Migration, Money, and the Making of the Modern Caribbean Literature

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LIT 4192, Spring 2014 “Migration, Money, and the Making of the Modern Caribbean Literature”

Editing Wikipedia

By Dhanashree Thorat
Notes for this lesson are drawn from (included in this full document):

  • Knowledge Construction on Wikipedia

  • Wikipedia as a Digital Writing Assignment

  • Short handout (included in PDF version of this full document)


In Class:

1) Set up a Wikipedia account: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special:UserLogin/signup

(Give some thought to your username)


2) Break into groups, and edit the page assigned to your group

  • Maryse Conde   Bibliography with notes on Conde

  • Tree of Life

  • Ramabai Espinet

  • New page on The Swinging Bridge https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Article_wizard

  • Caribbean Literature (add lines on Espinet, Conde)

  • Trinidad and Tobago Literature (add lines on Espinet)

  • Indo-Caribbean (review the section on indenture and add Espinet) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Caribbean


3) You can make the following changes:

  • Author page: Update biographical information about the author

  • Author page: Write about the author's literary style 

  • Book page: Write about the book's themes, plot, characters, reviews

  • General: Add outlinks to relevant sources, or link internally to other Wikipedia articles 


IMPORTANT (if you don't want your page deleted)


  • Link the page to other Wikipedia pages

  • When you make a change, describe what you changed 

Read more about making pages stick: http://dhpoco.org/rewriting-wikipedia/how-to-create-wikipedia-entries-that-will-stick/

Knowledge Construction on Wikipedia: Part I

Originally published: http://www.dthorat.com/wikiknow/


A pedagogy for the digital age must engage students in a critical study of the new media technologies that they use in their everyday lives. Students should be able to situate digital tools within institutional structures of power, and question the epistemology that informs and emerges from them. 

This post will focus on Wikipedia, and suggest some approaches to Wikipedia from a critical digital pedagogy perspective. According to Alexa, the web analytics company, Wikipedia currently ranks 6th in the top visited sites globally according to Alexa. Many of us use Wikipedia at least as a first source for basic information before we turn to other sources, and as an instructor, I know that my students first turn to Google (ranked 1st in the Alexa list) and Wikipedia when they have to research a topic. While these trends are unsurprising, it is important that we prepare our students on using these tools in a critical manner.
The four points I outline below can be developed into a lesson plan for a research based English Composition class or in more specialized New Media class. (These points can also be used to contextualize a digital assignment based on Wikipedia. I will write more about this in Part II of this post.) I understand that it may not be possible to cover all these points in a lesson on research and sources, but I want to include entry points to a larger conversation which situates Wikipedia, and other forms of new media, within an institutional structure of power and hegemony.
Generally, when instructors talk about Wikipedia in the classroom, the discussion revolves around two issues:


1) Wikipedia is unreliable because it is not a scholarly, peer reviewed source

Most students already know this, but use Wikipedia nonetheless because it is updated faster than other encyclopedias. While it may be a simplification that all Wikipedia articles are unreliable, it is important for students to realize that knowledge on Wikipedia is constructed, and Wikipedia articles grapple with objectivity and bias. In other words, students must evaluate the objectivity of the article. (One commonly prescribed way to do this is by looking at the citations.)
 To augment this discussion, and better understand how this construction occurs, I suggest that students refer to the history of edits made to the article.

wikipedia obama 1

View History is a public record of changes made to the article by writers/editors and reasons for these changes. Frequently, this page also documents the acrimonious debate sparked by a controversial change. For example, here is a series of edits and “reverts” related to Obama’s heritage:


wikipedia obama 2

This page places the latest developments at the top, so reading from bottom to top lets us trace a discussion going on between writers and moderators. Occasionally, the debate may be conducted on the Talk page (to the right of Article, at the top of the page), where writers can offer lengthier explanations for their proposed changed.

As this short section indicates, the Wikipedia community of editors and writers reviews changes very quickly and the debate over changes can range from definitions and sources to importance and bias. By reviewing this page, students can get a sense of how actively a specific page is watched by the community.


2) Wikipedia is not considered a credible source in the academic/professional community

This is an important point that students often miss. Even if an article has been stringently reviewed by the community, it is not considered a scholarly and peer reviewed source in the academic community. (This is a good place to talk to students about journal articles and other academic publications but I don’t want to cover that in depth in this post.)


While these two points are important, I want to add two additional points that students should be aware about.


3) Lack of diversity and representation in Wikipedia’s writing community and coverage

2011 internal Editor Survey found some glaring issues:

-         76% of editors make edits to English Wikipedia. This indicates linguistic privilege, but also raises larger questions about which topics are written about. Do the articles in other languages undergo the same scrutiny given many of the articles in English Wikipedia?

-         Only 8.5% of editors are women. This gender inequality and the lack of attention given to it, is striking in an age in which there is a concerted push for gender equality.

-         The same study goes on to state that “if there is a typical Wikipedia editor, he has a college degree, is 30-years-old, is computer savvy but not necessarily a programmer, doesn’t actually spend much time playing games, and lives in U.S. or Europe.” Clearly, there is more work needed in making the Wikipedia community more diverse.

 These issues of diversity and representation situate Wikipedia within a certain socio-political structure of power. These comments on who is writing and editing Wikipedia partially account for the spotty scope of Wikipedia. As a postcolonial studies researcher, I have lost count of the number of writers from non-Western contexts I have looked up on Wikipedia to find either very short entries or stubs (articles that need to be expanded).

Compare these two entries side by side:


In two screen shots, you can see that the entry on Kenyan literature is shorter than the index of the British literature article.

Or consider these two entries on two important writers:

lit 2

Such unequal coverage is connected to broader academic trends (i.e. American literature is a required class in most undergraduate English degree programs, while Caribbean Literature is not). But it also raises important issues about power and privilege in literary studies, and how new media structures, such as Wikipedia, continue to channel that power. This kind of coverage may also speak to lack of access to Internet technologies in different parts of the world. Perhaps the stakeholders who might be interested in developing these articles simply don’t enjoy the same level of internet access.

am simplifying these differences and we need a more systematic study of these inequalities, but it is undoubtedly true that every region is not covered in the same detail and accuracy on Wikipedia. The Mapping Wikipedia project, which visualizes the geo tags of articles, confirms this point. (Wikipedia articles, whether about places, people, or events, are tagged to the geographical area to which they are connected.) To get a quick look at the clustered areas, you can look at this Popular Science article or browse maps at TraceMedia. In this context, Western spaces are simultaneously sources of knowledge creation, and sites of study.


4) Wikipedia’s policies as part of an institutional structure of power

Having pointed out gaps in Wikipedia’s coverage, a simple question comes up at this point: why doesn’t someone simply fill in the gaps? A part of the answer may be connected to the writer’s profile that emerges from the 2011 Editor Survey.


However, Wikipedia’s own rules for inclusion of a new topic and editing may also play a role in which topics are privileged. While navigating the labyrinthine pages on editing policy is a task in itself, the policy on inclusion may be a good starting point to this discussion on structure and power.

Notability is the test used to determine whether a topic should have an article. In order to be considered notable, generally, the topic must have received “significant coverage in reliable sources that are independent of the subject.” At face value, this policy sounds reasonable. While it is made clear that non-English sources, and sources that are not online can be used to show that a topic is notable, it is nonetheless harder to establish the notability of a topic that must vend through the process of translation, digitization, etc. The volunteer writer may also have to work harder to prove that a source is credible and reliable if it is not well known in the Western context, and to provide sufficient primary and secondary sources to write a substantive article.
It is important for students to recognize these issues so they understand why gaps in Wikipedia’s archive exist. These gaps point to one important drawback of a crowd sourced encyclopedia: if the crowd is not sufficiently diverse, and since writing and editing is voluntary, the resultant product will reflect the knowledge and interests of the community that has chosen to contribute, or has the capacity to contribute. In scholarly encyclopedias, on the other hand, editors and publish may solicit entries on topics to ensure more even representation.


In Part II of this Wikipedia post, I will discuss attempts by various groups to redress some of these issues, and outline some points on how you can use Wikipedia as a digital writing assignment in your classroom to address these issues.

Knowledge Construction on Wikipedia: Part II

Originally published: http://www.dthorat.com/wikiknow2

In my last post, I attempted to read Wikipedia from a critical digital pedagogy perspective. I discussed the two issues that we generally cover with students about using Wikipedia for research. The first issue is the unreliability of Wikipedia articles, and the second is Wikipedia’s lack of credibility in the professional/academic community. I then added two more issues which students should be aware of: Lack of diversity and representation in the Wikipedia community of writers and scope of articles, and finally, Wikipedia’s policies as a part of an institutional structure of power.


One way to address these issues is by encouraging subject matter experts, and your students to contribute to Wikipedia. This is particularly relevant if you teach a literature class on non-American/British literature, or if your American/British Lit class is reading works by minority authors and works by women.


If you are interested in creating a digital assignment for your students, consider asking them to write a Wikipedia article, especially if your class material touches on a topic which is underrepresented on Wikipedia.


Wikipedia as a Digital Writing Assignment

Students can contribute in a number of ways:

 1)    The most substantive writing will involve building on an existing article stub, which currently only has a few lines, or proposing a new topic/writer/work to write about.

Eg: Ramabai Espinet, an Indo-Caribbean writer, whose work focus on the Indian emigrants in Trinidad, does not have a Wikipedia article at all. (Here is a brief bio.)

While Wikipedia does not consider the article on R. Zamora Linmark, a Filipino-American writer, a stub, it does not contain sufficient information to be useful.



2)    Most articles though, already have basic information about each writer. In this case, the student can improve the quality of the article by expanding on the writer’s life, writing style, reception, influence, legacy, etc. Before a student starts writing, she should be asked to review other articles on writers to develop a sense of what kind of information should be included in the article. One good suggestion is this article on Charles Dickens. Just a quick look at this article will show you how underdeveloped all the articles I list here are.

Some articles which students can work on: The article on Maryse Condé, a Guadeloupean writer whose work explores issues of race and gender, needs substantial expansion. So does the article on Julie Otsuka, a Japanese-American writer who has written about Japanese-American internment during World War II. Or take a look at the article on the award winning Indian author, Amitav Ghosh.

 maryse conde

3)    Another way to improve Wikipedia is by adding articles on books/works written by underrepresented authors. This is a good idea if your students are reading specific books because your class discussion on the book will prepare them to contribute to the article. Most of the authors I listed above don’t have expanded articles on their books. To look for an example of a book article, look at the entries on The Pickwick Papers or Edward Said’s Orientalism.


4)    If you are not looking for substantive writing assignments, students can still contribute to Wikipedia in small, but significant ways. For example, students can link a Wikipedia article to external resources, or to another relevant Wikipedia article. This is particularly helpful because a reader can then browse to other, perhaps, scholarly sources, on the same topic.


The first three of these methods are intensive enough to serve as a writing assignment, and help students grapple with new media epistemology. Writing a good Wikipedia entry takes time and effort, and while it cannot replace an argumentative research assignment, it will require that students conduct primary and secondary research. I mention these points to put to rest any doubt you may have that writing for Wikipedia is too ‘easy’ to be an assignment. (I also speak as someone who has edited Wikipedia articles. Sometimes finding an appropriate source itself can take hours if your topic is not extensively written about.)


To prepare students to write an article, you can have (and will need to have) productive conversations about audience, writing style, genre, and plagiarism. In fact, this is an assignment that will compel students to think most strongly about audience. While their other work might be read only by you, and by proxy, an academic audience, their Wikipedia article will be publicly available. This can also help you talk about the benefits of public scholarship, and about open access initiatives. Finally, students will practice working collaboratively. Once their article is published, it will be reviewed within the Wikipedia community, and other writers may have suggestions on how to improve the article. Wikipedia also has a document for instructors on How to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool 

You can also look for any on-going Wikipedia writing initiatives to which you can link your class. For example:

-         Postcolonial Digital Humanities has conducted a Rewriting Wikipedia Project, and they have an excellent page on tips to writing Wikipedia Entries That Will Stick.


-         There has been the #tooFEW project, a call for Feminists Engaging Wikipedia, and I recommend Moya Bailey’s blog post on some of the negative reaction to this initiative.


-         There was a Wikipedia edit-a-thon on October 15, 2013 in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, named after the 19th century pioneer who wrote several early computer programs. You can organize a similar event and invite others in the Wikipedia community to create articles alongside your students.


-         Wikipedia also has two relevant initiatives: Geo-targeted Editors Participation,  which has a pilot program targeted at the Philippines, and WikiProject Women’s History which is currently focusing on Women in World War I and Women in Technology


Getting Started on Wikipedia
While students need a basic introduction to how to write a Wikipedia article, you should warn them that the help pages on Getting Started can soon turn into a long meandering trail as they follow links within each article. (I knew I had gone down the rabbit hole when I started on the Welcome Page, and somehow ended up two dozen pages later, reading about MASTODONS and PRAMS. Both articles, on civil exchange on Wikipedia, made me chuckle but brought me no closer to editing an article.)


Students should not expect to read everything on Wikipedia writing. Wikipedia’s Article Wizard guides new writers through the writing process in six steps. 


But here are additional useful pages that students can consult:

1)    The Welcome to Wikipedia page 

2)    The Five Pillars on which Wikipedia operates 

3)    Browse through the List of Policies and Guidelines 

4)    Learn what counts as primary and secondary sources on Wikipedia 

5)    This excellent New Contributors Help Page 

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