While I am used to seeing assignments titled “Short Essay” or “Midterm Exam,” an assignment labeled “Wikipedia Article” stood out as I scrolled through the syllabus for Government 216, Politics in Latin America. Taught by Assistant Professor of Government Heather Sullivan, the course covers the political history and current politics of Latin American countries, along with themes such as gender and race. Yet, what we learn in this course will extend beyond the classroom and college.
Working in groups of four, our class’ largest assignment for the semester is to find and revise a Wikipedia article covering Latin America. Each group chooses a different topic and corresponding article to revise. Anything from the 1952 Cuban coup d’état to Brazil’s affirmative action policies to the history of feminism in Latin America is fair game.
I initially considered Wikipedia a completely unreliable source of information, but after learning more about the Wikipedia editing process, I realized the online tool is much more than just a compilation of anonymous sources’ thoughts. As part of the assignment, we must complete training modules that instruct us on what kinds of sources to use, how to cite them properly, and how to engage in the editing process with other Wikipedia users. I had no idea, for example, that Wikipedia users have their articles and edits proofread by fellow users.
Professor Sullivan’s area of expertise is Latin America, where she has spent time living and researching in a number of countries including Costa Rica, Honduras, and Mexico. Beyond her own interest in the region, she enjoys exposing the rich and complex history of the region to students. “A lot of students don’t end up having much exposure to the region in their history or politics class in high school,” she explained. “It’s a different part of the world that has a really interesting history and politics, so I sort of want to bring the region alive to students.”
After getting the idea for the Wikipedia assignment from a colleague, Sullivan knew she had to include it in her course. “I talked to a colleague in the Netherlands about the project and it sounded really interesting so I looked into it on my own,” she said. “What I noticed as I was looking at Wikipedia in more detail was that the Latin American coverage was pretty spotty. I think this is a really cool project because it’s a form of public scholarship, so we get to take our intellectual work from the classroom and share it with others. [Students] get the opportunity to not only learn more about Latin America [themselves], but also touch how other people see the region.”
This year is Sullivan’s second time running the Wikipedia assignment, after students appreciated making a positive, tangible contribution to the public’s knowledge of Latin America. “Students loved being able to see how many people read the article after they made edits. Many talked about how usually, when [they] write a paper, nobody else sees it, but on Wikipedia, all these other people got to look at [their] work,” Sullivan explained.
At this point, my group and I are finishing up our training modules and finalizing our topic. Later in the semester, we will collaborate on editing our article. While the thought of potentially thousands of people reading my work is both nerve-wracking and exciting, my group and I are ready for the challenge.
Latin American Studies
Latin American studies is offered as a minor at Hamilton. It provides an intense exploration of the history, culture, and politics of Latin America — the more than 40 nations and independent states that stretch from Mexico and the Caribbean in the north to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of the Americas.