Digital Tools for Teaching Early Medicine to a New Generation: Part 2

At the 2019 AAHM annual meeting in Columbus, OH, Emily Clark, Kathleen Crowther, Elaine Leong, and Lisa Smith convened a lunchtime panel to talk about using new digital tools to teach undergraduates early medicine. This post, the second in a series of four, will cover one of the methods discussed.

Teaching with Wikipedia

Kathleen Crowther

For the past several years, I have asked students in my history of medicine and history of science classes at the University of Oklahoma to expand or create Wikipedia articles. I see three pedagogical advantages to these assignments. First, learning to edit Wikipedia familiarizes students with the advantages as well as the disadvantages of Wikipedia as a source of information. Because Wikipedia is now and for the foreseeable future the most widely used source of information in the world, I want all of my students to learn to be careful and critical users. Second, I have found that working with Wikipedia sharpens students’ understanding of historical research. Wikipedia requires that historical articles be based on secondary sources. It is explicitly not a venue for original research using primary sources. Further, Wikipedia insists on a “neutral” point of view, which means authors must represent all arguments from secondary literature without making any judgment on the merits of these arguments. These are exactly the opposite of the directions we give students when we ask them to write research papers, but somewhat paradoxically, I find that asking students to write according to Wikipedia’s guidelines makes them more keenly aware of how those guidelines differ from the way historians typically write. In fact, writing Wikipedia articles can often combine nicely with a more traditional research paper. Students can discuss the historiography on a particular subject in a Wikipedia article, and then make their own intervention in that historiography in a research paper that utilizes both primary and secondary sources. Third, one of the most serious pitfalls of Wikipedia as a source of information is its well-documented gender bias. Women from all time periods, including the present, are underrepresented, but the farther back in time one goes, the fewer women have Wikipedia articles, or even mentions within articles. For those of us who work on early modern medicine, where women were a significant presence in medical practice, this deficit is particularly acute. Seeing this bias certainly contributes to making students critical readers of Wikipedia. But asking them to write articles on underrepresented figures or topics in the history of medicine gives them the chance to make Wikipedia better for future users.

Practically, Wiki Education makes incorporating Wikipedia assignments into classes very easy for instructors, even those (like myself) who have no prior experience editing Wikipedia. When you set up your course through Wiki Education, you and your students have access to a set of training modules that guide you through the steps of writing and editing Wikipedia pages, as well as clearly articulating Wikipedia’s policies on acceptable sources and neutrality. You are also assigned two technical support people who, in my experience, respond very promptly to both student and instructor queries.

I have blogged about teaching with Wikipedia in my Women and Medicine class.

Kathleen Crowther is an associate professor in the Department of the History of Science and an affiliate faculty member in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma.  Her research interests are in the areas of early modern science and medicine, the history of the book and the history of the body.  She teaches undergraduate survey courses on the history of medicine and the history of science, as well as courses on women and medicine, public health and the scientific revolution.  She teaches both on-line and face-to-face classes.  She blogs at Before Newton and tweets as @Sacrobosco2013.

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