Literature Professor Makes Wikipedia Required Writing

The Edith Wharton Wikipedia article when viewed on an iPhone on October 1, 2018. The words “page issues” under the title is a link to a message that states, “This article needs additional citations for verification.”

“Let’s be honest. We all use Wikipedia,” said Shealeen Meaney, Ph.D., associate professor of English & Modern Languages. “Even those of us who tell students repeatedly that ‘Wikipedia is not an appropriate source for your paper’ will usually admit that it makes a good starting place when a topic is new. Since we all use it, we all have responsibility for making it better.”

By “better,” Meaney means accurate, sourced and comprehensive. She uses the Wikipedia article on writer Edith Wharton as an example. According to Wikipedia’s pageviews analysis tool, was viewed an average of 762 times every day in August 2018 – yet, as of this writing, the entry, when viewed on a desktop computer, also bears a box at the top that states, “This article needs additional citations for verification.” Some Wharton works do not have Wikipedia entries at all.

“People look this up more than 700 times a day,” said Meaney, “and it is incomplete. Imagine the audience!”

Meaney became interested in using Wikipedia in her classroom after a conference session a few years ago. In spring 2017, she asked her American Literature students to research a story by a 19th century woman, or the author herself, and add to the relevant Wikipedia page. “Students were incensed at incomplete or wrong information they found,” said Meaney. “They cared about what they read for class, they were invested in what they learned, and didn’t like the way Wikipedia was educating readers about women writers.” At the end of the semester, several students expressed satisfaction that their coursework had a public audience.

Her American Literature students’ reactions inspired Meaney to continue to use Wikipedia as a teaching tool, and this year, she was named a National Women’s Studies Association Wiki Fellow. The fellowship is part of a partnership between several academic societies and the nonprofit Wiki Education, to improve content and diversify the voices on the online, crowd-sourced encyclopedia. Meaney participated in an intensive professional development course with higher education colleagues around the country to learn more about how to contribute her expertise to Wikipedia and how to involve her students.

This fall, Meaney and her students will directly address the content gaps in Wikipedia’s Edith Wharton coverage. Instead of a traditional final essay, students in her Edith Wharton class are required to substantially revise and add to relevant Wikipedia entries. Meaney compares the assignment to a literature review, which is the standard final paper in a lot of undergraduate courses. “I am asking students to sift through what’s been written about a topic, and make quality judgements about what is important to include. I expect them to develop a writer’s voice, and make that voice heard,” she said, adding, “Where else would an undergrad research project be used on a daily basis? I want students to feel like they are doing work that matters, that they have an audience and that they have the skills and knowledge already that can be put to use.”