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?”
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)
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