When the World Helps Teach Your Class: Using Wikipedia to Teach Controversial Issues
by Mark K. Cassell, Kent State University
It’s a problem nearly everyone who teaches political science confronts at one time or another: how to effectively teach a controversial topic. Topics like same-sex marriage or gun control are charged with emotion. Students arrive with entrenched beliefs that undermine efforts to foster critical thinking skills. It was a challenge I faced when I put together an upper-division course on the politics of inequality: creating a space where students felt comfortable critically examining the political causes and consequences of inequality without things degenerating into a brawl.
The solution: require students to draft and publish a Wikipedia article.
Although the online encyclopedia is often shunned by faculty, the Wikipedia assignment made discussions and learning about inequality easier. The assignment reduced anxieties often caused by class peer relations. It provided a vehicle to challenge traditional student-instructor power relations that often get in the way of learning. And finally, Wikipedia’s rigid structure and format often forced students to confront the assumptions that create our perceptions of what is normal and what is the other.
In short, the article reports on how a Wikipedia assignment can overcome common challenges to teaching controversial topics.