Education/Newsletter/June 2016/Luz María Silva's students and their adventure editing Spanish Wikipedia

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Luz María Silva's students and their adventure editing Spanish Wikipedia

Luz María Silva in 2015

Text by ProtoplasmaKid; Translation by Andycyca

Snippet: Luz María Silva’s students wrote high quality Wikipedia articles about uncovered topics in the history of Mexico

By herself, Luz María Silva is an admirable person. She’s a researcher and author of several reference books. She is a professor at Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), a well-known private educational institution based in Mexico City. She is also an editor on the Spanish Wikipedia.

During the first semester of 2016, in her History of Mexico class for freshmen of undergraduate studies, she integrated the writing of Wikipedia articles as part of her teaching activities — as she has done for the past three years.

Wikimedia Mexico supports Luz María in this process in which she applies her extensive foundation of several decades as a researcher and author of reference materials. Over several weeks, she makes a thorough review of articles produced in her classroom, asking students for valid and top-quality references.

We talked with Luz Maria about her activity with Wikipedia in the classroom and this is her story.

WMMX: Which subjects did your students edit about this semester?

Luz María: There were several subjects. For the sixth semester in a row, I invited my students to write articles on Wikipedia as a way of midterm evaluation. Participation is optional; those who prefer to take a traditional test can have one. But I know that more and more students take Socio-Political History of Mexico with me precisely because they like the idea of writing for Wikipedia, even if not everyone ends up actually doing it.

The requirements are first and foremost to abide by all Wikipedia rules and policies; to edit about Mexico between the pre-Columbian era up to the Porfirian era because that’s the period covered in my class. The first challenge for students is to pick a specific theme of their liking. I don’t assign subjects, as it would defeat the purpose.

In general, I prefer for them to write an article from scratch, not to translate because doing so prevents the students from facing the actual challenge of a blank page, which is very important in their academic formation. However, I once let a student translate over 40 battles between Mexico and the United States after the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in 1848. The student told me he was more interested in doing that than in starting a new subject because these battles aren’t well known, so it was an interesting change of pace.

Back to the the subjects, my students have so far uploaded 221 articles since 2013 — 40 in this semester alone. The general subjects are:

16 articles are biographies, one of which (“Women in the Independence War (Mexico)”) contains short biographies on several key women and their part across the stages of the war, as it’s a subject recently studied by historians. I like their interest in biographies. Their reasons for writing about this or that person are very diverse, from wanting to learn about a key person in their selected career path to being a distant relative in Mexican history.

There are 6 articles on historical sites, which is the second general subject. These are generally places they are familiar with or, as it happened this semester, a place they went to during the Holy Week break. Some of them took pictures and are particularly proud of uploading them to Commons.

The third subject is services in general. These are 5 articles covering hospitals, electricity, the circus, and entertainment.

There is one topic that has repeated over time: interest in codices. This semester we had 3 articles about them. Almost every semester we’ve had people interested in particular companies, music and museums, we had 2 of each this semester. This semester we had at least one law student interested in writing for Wikipedia and one writing about politics, one about the ixtle plant and one about mathematics in New Spain. It’s a direct reflection of their desired careers and studies, as my aim is to familiarize them with Mexican History and stop it from becoming a distant subject.

WMMX: What are your main observations?

Luz María: I am very lucky to work with people as smart as my students. They are young and committed to their work, and as they frequently use Wikipedia they find fascinating to contribute to a familiar source, something that many of them had never considered possible before. I hope that, little by little, their conviction will lead them to become active Wikipedians.

Of course, I’m very grateful for all the help and orientation Wikimedia Mexico has given me. Sometimes, there’s an incident that makes you and your work feel exposed to the opinion of strangers that may disappear for weeks at a time after judging you, although this is not as common anymore. However, when it does happen it’s quite frustrating, even if my students get a satisfactory mark on their record. There’s a real pain to see an article erased without further explanations. I think that article erasure is a delicate matter and it should have a clearer procedure, except of course in cases of plagiarism.

This semester we faced a challenge that WMMX helped a lot with: an article about a museum. The author, as some people do, “embedded” paragraphs from two sources and thought that just citing them as references was enough. Thanks to your help and the help of a wonderful sysop, she learned how to attribute properly in research, which is knowledge that will be with her for the rest of her life and ultimately helped her article stay online. It was a very happy ending to that story.

WMMX: What would you suggest to improve the experience of Wikipedia usage in a classroom.

Luz María: We really don’t do much more with Wikipedia in our classroom as we have our own lecture schedule to meet and have little time for anything else. Writing for Wikipedia is a personal matter, done optionally, and I act as a sort of help. My students usually send me their work before uploading it, but that’s not always the case.

What I did realize is that the older friends of my students, those who were in my class in previous years, are the ones who tend to guide them the most. When I attended the Museo Soumaya Editathon, I had the pleasure of working along with Carmen Alcázar and other Wikipedians, but that’s the only time I’ve worked in a group directly with Wikimedia Mexico.

WMMX: How many students participated this semester?

Luz María: 40 total — 21 in one group and 19 in the other. There were actually more students interested in writing, but time was not on our side and they couldn’t devote enough time to it. I think that ultimately they will all benefit from these kind of activities as it teaches students to state questions, to write objectively, mostly because I’ve come to learn from my foreign friends that we Mexicans like to write essays. I think that’s true and learning to write an article will develop analytical skills, problem solving and to face a blank page to write without judgment. I like that everyone does it, even if they don’t directly write on Wikipedia, and I like that those who do, do it out of their will because they end up working and learning more than with a traditional test.

I have learned so much about Mexican history through helping my students with their Wikipedian adventures. They often choose topics and find new angles on things that we all might take for granted.

Read more about the Wikipedia Education Program at ITAM in Mexico here.