October update

October has been an opportunity to reflect primarily through preparing, presenting, and getting feedback at the WikiConference USA. I also sought to deepen relationships with participants.

At WikiConference USA I shared the motivation for the project, the successes so far, and three explicit lessons learned. Then, based on these reflections, I laid out how the project will move forward. Here’s a pdf slideshow of the presentation. I’ll describe in more detail the three lessons below:

1. The first lesson has been, in reflection, the importance of scaffolding a gap finding project brainstorming session conducted with academic experts on feminism. Scaffolding means laying out what sorts of interventions will and won’t be attended to in the course of the project. Scaffolding also entails situating the project within the context of other activist and feminist projects on and about Wikipedia. While I had done this sort of scaffolding in private conversations and emails with each of the participants, the actual brainstorming session was action focused — devoted to discussing the protocol and to doing “gap finding.”

Yet because the limits of the gap finding project were not explicitly laid out during our brainstorming session, as I reflected on the session, I realized that the list we came up with was broad and didn’t include as many references as it could to be useful to an undergraduate class. In fact, this was precisely because we devoted time discussing and debating the difficulties in addressing what we called the “bestiary of gaps.”

This is why I’d recommend naming, and scaffolding these many gaps – or difficulties – for a distributed editing activist project. Additionally, it’s important to explicit differentiating the twin goals of developing a feminist protocol from critiquing feminism-focused content. Gap finding project focuses on both, foregrounding the latter, but each requires a different sort of labor. Laying out how these are goals are intertwined is crucial to success, particularly when working with non-Wikipedians who may find the process of editing rather daunting, and thus make it difficult to know how they can intervene – what can even be intervened with? What can be solved by this project? What problems won’t be solved in the course of the project?

After making this reflection and recommendation at WikiConference, I reached out to the participants to augment the work they did at the session with a deep dive into a particular page. Rather than trying to – and falling short – to collect many, many pages that could be addressed by future editors, I decided to ask each participant to conduct a close reading of an existing page or theme on Wikipedia. As a result, I highly recommend starting a brainstorming session with a clearly scoped out goal for the session, and specifically invite experts do a close reading of one page, rather than keeping the process broad and iterative. I’m writing a learning pattern about this recommendation.

2. The second lesson is simply naming the fact that academics are often overworked and over-committed. This is doubly true for young academics, such as graduate students, instructors, or adjuncts, who may be working in precarious positions in addition to seeking to graduate and get a job in a very competitive academic market. It’s crucial to layout expectations clearly!

For my project, writing up a Letter of Engagement was my way of setting expectations. However, even when doing this (and particularly after the conference in late October when I reached out to each to discuss a ‘change of course’ and invite them to do a deep reading), assuring continuing participation was a challenge. Thus, it’s critical to name that engaging with academics, including young academics, is not a neutral process. Yes, many may view Wikipedia editing and critique as an activist project that allows them to be involved in the creation, and improvement, of a publicly available online encyclopedia. At the same time, there’s not an institutionalized way for participants to generally benefit from their contributions. Both graduate and tenure processes privilege publications over community service, the latter which is often defined as organizational or committee work to their home department or their professional academic organizations. I address this as well in the Learning Pattern about doing a deep reading.

3. Finally, at the conference I began to describe how to make a match between a brainstorming session and a class – what to expect and what not to expect. The presentation described what had worked so far. As the relationship develops over the remainder of the quarter, I can speak more to what works in this.

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