With guidance from a Wikipedian-in-residence — the first at a U.S. college or university — scores of Berkeley undergraduates will soon be publishing their academic work on one of the world’s most widely read websites.

An aficionado of the free, collaboratively edited online encyclopedia, Kevin Gorman, 24, has been hired by the campus’s American Cultures program to facilitate Wikipedia-based research and writing assignments.

Kevin Gorman

Wikipedian-in-Residence Kevin Gorman

Until now, Wikipedians-in-residence have been assigned to cultural institutions, more than 50 in all, such as the British Museum, the Gerald Ford Presidential Library and the U.S. National Archives.

A hardcore Wikipedian since his undergrad days at Berkeley, Gorman was a natural candidate to bring the role to academia. By the time he graduated last year, he had edited scores of Wikipedia articles — on personal interests ranging from mushrooms to men’s rights — and had helped to design and facilitate a Wikipedia-based assignment for a Berkeley course on prisons.

According to Gorman, the combined page views for the articles they produced for Wikipedia (see, for instance, their entry for the Latina activist group Mothers of East Los Angeles ) have been in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions.

Many students initially resist Wikipedia project, he says, because they don’t want their work subjected to public view. But once they realize the potential impact of their efforts, “they start to get excited. They go from ‘you can’t make me’ to enthusiastic participants.”

From food deserts to urban ag

One of the first Berkeley instructors to tap the expertise of the new Wikipedian-in-residence is Associate Professor Dara O’Rourke, whose popular course on environmental justice combines classroom instruction with “engaged scholarship” through collaboration with non-profit organizations.

“I’m not interested in students writing term papers that only I and the graduate-student instructor read,” O’Rourke says. “That’s not utilizing students’ potential to the fullest.”

This semester, he offered students a choice for the community-service component of the course. They could collaborate directly with local groups focused on environmental justice-related issues, or they could work in teams to improve Wikipedia content on some of those same topics.

“You can imagine building a Wikipedia page [on each topic] that is really comprehensive,” says O’Rourke.” It’s compelling that the site gets 550 million unique visitors per month.”

Many students apparently think so, too. About 90 opted to do wiki projects, and are now busy tracking down and synthesizing previously published information on environmental-justice issues — food deserts, climate resilience, urban agriculture in Oakland and reform of the federal Toxic Substances Control Act among them.

High-quality secondary research

Wikipedia, the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” does not accept original research. Instead, an army of volunteer editors, working in more than 200 languages, summarizes what’s been published elsewhere and provides hyperlinks to those sources. Wikipedia editors are expected to use neutral language and cite information from a range of perspectives.

Students are drawn to this model, says lecturer and American Cultures coordinator Victoria Robinson, who worked with Gorman for her ethnic-studies course on the prison system and hired him for his new position. It appealed to students, she says, “that their work was not ‘opinion based’ and that it contributed new public information that could be viewed as reliable.”

Creating a high-quality Wikipedia entry, however, is not as simple as it might seem. Recently, campus librarian Corliss Lee was a guest speaker in O’Rourke’s class. Her message to undergrads seated in a large lecture hall: There’s a lot of human knowledge that can’t be found via a Google search, and the campus library offers rich databases and peer-reviewed publications you can mine.

Students doing WIkipedia projects are encouraged to look for sources in academic journals, Gorman says. One fundamental mission of UC is to enhance public access to knowledge. When you share knowledge that’s behind a paywall, you’re serving that core mission, he believes.

A Wikipedian’s mission

In the spirit of knowledge sharing, Gorman, in his new role, intends to write guidelines on designing and implementing Wikipedia-based class assignments, and post these how-to’s online for instructors everywhere to use.

Systemic bias is another of his concerns — the fact that about 90 percent of Wikipedia editors are male, 80 percent are white (as extrapolated from survey results) and the lion’s share hail from developed nations.

“Providing content not yet found on Wikipedia, in areas that suffer due to our systemic biases, is vital work” to be done at this time, he writes on the site and tells students in a slide-illustrated talk.

O’Rourke says his students could help improve these lopsided stats. “Berkeley students are a unique and select group themselves,” he notes. But measured by racial and ethnic diversity, “our classroom is not similar to the Wikipedia high-contributor category. This is an experiment — to contribute to Wikipedia in a way that strengthens its content.”

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