UPDATED 12:30 p.m. MDT, with details from my syllabus below the original post.
I’m now going to do something I hardly ever do: I’m going to tell you about something my students have done. I can’t restrain myself! I’m so proud of my women’s history students this semester. Six of them have written biographies of previously unrepresented or under-represented women in early American history, and they’re now published on English-language Wikipedia. Check them out:
Inés de Bobadilla (ca. 1505-43; first woman governor of Cuba)
Alice Clifton (ca. 1772 – unknown; as an enslaved teenager, she was a defendant in infanticide trial in 1787)
Rebecca Dickinson (1738-1815; American tailor and seamstress in Hadley, Mass.)
Elizabeth Hanson, captive of Native Americans (1684-1737; former Wabanaki captive from Dover, N.H. and the author of God’s Mercy Surmounting Man’s Cruelty, 1728)
Sarah Osborn (1714-96; Evangelical Protestant writer in Newport, R.I. and author of Memoirs of the life of Mrs. Sarah Osborn.)
Rachel of Kittery, Maine (d. 1695; enslaved woman murdered by her master whose case set a legal precedent in New England)
In case you’ve never worked with Wikipedia, I’ll explain a little bit about how it works. I learned about it because I was contacted by someone who was working with the Wiki Education Foundation, and she provided a helpful link that explains how Wikipedia works, and how their articles are vetted for significance. Long story short: if you can demonstrate that your subject has a footprint in the scholarly literature, you’re probably OK. (That is, you need to cite something in order to back up your claims about your subject.)
What I like about Wikipedia is that is shows students how one version of peer review works. You wouldn’t believe how fast Wikipedia editors are on new entries, vetting them, grading them, fixing their formats. In most respects this worked to the advantage of my students; as I’ll describe in the cases of the Rachel of Kittery and the Sarah Osborn entries, it worked against them a little, but we’ve got them fixed (for now!)
Writing for Wikipedia at this point in history is a little tricky. On the one hand, I didn’t want my students merely to edit someone else’s pre-existing monster Wikipedia entries–I wanted them to make original contributions and to expand our cache of new knowledge in this format. On the other, as I suggested above, we had to be cautious about going too obscure, because content that is too obscure, unclear in its importance, or too un- or under-documented will get scrubbed. Writing about some early American women’s lives seemed like it could be a sweet spot for us.
Links to other reputable web sites and Wikipedia can work to show a subject’s importance or significance, but one of my goals was to help showcase some of the latest early American women’s biographies that professional historians have produced, such as Catherine Brekus, Marla Miller, Ava Chamberlain, and Wendy Anne Warren, among others. In the absence of full-length biographies like these, the subjects had to have written and published something themselves, or be the subject of a publication. I was pretty sure all five of the first names on the list would make the cut, but I wasn’t sure about Rachel of Kittery (in what’s now Maine, but was then still Massachusetts.) In fact, the student who wrote about her had his article rejected two or three times before it made the cut.
As you can see from my list above, we have no birth date or last name for Rachel, because she was an enslaved woman whose master was convicted of killing her in 1695. No one celebrated her birthday, ever, and no one dignified her with any identifiable or traceable lineage because she was enslaved. The only trace of her probably short life is in two short paragraphs about her case in the Maine court records in which her master, Nathaniel Keene (or Caine) was tried for her murder, but convicted only of “cruelty” towards her. Instead of the death penalty, which was in theory the punishment for murder in early Massachusetts, Keene was fined only five pounds plus court costs (another five pounds, ten shillings. By comparison, people guilty of fornication would be fined anywhere from one to five pounds.) As my student notes, after Lorenzo Greene’s analysis, Rachel’s case set a sad precedent, which was that masters could be held criminally liable, but only for abuse rather than murder or manslaughter.
Wikipedia kept kicking it back to him, and I kept coaching him as to sources that mentioned her specifically, or strategies to get it accepted on Wikipedia. We both thought it distasteful to have to resort to writing about her under the name of her murderer, Nathaniel Keene, but that’s frequently the only way a lot of enslaved women’s stories get told at all (such as the victim of the vicious John Kimber in 1792.)
My student hit on a trick I’ve used to (I hope) good effect in my forthcoming biography of Esther Wheelwright, which is to enlist other early American “celebrities” in amplifying your subject’s importance. He noticed that Samuel Sewall, the judge and famous Massachusetts diarist, was among the panel of Superior Court justices for Rachel’s murder trial, and noted that Sewall published The Selling of Joseph, the first anti-slavery tract published in New England, in 1700. Although there’s no way to prove it, Rachel’s murder may have been one of the many injustices to African Americans that pricked Sewall’s conscience about the morality of slavery.
In case you can’t tell, I’m incredibly proud of all of my students. They were permitted to choose their own subjects and conduct their own research, and they really enjoyed writing for a wider public beyond their professor. I think they’ve done a great job bringing quality scholarship to the attention of a wider audience. If you would like to support their work, and that of other feminists working with Wikipedia to get more women’s lives online, please consider writing an entry of your own and perhaps incorporating a project like this into your teaching.
Perhaps most importantly: link to these biographies! If you click on the links above, you will notice that the only two biographies of African American women have this notice on top: “This article is an orphan, as no other articles link to it [esp. in Wikipedia]. Please introduce links to this page from ; try the Find link tool for suggestions.” (These are the only two brand-new entries my students worked on; the other biographies were heavily revised and greatly expanded stubs or brief bios.) I’ve advised my students of this and have suggested that they get to work on this, but if you have written or edited Wikipedia entries, throw in some links to these articles if you can!
Getting Wikipedia to recognize the significance of under-documented women was one issue; another issue that has come up in the case of the women who were the subject of recent full-length biographies is that in the case of the Sarah Osborn entry, my student was accused of “plagiarizing” Catherine A. Brekus’s recent Sarah Osborn’s World, when he merely cites her generously (and appropriately.) I don’t know what led the other Wiki editor to conclude that his work was “plagiarized,” except that 1) he relies on one source (Brekus) a lot, and 2) he cites her generously. It’s almost as though his penchant for generous citation was held against him in a kind of un-nuanced fashion.
I’ve reviewed his writing, and I’ve also run big chunks of it through the Google books entry for her book, and there are zero plagiarized chunks of her book. My student did a great job summarizing and crediting Brekus’s work–which is how scholarship operates. It’s not his (or Brekus’s) fault that there aren’t too many other books or articles that focus on Osborn or her diary–but that’s a pretty common issue when it comes to the biographies of previously-obscure women! I restored his last edit and noted that as his instructor, I had reviewed his work and found it to be original.
All in all, I count the Wikipedia experiment in my class a great success. Have any of you faculty-type readers incorporated writing for Wikipedia into your classroom assignments? What were your experiences? What words of advice (or caution!) do you have for others interested in trying something like this?
In response to Buster in the comments below, I’m cutting and pasting the three weeks from my syllabus in which my students researched and wrote their Wikipedia entries, and also learned how to operate within Wikipedia. You’ll see that my structure was pretty loose, which was good because we had a snow day one of those days, and I was out of town on the day their final essays were due to be uploaded and formatted. I relied on the students doing their own research as well as reading up on Wikipedia outside of class; inside of class, we discussed our work as it progressed, did some in-class peer review of rough drafts, and some group troubleshooting too.
One of the highlights of these weeks for all of us was when Marla Miller, author of Rebecca Dickinson: Independence for a New England Woman joined our class via Skype and offered some great suggestions for researching the lives of previously obscure women. The most memorable tip she offered, and one my students used well, was to always imagine the world from the perspective of your subject. What was she going through? What might she have felt? And how can I get at those experiences? Etc. She was warm and generous with her time, not to mention thrilled that Rebecca Dickinson was getting a Wikipedia entry, thanks to one of my students!
Here you go:
Weeks 8-10: Hacking early American women’s history!
3/7: lecture: Hacking Wikipedia, hacking history at CSU
3/9: required readings: all of the articles at http://wikiedu.org/for-instructors/#teaching-tools under “Getting students ready” (“Training for Students;” “Editing, Illustrating, and Evaluating Wikipedia”); the two subject-specific articles on Editing Wikipedia biographies and women’s studies; and under “Classroom handouts,” read “Using Talk Pages” and “Choosing an Article.”
3/11: In-class work on Wikipedia project
(SPRING BREAK MARCH 14-18)
3/21: lecture: Writing women’s lives case study: The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright
3/23: SUBJECT CHOICE AND BIBLIOGRAPHY DUE IN CLASS; discussion of writing for Wikipedia
required readings: The remainder of the “Classroom handouts” section at http://wikiedu.org/for-instructors/#teaching-tools ; and Lynn Hunt, “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” AHA Perspectives, February 2010, at http://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/february-2010/how-writing-leads-to-thinking
3/25: ROUGH DRAFT OF WIKIPEDIA ENTRY DUE; Skype call with Marla Miller.
3/28: Report on research progress & discuss in class
3/30: Troubleshooting wiki entries
4/1: NO CLASS; FINAL DRAFT DUE TO PROFESSOR & UPLOADED TO WIKIPEDIA