even if another Wikipedia editor changes the students’ writing contributions, you can still view their work to grade it. WikiEdu assignments, like practicing writing in your user sandbox, how to post your article live, how to contribute to article talk pages, and how to cite references, were really useful. I added assignments that focused on analysis of Wikipedia pages that already existed about women and research-based assignments to give students work milestones. The side also provided an “impact tracker” so that our class could see our contributions to Wikipedia in a live-counter.

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While slowly learning Wikipedia.org editing skills in outside assignments, when our class met we held discussion about women in knowledge-building systems. We started the semester with John Warner’s “Why Can’t My New Employees Write?” Inside Higher Ed (June 29, 2016), an essay that focuses on making decisions as one of the hardest parts of writing. It set the tone for the course—I didn’t give much guidance on what would be enough of an article to count for a grade. I let the students decide: was your contribution enough? How should you organize it? Should you add a picture? We also read Jack Lynch’s You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia (2016) on knowledge-building systems. We watched video interviews with Adrianne Wadewitz, who served on the board of the Wiki Education Foundation and began the movement to get Wikipedia writing into collegiate classrooms. We discussed the hostility women experience when working in online spaces like Wikipedia.org, and how the gender-gap on Wikipedia hurts all of its users because it provides only part of the story. We also discussed carefully the language we use when we write about women online, and how these microaggressions influence the ways worldwide cultures think about and understand women’s positions in the world. Students had no trouble finding real-world examples of these microaggressions and their implications: from the way that female Olympic athletes’ bodies were described to reporting on women politicians.

Writing Articles

Each student chose a woman from Missouri history that did not have a Wikipedia page. They conducted research along Wikipedia’s parameters (secondary sources only, reliable sources—no blogs, or opinion pieces) to show that their person was “notable.” Wikipedia’s notability requirement was also a topic of discussion in our course. Their parameters about a person’s notability are themselves rooted in gender-bias, and students were appalled to learn that their articles could be tagged for deletion if other Wiki-editors didn’t think their person merited a Wikipedia page. It made for great discussion on how systems can be inherently biased toward certain marginalized groups and encouraged the students to work to ensure the stability of their pages.

Because the students had already practiced using Wikipedia.org, they had made the site’s required 10 edits to authorize them to create new pages. We spent time in class conducting research and making trips to the State Historical Society, who helped us overcome some of Wikipedia’s source restrictions by posting images and source information on their website when we needed a link. We had writing days in class where students drafted their articles in their Wikipedia “sandboxes”—draft spaces that aren’t live or searchable on Wikipedia. But they did post their articles early. This enabled other Wikipedia users to give them feedback on their “talk” pages. They peer-reviewed one another’s work and received feedback from Wiki-editors all over the world. The result: 15 fantastic pages on Missouri women.

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Student Wikipedia Pages:

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Edit-A-Thon

Toward the end of the semester, we rotated our class to a “flipped classroom.” Students did readings and watched videos on planning an Edit-A-Thon before coming to class, and in class, they planned. I did not plan. The students together decided what work needed to be done, what jobs to assign one another, and what needed to be written and prepared for presentations at the Edit-A-Thon. I took this information to our campus library, who hosted the event. They were proud to present their accomplishments and to share their work with our community. We had a good showing and added an additional 19 articles to Wikipedia that were about Missouri women, or supported pages about Missouri women.

Payoffs

Students left this course and our Wikipedia assignment with a live writing sample, with experience using local records offices for research, and increased digital literacy skills, especially in their ability to analyze digital sources and check digital writing for gender bias. Their work organizing the Edit-A-Thon gave them experience in event planning and community outreach—both skills that will grow their resumes. Most importantly perhaps, they left knowing they made a difference by increasing the number of women visible on Wikipedia. Many of them have gone on to write more Wikipedia articles and advocate for growing visibility of women in their respective fields and classrooms.

As a teacher, this class reinforced for me the importance of learning with my students. I was not very well versed in Wikipedia editing when I started, and by learning alongside my class, I set the example of how to meet a difficult task, to encounter a problem, and to work through it. Often the students were teaching me shortcuts! The Wikipedia assignment also taught me that providing fewer parameters for an assignment could be an asset. By offering loose evaluation procedures for their articles and allowing the students to come up with requirements for their own assignments, their creativity had room to grow. Students came up with wonderful additions to their articles that I did not or could not have predicted when creating assignment parameters. Their work was more thoughtful and well researched because of the freedom I gave them.

Contributor Bio:

Peiser, MeganMegan Peiser earned her PhD from the University of Missouri in 2016. She is the creator and project manager of the Novels Reviewed Database, 1790-1820 and is currently working on her monograph The Review Periodical and British Women Novelists 1790-1820. As a teacher, she pushes students to uncover their own learning style, and embrace it as a means to empower their taking responsibility of their own education. Her students participate in service learning across the University of Missouri campus and in the Columbia, MO community. You can read more about her teaching and research at meganpeiser.com

Teaching Hamilton: An American Musical as Contemporary American Drama

PALS Note: This week PALS is pleased to present a series of posts with reflections on teaching approaches for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical in various classroom contexts. We hope that these posts are a fruitful spark for continued discussion on ideas for teaching Hamilton in the classroom. (Here are the links to the other posts in the series: Early American Library History and Digital Humanities Using Hamilton, Teaching Revision through Hamilton: An American Musical, and Teaching Hamilton: A Wrap Up; and, here is the initial post that inspired the series: Teaching Hamilton, the Musical.)

In the second post for the series, Sunny Stalter-Pace, an associate professor of English at Auburn University, shares experiences with teaching Hamilton in a course on contemporary American drama. Stalter-Pace’s post adds to the ongoing conversation on teaching Hamilton by situating the musical within the context of a contemporary American drama course.

When I started thinking about how to teach Hamilton: An American Musical, the first models I found came from historians. (I only recently came across a blog post discussing strategies for incorporating Hamilton in several theatre classes, from an introductory level to an honors seminar.)  Scholars of early American history were early proponents of the show; writers for The Junto group blog managed to see its summer 2015 run at the Public Theatre and previews at the Richard Rodgers. Plus, Hamilton arrived at a particularly fruitful time for contemporary playwrights of color reckoning with U.S. history: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon (2014) riffed on the Dion Boucicault play from 1859, and Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home for the Wars trilogy (2015) mashed up the Odyssey and the Civil War for the Black Lives Matter era. Miranda’s work is not just an example of American musical theater but one of theater concerned with what it means to be an American.

I try my best to fit at least one local live performance on to every drama course syllabus. A play on the page is one thing; a play on the stage is quite another. In 2015-2016, our university’s theater department had a particularly resonant season for pursuing questions of history and storytelling in the United States, with Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins mid-semester and an original documentary drama called The Integration of Tuskegee High School near the end. The official title for the course was “Studies in Drama: Contemporary Plays & the Problem of Historical Representation,” though if I had a chance to retitle it now, I’d call it “American Theater + History,” or maybe “Who Lives Who Dies Who Tells Our Story.”

The class was smaller than our usual undergraduate seminars, with only 14 students. Their majors ranged across the spectrum of liberal arts: literature and English education, theater, history, sociology, media studies, and global studies. Some students knew every word of the show; others needed a plot summary even after listening to the original cast recording. Even the most popular of popular culture gets transmitted unevenly; just as we do our students a disservice when we assume they are digital natives, we do the same by assuming they are fluent in Beyoncé or The Hunger Games.

To complicate matters further, even the students who knew Hamilton varied in their knowledge: wide-eyed superfans who knew every word of the show sat next to savvy Tumblr users already invested in critiques of the show’s representational politics. But as I found when discussing Miranda’s footnotes to his own lyrics (first available on RapGenius.com), this is a show that addresses many audiences. Discussion would thrive when the musical theater geek, the hip-hop fan, and the history buff could each contribute pre-existing knowledge to the class’s conversation.

Ham Book Cover

The biggest risk I took had to do with the course text. Hamilton: A Revolution (known to fans as the Hamiltome) was released late in the semester when the course was offered. There would be no hiding the fact that I read the book at the same time as the students. I had to keep that part of the semester open-ended, unsure about what themes specific to the book would resonate within that semester’s discussions. But the ways it used Ron Chernow’s presence to excuse historical inaccuracies added an interesting twist to our discussions of history and narrative. Even the way that Gchats and emails and Instagram-worthie selfies with celebrities were part of the text gave the students a lot to talk about in terms of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s manipulation of current tropes of online celebrity.

Hamilton: A Revolution has its drawbacks: songs from the show appear sequentially at the end of each chapter, with the preceding context illuminating something about the song. One illuminating example was a discussion of set design before the lyrics to “Hurricane,” where props whirl around Hamilton. This format helps students think about text and context in dialogue, but it undercuts their ability to think about the narrative arc of the show. The original cast album is the primary text, supplemented with YouTube videos of the original cast performance that help us talk about the production as something happening in space and time.

Miranda’s footnotes, expanded in Hamilton: A Revolution, helped the class think about the show as a constructed dramatic narrative, not merely a biased or accurate reflection of history. Most revelatory were his discussions of point of view and authority in songs. A footnote to “Say No to This” observes, “Hamilton’s the only one who can narrate the song at this point in the story: It happened to him, in secret, and we don’t know Maria or James Reynolds yet. It’s an all-hands-on-deck approach to storytelling: The person closest to the action addresses the audience.” To sing about an event, we might say, a character must have been in “The Room Where It Happened.” And Eliza has the last word in the musical because she had the last word in life, living fifty years after her husband’s duel with Burr.

Discussing Hamilton late in the semester meant we had several texts that made for interesting comparisons. As a musical, Assassins provided a rich source for considering genre conventions in American musical theater. We could see how the environment and style of the show was established in the opening numbers, how songs allow characters to express their desires in a different way than straight dialogue, and even how a song sung by a narrator – the Balladeer for Sondheim, Burr for Miranda – gives the audience a kind of ironic distance from the proceedings. The documentary dramas we’d read just before HamiltonTwilight: Los Angeles and The Laramie Project – heightened our awareness about how source material was employed in Miranda’s play.

Hamilton: An American Musical may be the ultimate crowd-pleaser in an American drama class. It is contemporary, popular, accessible to students. But as a teacher, I particularly appreciated that there are ongoing and legitimately unresolved critical conversations about it. These will only develop as the show tours and more people can talk about it as a theatrical experience. Hamilton is not just about history; it’s about theater and American identity. I hope I’ve given some other folks a framework for bringing the show into their courses.

Contributor Bio:

Sunny Stalter-Pace is an associate professor of English at Auburn University.   Her review of the Hamiltome can be found at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She is writing a biography of vaudevillian Gertrude Hoffmann. Find her on Twitter at @slstalter.