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Indigenizing Wikipedia: Student Accountability to Native American Authors on the World’s Largest Encyclopedia
In Spring 2013 I had my students write for Wikipedia. This is by no means an original idea, but the specific assignment was somewhat novel: in a senior class on 21st Century Native American Literature, each student was to write a biography of a living Native American author (one not yet represented on the site), consulting with that author to craft an entry that met both the author’s and Wikipedia’s standards. It has been awhile since I have had students quite so motivated and invested in a writing assignment. The process was not without difficulties: we sometimes ran afoul of Wikipedia’s problematic “notability” standard. However, students still gained new skills and a much better grasp of the professional writing process. The Native authors were gratified to be represented on Wikipedia and often helpful in pointing us to further sources. And I got to enjoy the pedagogical role of facilitator, rather than gatekeeper, while helping to improve Wikipedia’s representation of indigenous literature and, hopefully, contributing to efforts to reshape its demographics.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not the case that “anybody” can put “anything” on Wikipedia. The site has clearly articulated rules that, in the interest of recruiting new writers, it boils down to 5 “pillars”:
- Wikipedia is an encyclopedia that disallows primary research and opinions (an important contrast to some academic encyclopedias);
- It is written from a “neutral point of view” (NPOV);
- It is free content that anyone can edit, use, modify and distribute;
- Editors (contributors) should treat each other with respect and civility;
- Wikipedia does not have firm rules (its guidelines are subject to contributor debate).
Every hour, thousands of volunteer Wikipedians (with varying levels of editorial power) vet the site, accepting or rejecting articles, cleaning them up to meet basic editorial standards, and flagging them (e.g., “This article is a stub. You can help Wikipedia by expanding it” or “The neutrality of this article is disputed”). There are robots to root out common errors and trolling; and a “three-revert” rule to shut down edit wars (with some entries, like Osama bin Laden’s, on lockdown). As any thoughtful person who has used the site knows, Wikipedia is not unproblematic. It does contain errors and some frankly appalling prose. It has troubling imbalances in coverage, which can be traced to troubling imbalances in its demographics. It is not, however, the unscrupulous free-for-all that some people imagine.
Wikipedia encourages School and University Projects, offering online tutorials and other support for teachers and students; hundreds of courses, all over the world, have signed up. Several such experiments have been described in the volume Writing History in the Digital Age. Amanda Seligman uses Wikipedia in a methods course to teach undergraduates about tertiary sources; Shawn Graham had a freshman seminar edit a single entry, on the Ottawa Valley. In these case studies, historians use Wikipedia to reflect on their profession’s standards vis-a-vis the practices of popular and crowdsourced history.
But, in that volume, only Martha Saxton tackles the more global problem: “to the extent that popular judgment determines what history gets produced in this format, the significance of women’s role in it and gender as a discourse or a method of analysis are likely to be devalued.” I, too, was concerned about Wikipedia’s failures in coverage—specifically its lack of representation of Native American authors, and even more specifically, its lack of representation of authors based in New England, though that last failure is not unique to Wikipedia. Before Spring 2013, the site included only three Native authors from this region: eighteenth-century Mohegan minister Samson Occom, nineteenth-century Pequot minister William Apess, and contemporary Abenaki poet Joseph Bruchac). This trifecta, repeated in many anthologies and a good deal of literary scholarship, perpetuates the misconception that Native people in New England assimilated early on and survive only as isolated “remnants” today.
Coincidentally, in that same spring, academics were joining the movement to revise Wikipedia from within. Moya Z. Bailey, a blogger well known in Digital Humanities circles, used the Twitter hashtag #toofew (for “Feminists Engage Wikipedia”) to recruit new writers and editors. She set March 15, 2013, as a day for people to gather (face to face as well as virtually) to edit the site in conjunction with some of the edit-a-thons run by THATCamp. The event had a Wikipedia meetup page, where people could sign in and propose content; and it was announced broadly on The Chronicle of Higher Education, HASTAC, and even Al Jazeera, where Bailey called for Wikipedia to “better reflect the diversity of our living.”  Since March 15, the editing initiatives have continued, including Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam’s “Rewriting Wikipedia Project.” Such projects are responding to increasingly visible reports (including the Wikimedia Foundation’s own editor surveys) indicating that only about 10 percent of contributors are women. They are also scrutinizing Wikipedia’s purportedly “objective” criteria. As Koh and Risam argue, these criteria depend on “the weight of already-existing knowledge, knowledge which postcolonial studies writers have systematically argued is racially and culturally charged. To subscribe to [Wikipedia’s criteria] uncritically has the effect of reproducing uneven social forms of privilege against groups that deserve to be represented.” As my students found, when it comes to Native American authors, Wikipedia’s “notability” benchmark is particularly bothersome.
“Native American Literature in the 21st Century” enrolled thirty senior and junior English majors (a couple from Journalism, one from History). I had planned from the beginning to have students write for a site I manage, called Writing of Indigenous New England. But after #toofew inspired me to try my hand at adding a brief entry (on Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau), I began to see the pedagogical possibilities of asking students to post their author profiles on Wikipedia first.
Professorial maligning of Wikipedia aside, I do not know too many who truly require their students to abide by standards as rigorous as those of Wikipedia, whatever we might wish or claim. This was an enormous surprise for me as well as my students, and I have colleagues who still refuse to believe it. But the students found there was simply no way to grade-grub or plea-bargain their way out of the site’s very basic writing standards. If they committed mechanical errors, an anonymous editor would correct those. If they committed too many, an editor could take their article down altogether, or at least flag it (“This article could benefit from an improvement in writing style”). If their research was thin, they would be mortified to find some 17-year-old in Turkey declaring their article a “stub,” or someone with a silly handle nominating their work for deletion altogether. In the end, one of this assignment’s greatest boons was that students came to see me the way I’d always seen myself—as the facilitator, not the bad guy. They were in closer and more frequent contact with me about their drafts than any students I can remember, seeming unusually accountable and motivated.
Part of this was undoubtedly due to Wikipedia’s publicity and immediacy. It can take me days to reply to students’ blog posts, a week to return their essays; but a Wikipedia editor might respond in as little as 20 minutes. In addition to the speed, students relished the opportunity to be part of something bigger. One said, “I often feel that I am just taking, taking, taking from the Internet and rarely being a contributor. Now I can put something up online that is credible, academic, and a contribution to the World Wide Web.” The opportunity to collaborate with a Native author also undoubtedly helped; in our case, the authors generally responded positively to the students’ work with most of their suggestions being for further resources.
I gave students a clear sequence of steps, spread out over 3-4 weeks:
- Sign up for an author.
- Sign up for a Wikipedia account, and take the tutorials.
- Begin drafting your article in your sandbox, and send me the link.
- After I approve your draft, send the link to the Native author who is your subject for feedback.
- “Create” the article.
I was fortunate to teach in a digital lab, so we devoted several class periods to reviewing what makes an article “stick” in Wikipedia as well as to writing and editing. Many students, at least at my public university, still lack basic web literacy—signing up for accounts, following tutorials—and most were grievously intimidated by the prospect of using markup (which Wikipedia has since made optional). The assignment was thus an empowering one for our English majors, showing them that they can master more “tech” skills than they realized. Moreover, writing for Wikipedia is a powerful lesson in the professional writing process. Some graduating seniors, who had grown rather accustomed to writing their essays the night before their deadlines and squeaking through with Bs or Cs, found that procrastinating was simply impossible in this platform. Some students consequentially found their articles proposed for deletion, and did poorly on the assignment, because they skipped some of the interim, low-stakes (yet critically important) parts of the assignment designed to keep them researching, writing and revising.
Proposed deletion is not the only interesting thing that happened during this class experiment; but it was, for students, the scariest thing, and it is probably the thing that reveals the most about the politics of “indigenizing” Wikipedia. Some of my students who wrote, by my estimation, very good articles nevertheless had their work proposed for deletion on the grounds that their subjects did not meet Wikipedia’s “notability” criterion. To be considered “notable” enough to pass muster with Wikipedia, a subject must demonstratively receive “significant coverage” in “reliable, published [secondary] sources.” Wikipedians favor newspaper and magazine articles, along with scholarly books and journals. But “reliability,” of course, is slippery: even in the academic realm, telling our students that university presses are “better” than “the Internet” isn’t teaching them critical thinking. As my students delved further into their topics and began actually consulting with Native writers and historians and reading tribal websites, they found what historian Roy Rosenzweig once said so succinctly: “the general panic about students’ use of Internet sources is overblown. You can find bad history in the library.” Still, a Wikipedia entry that references only tribal websites will likely be struck down on grounds of “non-notability.”
Two journalism majors, who previously had been only modestly engaged with course content up to that point, were suddenly on fire at 2 a.m. when their article on Narragansett journalist John Christian Hopkins was proposed for deletion:
Aside from the mortification of being called out by someone called “duffbeerforme,” these students were invested and wanted that article to stick. They had ample opportunity to improve their piece: as indicated in Wikipedia’s fifth “pillar,” editors try to operate by consensus, rather than outright votes. In the debate that ensued, “Vizjim” pointed to institutional biases against Native intellectual sovereignty, a concept that eluded “duffbeerforme”:
By participating in such forums, students engaged in real conversations about real matters affecting Native people, while getting practical experience in convincing readers that their topic matters–not least by improving their research and writing. The Hopkins debate was finally closed for lack of consensus, and (at least as of this writing) the article remains live.
Few things on Wikipedia are permanent, so I told the students it wasn’t the end of the world if their articles were flagged or proposed for deletion. (Wikipedia also archives every change, though I always counsel students to back up their own work multiple times, in multiple formats.) I granted favorable grades to those who conducted their research scrupulously and polished their drafts assiduously, no matter the outcome among Wikipedians. Perhaps the most vexing “notability” debate came over the article on Trace DeMeyer, an award-winning journalist from The Pequot Times and Indian Country Today who has published a memoir, an anthology about Indian out-adoptees, and a book of poetry, among other works. But here’s the rub: her books are mainly self-published, and she has received little coverage by sources not already affiliated with her. At the end of the semester, and well after the student writer had graduated, this article—as well researched as any of those our class produced—had still been declined. Some weeks later the discussion was revived and, as with the John Christian Hopkins article, the DeMeyer piece was allowed to stand for lack of editorial consensus:
Wikipedians are justifiably concerned about individuals (and other entities, from garage bands to corporations) attempting to use the site for promotional purposes. But these editorial debates over Native American public figures allow students to see that this concern can also have racial and political overtones. At least in the DeMeyer case, some editors appear sensitive to the proposition that “notability” itself is not an apolitical concept. And here was another powerful lesson for students: editors are sometimes not objective, or informed, or even that smart. They carry their own agendas no matter how “neutral” they may claim or try to be.
DeMeyer was one of a handful of Native authors whom I was able to bring into my class (others emailed or Skyped with the students). By the time she visited, students had some insight into the forces that keep indigenous literature and indigenous issues invisible. Settler colonial society, of which the United States is undeniably one, has in fact to do a great deal of work to keep those issues invisible. Spring 2013 was the heyday of #IdleNoMore and the Violence Against Women Act, indigenous issues that received only modest coverage in “notable” sources like The New York Times. When I required students to follow these issues on Twitter, they found huge numbers of Native American people (indeed, images of huge Native American crowds), using social media, fighting for sovereignty, speaking their languages, protecting their traditional homelands, and writing. But to find those, of course, they had to bother to look.
Wikipedia’s “notability” standard thus mimics the centrifugal force exercised by literary canons, even within such ostensibly canon-busting fields as Native American literary studies. “Notability” purports to be relatively neutral, while the academic term “significance” purports to be more authoritative or considered. But in either case, indigenous histories, aesthetics and values are too often erased. This was a critical lesson of “21st Century Native American Literature.” Our class started with novels by Sherman Alexie and Louise Erdrich, who have published with major houses; moved on to Craig Womack’s beautiful novel, Drowning in Fire, published by a university press; then to a poetry chapbook by Mihku Paul—part of the “Native New England Authors” series at Bowman Books, a Native publishing venture run by Joseph Bruchac and his son Jesse; and finally to a self-published memoir by Wampanoag elder Joan Tavares Avant. I wanted students to think about the politics of Native publishing, to engage with the concerns articulated by Native scholars over non-Native aesthetic assumptions and mainstream publishing demands. These writers have shown that the texts that garner the most critical and commercial success are those that most closely mimic Western literary aesthetics; tribal authors who express tribally-specific values in tribally-specific forms are often dismissed as “too political” or “too hard to follow.” At the end of our Alexie-to-Avant trajectory, most students were fully prepared to appreciate lesser-known Native writers from New England. But the argument made by Vizjim—that “numbers matter,” and that tribal sovereignty is a reality worth respecting—is still a hard sell on Wikipedia.
Crowdsourced knowledge presents itself as contingent, as always subject to further input and revision. Wikipedia changes to reflect not only changing facts, like shifting national borders; it has the potential, at least, to reflect shifting intellectual paradigms. In this respect, wikis are not unlike oral traditions, which in Native communities still carry enormous weight, even—interestingly—when it comes to preserving and transmitting literary history. There are writers who are revered within their tribes and beyond, whose work is read and recited at public events, who are honored at community gatherings, and yet they have yet to attract attention from university-based scholars or mainstream publishers. Wikipedia offers one space in which writers with the skills, access and time can mediate between Native authors and powerful editors to improve the representation of Native culture and history. When I call this an exercise in student “accountability,” I mean something more than just our accountability as Wikipedia users to improve the site; and more still than our accountability, as inhabitants of settler colonial societies, to recognize indigenous space and presence. I mean our accountability to indigenous people’s own ideas of “notability” and value: that we vet projects with them beforehand, that we consult actively with them as we try to represent their point of view, and perhaps even (most difficult for academics) that we decline to publish if the work doesn’t meet with their approval. It’s too early to know whether my students’ articles will have the longevity or grow to the length of Wikipedia entries on more canonical writers like Alexie and Edrich. Sustaining and stewarding them might be a project for a future class.
About the author: Siobhan Senier is Associate Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, and editor of Dawnland Voices: Writing from Indigenous New England (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) as well as Writing of Indigenous New England. She can be found on Twitter @ssenier, and in the blogosphere at http://indiginewenglandlit.wordpress.com/author/ssenier/.
How to cite:
Siobhan Senier, “Indigenizing Wikipedia: Student Accountability to Native American Authors on the World’s Largest Encyclopedia,” in Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/senier.
1. Quite a few people have written or spoken about teaching with Wikipedia, most of them historians, including T. Mills Kelly, who has famously had his students write some hoaxes on the site (Yoni Appelbaum, “How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit,” The Atlantic, May 15, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/05/how-the-professor-who-fooled-wikipedia-got-caught-by-reddit/257134/). For a discussion of pedagogical uses of Wikipedia in the context of college composition, see Robert E. Cummings, Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia (Vanderbilt University Press, 2009).
2. "Wikipedia: Five Pillars," http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars.
3. “Wikipedia:Administrators,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Administrators&oldid=567726235.
4. “Wikipedia:Protection Policy,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Protection_policy&oldid=567197436.
6. “Wikipedia:School and University Projects,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:School_and_university_projects&oldid=565127934.
7. Amanda Seligman, “Teaching Wikipedia Without Apologies,” http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/teach/seligman-2012-spring/; Shawn Graham, “The Wikiblitz: A Wikipedia Editing Assignment in A First Year Undergraduate Class,” http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/graham-2012-spring/. See also Adrea Lawrence, “Learning How to Write Analog and Digital History,” http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/teach/lawrence-2012-spring/.
8. Martha Saxton, “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience,” http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/saxton-etal-2012-spring/.
9. For a readable intro to “vanishing Indian” myths in this region, see Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).
10. “Samson Occom,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Samson_Occom&oldid=566410109.“William Apess,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=William_Apess&oldid=564492835; “Joseph Bruchac,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joseph_Bruchac&oldid=559919036.
12. Moya Z. Bailey, “Patriarchy Proves the Point of #tooFEW,” Moya Bailey, accessed May 5, 2013, http://moyabailey.com/2013/02/26/toofew-feminists-engage-wikipedia-315-11-3-est/.
14. “Wikipedia:Meetup/Feminists Engage Wikipedia,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Meetup/Feminists_Engage_Wikipedia&oldid=548328074; Adeline Koh, “Tips for Participating in #TooFEW: Feminist People of Color Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon Today, 11am-3pm EST! - ProfHacker,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, March 15, 2013; Fiona Barnett, “#tooFEW - Feminists Engage Wikipedia | HASTAC,” HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, March 11, 2013, http://hastac.org/blogs/fionab/2013/03/11/toofew-feminists-engage-wikipedia; Adrianne Wadewitz, “Who Speaks for the Women of Wikipedia? Not the Women of Wikipedia. | HASTAC,” HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, April 30, 2013, http://hastac.org/blogs/wadewitz/2013/04/30/who-speaks-women-wikipedia-not-women-wikipedia.“#tooFEW Feminists Engage Wikipedia,” Al Jazeera, March 7, 2013, The Stream, http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201303072321-0022594.
15. Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam, “The Rewriting Wikipedia Project,” Postcolonial Digital Humanities, accessed May 5, 2013, http://dhpoco.org/rewriting-wikipedia/.
16. Ayush Khanna, “Nine Out of Ten Wikipedians Continue to Be Men: Editor Survey,” Wikimedia Foundation Global Blog, April 27, 2012, http://blog.wikimedia.org/2012/04/27/nine-out-of-ten-wikipedians-continue-to-be-men/.Nathalie Collida and Andreas Kolbe, “Wikipedia’s Culture of Sexism – It’s Not Just for Novelists. | Wikipediocracy,” accessed May 9, 2013, http://wikipediocracy.com/2013/04/29/wikipedias-culture-of-sexism-its-not-just-for-novelists/.
17. “Wikipedia:Notability,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Notability&oldid=562817535.
18. “Cheryl Savageau,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cheryl_Savageau&oldid=561288574.
21. “Wikipedia:Student Tutorial,” Simple English Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, July 3, 2013, http://simple.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Student_tutorial&oldid=4482547.
22. “Wikipedia:Sandbox,” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Sandbox&oldid=567952638.
24. There are strategies for ensuring that articles will succeed in Wikipedia. See Adeline Koh and Roopika Risam, “How to Create Wikipedia Entries That Will Stick,” Postcolonial Digital Humanities, accessed August 10, 2013, http://dhpoco.org/rewriting-wikipedia/how-to-create-wikipedia-entries-that-will-stick/.
26. “John Christian Hopkins,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=John_Christian_Hopkins&oldid=564987519.
27. “Wikipedia:Articles for deletion/John Christian Hopkins,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Wikipedia:Articles_for_deletion/John_Christian_Hopkins&oldid=552213787. I did weigh in during this debate; in a departure from usual Wikipedia practice I chose not to remain anonymous, so I was up front about my role. The site’s discussion system is actually not an easy one to game, despite the publicity lavished on cases like Sarah Palin’s Tea Party supporters. And it can work surprisingly well: see, for instance, the talk page for the #tooFEW event, where editors who complained about a “special interest group intent on using Wikipedia to spread propaganda” and the “unreliability” of the “whole feminism movement” were quickly overruled by the community. In the interest of full disclosure I should add that, having “met” Vizjim through Wikipedia’s talk pages, I have since begun to collaborate with him on another essay about Native American literature on the site.
28. “Trace DeMeyer,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Trace_DeMeyer&oldid=562418785.
29. A respectable introduction to Idle No More can be found, indeed, on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idle_No_More. The New York Times did include a powerful op-ed on VAWA by Ojibwe novelist Louise Erdrich: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/opinion/native-americans-and-the-violence-against-women-act.html?_r=0.
30. Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2009); Louise Erdrich, The Round House (New York, NY: Harper, 2012). Craig S Womack, Drowning in Fire (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001); Mihku Paul, 20th Century Powwow Playland (Greenfield Center, N.Y.: Bowman Books, 2012); Joan Tavares Avant, People of the First Light: Wisdoms of a Mashpee Wampanoag Elder (West Barnstable, MA: West Barnstable Press, 2010).
31. See especially the essay, “The American Indian Fiction Writers: Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, the Third World, and First Nation Sovereignty” in Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays: A Tribal Voice (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), 78-98.
32. Some of these writers, covered by our class, include “Joan Tavares Avant,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joan_Tavares_Avant&oldid=554359537; “Linda Coombs,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Linda_Coombs&oldid=554559711; “Loren Spears,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Loren_Spears&oldid=561285183; “Stephanie Fielding,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Stephanie_Fielding&oldid=567070076; “Donna Caruso,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Donna_Caruso&oldid=554839719; “Donna M. Loring,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Donna_M._Loring&oldid=559588552; “Charles Norman Shay,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Charles_Norman_Shay&oldid=560376795; “Mihku Paul,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mihku_Paul&oldid=564203851; “Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Melissa_Tantaquidgeon_Zobel&oldid=554555368 and “Larry Spotted Crow Mann,” http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Larry_Spotted_Crow_Mann&oldid=565962268.
33. Senier, "Indigenizing Wikipedia," in Web Writing (Open peer review edition, Fall 2013), http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/communities/senier-2013/.