December Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 9

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Using Wikipedia in Sociology Courses: the Faculty Perspective

Darcie Vandegrift, Drake University, and Natalie Jolly, University of Washington-Tacoma

In September/October’s Footnotes, an article showcased the progress the ASA Wikipedia Initiative has made in its three years. What do these intentions to improve sociology coverage on Wikipedia and student learning in our courses look like on the ground? As faculty using Wikipedia as a pedagogical tool in our courses, we have found the initiative useful to teach important sociological concepts as well as to enhance student skills around writing for an audience, information literacy, and research project organization. Our courses—Jolly’s “Sociology of Gender”(an upper-division course with 40 students) and Vandegrift’s “Global Youth Studies”(an upper-division seminar with 20 students)—have engaged students as Wikipedia editors as a central part of each class. We collaborate closely with supportive initiatives from the Wiki Education Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing students’ contributions to Wikipedia and other Wikimedia projects and developing concerned Wikipedia editors.

Inequality permeates the social organization of knowledge production. The Internet is no exception. In teaching about social disparity in our courses on gender (Jolly) and youth (Vandegrift), students inquire about, but also address, bias on the world’s most popular website. Nearly 90 percent of the site’s editors are men.1 Anglophone, Global North, and predominantly Christian countries are vastly overrepresented.2 The resulting information inequalities are striking, with more Wikipedia articles written about Tolkien’s Middle Earth than many countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia.3

Systemic bias—the term used in Wikipedia to describe how bias and structure merge to create unequal presentation of topics and interests—provides a rich terrain for student exploration and contribution.

In our courses, students contribute to Wikipedia as editors. Each is assigned or selects a course-relevant topic and corresponding Wikipedia page to research, discuss, and eventually edit. Gender course editors tackled articles ranging from “Colorism” to “Compulsory Heterosexuality” to the “Normative Feminine Beauty Ideal.”  In Vandegrift’s course, student contributions included edits to “Juvenile Delinquency,” “Youth Activism,” and “Yo Soy 132.” Alternatively, student editors could propose a new article topic for consideration. A former cheerleader suggested adding a gendered critique to Wikipedia’s “Cheerleading” page. A student passionate about reproductive rights chose “youth sexual health.” Prominent women are underrepresented in Wikipedia articles, prompting another student (clearly a budding sociologist) to create a new page showcasing Barbara Risman’s work.

An Unbiased Self

We believe Wikipedia assignments illuminate many sociological concepts as well as practical life skills for students. The presentation of self becomes important as students encounter Wikipedia as an online community. They learn the social norms surrounding disagreements among editors. Wikipedia article standards require “unbiased” presentation of information rather than argumentation, requiring consideration of tone and audience. Questions of knowledge production arise in an online collaborative environment as well as how power inequalities are masked in rhetorics of neutrality and community standards. For example, the standard that an article must be “notable” often discounts knowledge about and by young people as Global Youth Studies students found in some of the comments they received from Wikipedia volunteer editors.

Students’ academic abilities develop through work on Wikipedia. They gain familiarity with Wikipedia (creating a profile, performing minor edits on existing pages, using the talk page, and developing new content in the sandbox). Key information literacy skills emerge from doing related bibliographic research. Students with weak research or poor writing skills see their edits immediately and unceremoniously taken down—a more salient commentary on their work than any a professor could offer. Other students’ work is publically commended; a Global Youth Studies student’s new article was featured on Wikipedia’s Main Page in the “Did You Know” section for several hours. Students reported returning to their page well after the course ended to see what remained. Risman personally thanked the student who created her Wikipedia page.

Despite the pride students feel in being published on a well-known platform, some students find the assignment daunting. Some remain skeptical throughout the term. A few students dislike Wikipedia coding procedures, and working within the Wikipedia universe requires instructors to be well-versed in the protocol of the site. To help with these challenges, Wikipedia Ambassadors provide strong support. Online tutorials offer crucial guidance. These resources come through by participating in the Wiki Education Foundation’s program. Vandegrift enjoys a great collaborative relationship with an expert editor, Gobonobo,4 who diverts her attention from her own feminist editing projects to closely mentor other Drake students. Drake Library faculty have embraced the project because of its potential to enhance students’ abilities to locate and recognize scholarly materials. Wikipedia enables our students to participate in the production of knowledge, and it offers a new spin on the conventional research project: the ability for students to see the impact of their research in real-time.

For those interested in teaching with Wikipedia, reach out to the Wiki Education Foundation at or see next month’s Footnotes with more information about how to use Wikipedia in your class.

Natalie Jolly is an Assistant Professor at University of Washington-Tacoma. She teaches courses on gender, sociology, and popular culture and conducts qualitative research on the sociology of reproduction.Darcie Vandegrift is an Associate Professor at Drake University, teaching courses on youth, globalization, race/ethnicity and qualitative inquiry. She researches youth political consciousness in Latin America and multiculturalism and internationalization in U.S. higher education.



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