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A class assignment on Islamic art and architecture in Austin changed history

December 14 , 2018

Photo: AFP

An associate professor of Islamic art and architecture at the University of Texas at Austin decided one day to scrap the usual research paper assignment for her students and told them to instead collaborate to rewrite Wikipedia articles. This exercise has changed history. 

Dr Stephennie Mulder is a specialist in Islamic art, architectural history and archaeology. Her research interests include the art and architecture of Shi’ism, the intersections between art, spatiality and sectarian relationships in Islam. She wanted historical pages on Wikipedia corrected because the website is now the world’s most frequently-consulted source of information and fifth-most visited website.

Over this period of exercise, she realised that 90% of Wikipedia articles are written by men — largely by men from Euro-American contexts.

Not only did Dr Mulder make her students realise the importance of this exercise, she also partnered with a museum and other Islamic art classes.

With almost 50 students enrolled in the class, she made the assignment collaborative and divided the class into 15 groups of three to four students. The students had three weeks to research and three to write. They also had to complete a training module/week on WikiEducation.

The assignment asks the students to imagine they’re hired as consultants for a major museum to improve the public’s knowledge on Islamic art before an exhibition. Their task was to assess an article for the quality of its sources and content and then research, write and improve it. The students researched the information at libraries and on Google.

Throughout the assignment there were challenges, such as some topics having few sources, the challenge of learning to write in a neutral, unbiased style and some students edits being reverted back by another editor, for which talks with the Wikipedia editor are taking place.

In the end, these smart students contributed 15 better-sourced and better-written articles to the most frequently-consulted body of knowledge in the world. A class assignment shaped global knowledge and played a role in redressing imbalances that shape the way we see the world.

 


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