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a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience (Fall 2011 version)

Permalink for this paragraph 3 Wikipedia, the free, multilingual encyclopedia where all content is created, vetted, and maintained by volunteers, has become a first stop for many people, including students and even instructors at colleges and universities, beginning to research unfamiliar topics. While many educators have expressed strong misgivings about Wikipedia’s role in education, due to the unstable nature of its articles (what you reference one day may have changed the next), the uneven level of research and thought that goes into them, and their reliance, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, on the work of amateurs.  (A deeper criticism from Robert Wolff — made elsewhere on this Writing History site — is significant but could be said to apply to all encyclopedia-like projects:  to wit, “Problems of interpretation, discourse, and debate cannot be readily applied and may be unwelcome.”1 Nevertheless, as early as 2003, college and university instructors began to take pedagogical advantage of the democratic format of Wikipedia. As evidenced by the School and University Projects page in Wikipedia, there are almost 200 documented college and university course projects, and many of them are on going. Wikipedia has gradually achieved a cautious acceptance among some educators for classroom purposes.

Permalink for this paragraph 5 In 2007, I began assigning my women’s history students the task of researching a new Wikipedia article or making a significant editorial intervention in an existing essay on women. A New York Times2 article at the beginning of this year noted that only thirteen percent of contributors to Wikipedia are women. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia said in a recent interview, “There aren’t that many obvious topics left to write about,” to explain the slowdown in entries about the U.S.3 But a little checking for women’s topics other than celebrity biographies reveals a real shortage of material on women. Historical material is usually confined to some profiles of the famous, and there is very little of any substance on women in the more comprehensive articles on events, trends, movements, and wars. My purpose initially was two-fold: to increase the representation of women in this globally used source of information and to teach students some basic methods for writing basic blocks of responsible history.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Over the course of these assignments and reviewing the lives and half-lives of the essays that students have posted, those of us involved have seen that this project fulfills purposes and teaches lessons beyond the ones that I had originally, and rather naively, imagined, but has had mixed results at doing what I had hoped.   This essay, written in collaboration with my colleague at Amherst College, Scott Payne, Director of Academic Technology Services, and with two students who engaged in the project in spring 2011, Melissa Greenberg and Leah Cerf, will sketch in some of these learning challenges and experiences.

Permalink for this paragraph 3 Writing for Wikipedia or making revisions to existing articles differs in several important ways from typical writing assignments in a college course. First, contributing to Wikipedia is not a closed dialogue between student and instructor; rather it is both a contribution to a participating community and a public act that makes new demands on students’ social and intellectual abilities. The student experience is quite different from electronically sliding a paper under an instructor’s virtual door. When students propose additions or corrections to an active article’s talk page in Wikipedia, they can receive substantive feedback on their ideas in a matter of minutes.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 During a workshop session where students were preparing to submit interventions, one student posted her proposed revisions to the talk page for the article  Vietnam War.  As it happened, the student had described her proposed content ambiguously, prompting several responses ranging from confusion and a call for clarification to sarcasm. (Ideologically charged conversations routinely take place in that space, and the forum’s instructions to discussants include “Be polite,”  “be welcoming,” and “engage in no personal attacks.”) Within a few minutes, a “reviewer” for the article responded in the discussion forum with several substantive questions about the student’s proposed modifications. A reviewer in this sense is an experienced and reliable contributor who can check pending changes for pages with “semi-protection” status (controversial articles can be protected to discourage vandalism and “edit wars”). In deciding how to respond to the editor, the student huddled with a number of classmates, Scott Payne, and me to think through a clear and persuasive response to the queries, which included at least one that was pugnacious in tone. Pedagogically, what would have been an exchange between student and instructor became a less predictable conversation between a group of students of U.S. women’s history and the Wikipedia community that grew up around that subject. Although several respondents were active, the reviewer seemed to have had (at least as of this writing), the final word.  Students had the experience—in this case because of a misunderstanding—of having to defend the inclusion of their work on women to an array of critics.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Contributing to Wikipedia provides students another novel writing challenge:  it blurs the boundaries between author and audience. When students write an essay as a course assignment, the professor is unambiguously the audience, and the student can justifiably feel a sense of ownership as the author of the text. When adding content to Wikipedia, clicking  “submit” transfers ownership of the text to an aggregate of interested participants often with widely divergent ideologies and levels of expertise.  The author becomes a member of the audience. Many students –and faculty–have struggled to acknowledge and accept the arbitrariness of author and audience roles in Wikipedia.  Many have invested considerable work and time into formulating well-researched, cogent, and articulate content only to see it challenged, condensed, paraphrased, moved to a different location, or deleted all together.  Jimmy Wales is aware of the problem of potentially unreliable material and said in a recent interview, “now there is an increasing focus on quality and referencing. People really want to see sources so they can trust the entries – so I think the community is building upon that.”4 But unreliability and what seem to be arbitrary revisions of well-researched material remain particularly problematic when revisions appear to be motivated by sexism, (in one instance a kind of reverse-sexism)  and/or American exceptionalist bias. This notion will be explored in greater depth below.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Students do learn, of course, some skills. They begin by critically analyzing an entry, evaluating its content and sources for accuracy and depth.  Their own entries give them practice in writing historical narrative (albeit in flat prose) based on a variety of carefully selected and studied secondary sources.   They also learn the technical and diplomatic skills required to intervene in Wikipedia.  Scott Payne teaches students how to edit and upload essays as well as the all-important Wikipedia diplomacy. Students also learn how little women’s history has penetrated mainstream culture.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 The title to a 2002 book of essays by Eric Foner, Who Owns History?, suggests a significant aspect of the learning that contributors to Wikipedia do. Foner, writing in the wake of the culture wars in the 90s, called for historians not to shy away from engaging in debate over history with the “larger public,” and quoted Charles Francis Adams who said that “invocations of history should not be left to ‘the journalist and the politician’.”5 Contributing to Wikipedia lets fledgling historians directly engage the larger public.  Learning the rules of Wikipedia’s evolving game introduces students to one struggle over who owns our history and how Wikipedia’s stated and unstated standards make it difficult to contribute much that is complex or that challenges the American exceptionalist narrative.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In keeping with the open-endedness of Wikipedia, our class practice has been that students have written on topics of their own choosing. I have recommended that they consider broad subjects into which to integrate women on the theory that this is both more challenging intellectually and ultimately, more to the point of the overall project of bringing women into our acknowledged historical experience. Adding a section that can be easily overlooked and seems, by its separateness, to be incidental to the central events, helps to confirm a view of women’s participation in history as peripheral, precisely the view that our interventions are designed to challenge.  Some have tried their hand, for example, at introducing women into the American Revolution, the Vietnam War, Reconstruction, Prohibition and its repeal, the Screen Actors Guild, and the Social Security Act, while others have preferred the smaller canvas of biographical profile. The range of student entries has been broad, from descriptions of the activities of women’s participation in the Californian Gold Rush, to women’s experience as indentured servants, from the rising incarceration rate of women and its consequences, to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony’s campaign for suffrage in Kansas in 1867.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Scott Payne has trained students in the protocol of intervening in articles that are well established, and considered, at least by those who patrol them, “finished”. Former contributors and other interested people, (as well as “bots” or automatic devices alerting concerned people to changes) keep track of articles like the American Revolution, the Vietnam War, the Californian Gold Rush and numerous others, protecting their status as, in the editors’ judgment, neutral in point of view, informative, and “verifiable”.  As Scott Payne explains to students, Wikipedia etiquette requires would-be contributing editors to have a conversation with an article’s editors before making any kind of serious intervention.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Scott’s approach has been to view a page that a student wants to revise and look at the revision history and the talk page to get a sense of how active the page is, the types of changes being made (e.g. minor wording or more substantial edits where an ideological tug-of-war can sometimes be apparent), and who the main contributors are. The talk page also gives a sense of how charged the interactional dynamics have been. He does this as a whole class activity so that everyone can see what he is looking for. This past semester, he used a previous student’s discussion and contributions (her Wikipedia nom de plume was “Peacepanda”) on the Gold Rush to demonstrate some of these concepts. Based on the amount, type, and frequency of activity on a page, Scott either recommends that students post their revision plans on the talk page first, or for quasi-dormant pages, he sometimes just suggests that they just proceed with the revisions. He uses a case-by-case approach, one which also depends on the nature of the revisions. If a student is proposing a major rewrite, then running this by the other contributors to the page is usually a good idea. If a student is adding a section or infixing some text and making some minor edits, then that will probably be less controversial. These preparations are very important, and editors may respond welcomingly but they may also anticipate problems like “irrelevance” or “inappropriate tone.” The author may upload, of course, whatever she wishes, but the editors can and do remove material as they see fit.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Melissa Greenberg (Amherst 2012) contributed to the article on Reconstruction (Reconstruction Era in the U.S.) and found that her work was largely welcomed.  In her preliminary critique of the article written for class, she observed that it was very heavy on military and political history, and “contained very little social history at all including women’s history.”  She was particularly struck by the absence she found of information on legalizing slave unions, “which was particularly important and symbolic of the ability of freed people to have control over their families.”6 Her significant contributions stand, although the preponderance of the article is still military and political despite the widespread findings of the very broad participation of African American women in Reconstruction politics.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Leah Cerf (Amherst College 2013) substantially revised Eugenics in the United States, finding to her surprise that the  previous author/editor had never used the word “woman”  in his/her text.  This led her to anticipate that “the page’s [editor] viewed women’s contributions to the U.S. eugenics movement as inconsequential” and that her contributions, too, would be seen as “in consequential to the overall history.”  She was surprised twice over by what happened next.  She  uploaded material on “how Native American and Black women were often sterilized without their consent” as well as other examples of “women’s unique roles as victims of the eugenics movement.”  As a responsible historian she also wrote about the women like “Margaret Sanger and members of several other women’s associations” who “promoted the eugenic agenda and advocated for  eugenic legislation.”  Leah writes, “I was astonished!  The editor seemed to fully support my references to women as unique victims but thought it was ‘anti-woman’ and ‘biased’ to write about their role as promoters of this dark pseudoscience…To ignore women’s historical role as champions of this now discredited movement not only fails to show the complete historical record, but it also ignores the political clout women had even before they were able to vote.  To ignore that women were key players in this movement …is to say that men alone defined the political and social playing field.  For me the article’s  [previous] editor was the one being ‘anti-woman….'”7

Permalink for this paragraph 2 As of this writing, it looks as if all the material on women in the Revolution, women’s experience of indentured servitude, and much content on women in the Gold Rush, in addition to other scattered material, has been removed and/or moved elsewhere.  In the California Gold Rush, considered finished at the time that “Peacepanda” proposed an intervention in 2007, she was permitted to upload a quite small amount of the material she had prepared.  Some of that material has persisted. In the American Revolutionary War article, students had entered material on the contributions of various groups of women to the war effort. Now there is a brief subcategory: “sex, race, and class,” although neither sex, nor gender, nor women are mentioned. (The word “family” is used.)   There is room for confusion here, because there is also an American Revolution article with a brief but informative section on women’s roles. But the material my students uploaded appears in a new essay entitled Women in the American Revolution. It is unclear who thought to make this transfer as the Wikiproject Women’s History, presumably a group that would be overseeing these kinds of articles, articulates its central goal as, “incorporat[ing] the perspective of women’s history in overview articles of historical periods or pre-1950 events which may currently) lack such coverage.”8  Meanwhile, however, the Wikiproject editors as a whole, who describe themselves as [wanting] “to work together as a team to improve Wikipedia,” rated Women in the Revolution as having  “low importance” for the Wikiproject United States but “high Importance” for the Wikiproject Women’s History.” Herein, of course, lies the paradox that undermines some of my classes’ work.  As a separate and distinctly unequal field, women’s history has the highest significance for itself, but it apparently has very little when the goal is understanding the United States.9

Permalink for this paragraph 0 According to Wikipedia authorities, articles that achieve the status of “featured” or that are successfully nominated for “good articles” are to be well-written, broad if not comprehensive, and neutral in point of view. For some editors, however, the insistence on women’s historical experience as distinct from men’s is a priori “inappropriate” and/or “irrelevant.” And, the discrimination that has accompanied many of women’s efforts to be included in mainstream activities does not always pass muster as “verifiable” or as presented with a “neutral point of view.”

Permalink for this paragraph 4 In our spring 2011 class, one student, whose participation we have already mentioned, had researched material on American women who nursed in Vietnam during the War.  She applied to the editors of the Vietnam War article to upload her material, and after some initial confusion and discouraging editorial responses, she was permitted to do so.  In this case, she created a subsection within the larger article. Her work was in no way critical of the war, which seemed to be among the editors’ initial concerns, and it remains intact three months later. But the article does point out women’s limited opportunities in the military and the current wave of sexual harassment there, topics that some editors thought were “irrelevant” to the article. How long those observations will remain is open to question.  A former student edited the entry on indentured servitude to include the particular experience of women and, for example, the punitive lengthening of their terms if they became pregnant before their service ended.   This material has disappeared. Practically, this means, of course, that an author’s commitment to the integrity of her/his work has to be very long indeed if she wishes to re-enter deleted material and stand guard over it, generally not having “bots” at her disposal to warn her of changes.  Philosophically, and more significantly, it suggests that for many self-styled editors the insistence on the significance of the experience of half the population, when it diverges from male experience, somehow violates the injunction of neutrality.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 In the Vietnam War article, accompanying the three-paragraph subsection entitled Opposition to the War is the caveat that “The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject.”10 A separate entry entitled Opposition to the U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War treats dissent from the war at greater length. (Here the talk page is not particularly decorous. John Kerry is accused of evading the draft; the war is defended as a war the U.S. needed to fight, but “Democrat LBJ” kept the country from succeeding, etc.)  Editors of the Wikiproject United States rate this material of low interest, as do editors of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, dealing separately with opposition to the Vietnam War, like the subsection within the Vietnam War article that gives the critics little space and editorially undermines their credibility, perpetuates the notion that dissent from the mainstream remains outside the story of our history rather than being an integral and significant part of our past and generative of its current politics. Segregated histories replicate in Wikipedia the tensions in our society and make historical analysis, much less synthesis, highly problematic. And repressing women’s role in our darker chapters falsely  removes them from participation, for better or worse,  in many of our national debates, programs, and policies.   As Melissa Greenberg writes: “Wikipedia scholarship does not provide a place for arguing your case or making historical points…. Wikipedia provides a mass-market history, but [lacks] in explication and nuance.”11

Permalink for this paragraph 2 Wikipedia’s requirement of a “neutral” point of view renders the introduction of women’s history into omniscient historical narratives problematic when those narratives share the exceptionalist view that over time all minorities have more or less achieved equality in the U.S. When historians of women point to the ways in which women continue to fail to be included in all the benefits of American society, they ruffle the composure of  “neutral,” “verifiable” narratives and prompt editors to protect them from these intrusions as not  “factual,” i.e. “real history” (see Robert Wolff’s aforementioned comment).12  The other, lesser tendency,  of editors to suppress  the ways women have contributed to misguided policies supports the venerable–and sexist–myth of women’s innate virtue.   Women’s  full inclusion, whether they have  have been protesting injustice or supporting the Ku Klux Klan, will enrich our self-understanding  and  make it more complex.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Perhaps Wikiproject Women’s History will alter these tendencies of suppression, exclusion, and marginalization.   At the moment, material that is segregated under “Women’s Roles” or “Women’s Experience” often has a better chance of surviving in featured articles than more integrated material.  And separate sections entirely devoted to women’s experience, as in the case of the articles on the Revolution, pose fewer challenges editorially or ideologically, than efforts to bring together men’s and women’s histories. Women’s content is easily criticized on grounds of organization or length, even if the substance itself seems to be the problem – at least so it seemed in the cases mentioned above of material that disappeared. The arguments of relevance and appropriateness both of content and tone are also useful in keeping most articles free of issues of fairness to women and minorities. Introducing the experience of groups disadvantaged in some way into narratives, closely guarded by editors committed to American exceptionalism is difficult, and “separate but equal,” an easy solution, but one that ultimately fails to advance the cause of locating women’s history –and all minority history–in all its complexity in our national development.  As Melissa Greenberg concludes “I find it especially ironic given the… collectivism of Wikipedia and its somewhat anti-establishment nature that contributors who wish to include women’s history find it so difficult.  One would think that Wikipedia should provide a more open platform for incorporating historical narratives that are traditionally excluded.”13

Permalink for this paragraph 0 About the authors: Martha Saxton teaches in the History and Women’s and Gender Studies Departments at Amherst College.  She is working on a biography of Mary Ball Washington, the  mother of the founding father. J. Scott Payne is the Director of Academic Technology Services at Amherst College. Leah Cerf, class of 2013, Amherst College, is a history major currently spending her junior year in Spain. Melissa Greenberg, class of 2012, Amherst College is a history major.  She spent her junior year in Pune, India and is now writing a senior honors thesis.

  1. Permalink for this paragraph 1
  2. Robert Wolff, “Essay Idea Discussion”, in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds. Writing History in the Digital Age. Under contract with the University of Michigan Press. Web-book edition, Trinity College (CT), Fall 2011. http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evolution/discuss/
  3. Noam Cohen, “Define Gender Gap: Look up Wikipedia’s Contributor List”, The New York Times,  Jan. 30, 2011,  accessed Aug. 15, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/31/business/media/31link.html
  4. Jimmy Wales Interview, The Telegraph, Aug.15, 2011, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/wikipedia/6589487/Jimmy-Wales-interview-Wikipedia-is-focusing-on-accuracy.html
  5. Ibid.
  6. Eric Foner, Who Owns History? (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002),  xviii.
  7. Melissa Greenberg email massage to Martha Saxton, August 11, 2011
  8. Leah Cerf email message to Martha Saxton, August 29, 2011.
  9. Wikipedia, WikiProject Women’s History
  10. Wikipedia, WikiProject
  11. Wikipedia, Vietnam War.
  12. Melissa Greenberg email message to  Martha Saxton, July 24, 2011
  13. Robert Wolff, “Essay Idea Discussion”
  14. Melissa Greenberg email message to Martha Saxton, Aug.11, 2011