Students rewrite feminist history on Wikipedia

Alana Cattapan

Although students are usually told to steer clear of Wikipedia that was not the case for those in last term’s seminar course, The Politics of the Canadian Women’s Movement. Instead, the students were charged with rewriting feminist history in the free online encyclopedia.

Undergraduate students in the fourth-year political science and women’s studies seminar were asked to think about gaps in existing Wikipedia articles on Canadian feminist history, conduct research and generate new content to improve the information.

Alana Cattapan“Wikipedia is so often dismissed as a non-academic resource, but so many people use it as a way to get familiar with a topic quickly,” says course director Alana Cattapan of York’s Department of Political Science in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

Alana Cattapan

The same was true for Cattapan’s students. Reading the entries on Canadian feminism gave them a “good understanding of the conventional history of Canadian feminism” and allowed them to see was typically included as part of the history of the women’s movement. In addition, it challenged their thinking and forced them to consider whether the entry was comprehensive or lacking.

“This project gave my students a way to academically engage with the process of building Wikipedia and to see its strengths and weaknesses as a ‘legitimate’ source. They not only reorganized and added to existing articles, but also contributed new articles on important events and organizations,” says Cattapan.

Most of the students contributed to the article, “Feminism in Canada,” but some also worked on articles on the Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund and Women in Canadian Politics, as well as developing new articles on the Abortion Caravan and the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.

After conducting research for the project, students handed in their work, identifying their most important contributions. Cattapan then compiled their work, and brought it back to the class for further input and editing. The results were then uploaded, and the revised articles are now available on Wikipedia.

“The contributions of the students really expanded the article, which was and still is the first ‘hit’ when you do a combined search for the words ‘feminism’ and ‘Canada’ online,” she says.

But there was another goal of the coursework using Wikipedia in an unconventional way. “I wanted them to work collaboratively on something that would connect students to the world beyond the classroom,” says Cattapan. “I thought that helping them publish the results of their research on Wikipedia would be one way to do so and to connect fellow students to communities that might be interested in their research.”