Students learn about history as a living, changing thing

One of my favorite responsibilities at Brooklyn College is teaching a two-term course surveying Western theater history (ancient Greece to the present) for aspiring artists and arts administrators. In many ways, this course is a hard sell. Inevitably, a few students believe that this course will not be “useful” to them as actors, directors, designers, dramaturgs, or managers. So, I constantly ask myself, “How can I get my students to feel personally invested in this subject?”

Professor Amy E. Hughes

As an experiment, I recently piloted a Wikipedia-based assignment in my graduate-level theater history course. It was a small pilot, involving five students who created or revised a Wikipedia article related to theater history. I thought they would find this digital project more interesting and practical than a research paper (the customary assignment in my course), and that they might appreciate the opportunity to add to the world’s sum of free knowledge by contributing to Wikipedia.
First, the students learned the mechanics of wiki-editing and the cultural and editorial conventions of Wikipedia. Then, they conducted research—consulting at least ten secondary sources—and sought peer reviews of their written work from online editors as well as their classmates. At the end of the semester, each submitted an e-portfolio documenting his or her work, including a short paper reflecting on the experience overall.
My students discovered that many theater-related Wikipedia articles are far from complete (and sometimes inaccurate) and learned what they could do to change that. They also testified that they appreciated interacting with members of the Wikipedia community. In most classrooms, students only get feedback from the instructor; if they are really lucky, they might also receive comments on their work from a classmate. In contrast, students engaged in a Wikipedia assignment have access to a host of readers, ranging from Online Ambassadors attached to the course (in our case, the amazing Yunshui) to random, anonymous individuals. As the instructor, I, too, felt supported by the concentric circles of community that make Wikipedia the unique resource that it is.
Perhaps most importantly, my students learned a crucial lesson: theater history—indeed, all history—is a living, changing thing. I always push my students to read textbooks and scholarship with a critical eye, because what we tend to call “history” is really historiography—stories about the past written by people. Peer-review processes at publishing houses ensure that the books we read are accurate, well researched, and authoritative; but even the most respected and skilled scholars can get the story wrong. Other scholars must come along, armed with newly discovered insights or evidence, to revise these histories. On Wikipedia, the challenges involved in writing history are fully visible. My students learned that resources like Wikipedia are only as good as the careful, thoughtful contributions that people choose to make.
Amy E. Hughes, Assistant Professor of Theater History and Criticism, Brooklyn College (CUNY)

Archive notice: This is an archived post from blog.wikimedia.org, which operated under different editorial and content guidelines than Diff.

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I fine it interesting to be reading about about theater and history, considering that acting out lifes important events has been around long before written history, whether cave drawings or script. So I fined you are in the same boat with theater history as normal history for the 21 century. Incomplete or Nonexistence. It has more to with Political History than Real History or the Revisionist. So trying to get GOOD written Resources for theater is going to be hard to fine, considering how long it has been around. So Good Luck at that. John Kulak P.S. Think of it… Read more »

good

I think that assignment looks great. It balances the making of wiki entries with editing. As a Writing Fellow at CUNY, I piloted a program in a cognitive psych class for students to write a wiki instead of a research paper. There, the reception was mixed. Their wiki assignment was basically a 1:1 correspondence from paper to wiki (i.e. it was a research paper done in wiki form). Yours certainly is a more productive way to take in the medium of a wiki as a whole. The one question I have is about the long-term application. What type of topics… Read more »

Good question, Robert. My sense is that different instructors have different approaches. On my course page (linked in my post above), you can see the list of articles I created for the students to choose from; most of them are stub or starter class, which gives the students more options in terms of planning, research, expansion, etc. I compiled this list by looking at WikiProject Theatre and seeing which articles were considered top, high, or medium priority and also classified as stub or starter. I selected a few dozen articles that touched on subjects we were covering, to a greater… Read more »