Not only had Karl Wahlen never edited Wikipedia prior to September 2011, he didn’t even know he could. That all changed when Karl enrolled in a University of Pittsburgh class called Sociology of Marriage, taught by Wikipedian Piotr Konieczny, a graduate student and a Teaching Fellow from Department of Sociology, and the Pittsburgh native found himself having to write a Wikipedia article as part of his coursework.
“When I learned on the first day that that I was going to be doing a Wikipedia project, I was rather confused,” Karl admits. “Honestly, when I first thought about it, I wondered how you worked on it, as I did not know at that point that you could even have an account on wikipedia, much less how it worked or how you used it.”
Karl’s a busy student. He’s majoring in psychology, sociology, BPhil (BPhil is an honors degree where he does the equivalent of a master’s thesis in his undergraduate years), and biology, while also getting a certificate in the conceptual foundations of medicine, and a minor in economics and chemistry. His multidisciplinary interests led Karl to want to work on the article on Joint custody in the United States, which had elements of psychology and sociology. The article had languished for years without many sources or without being particularly well-written (you can see the version before Karl and his classmates started working on it here. Karl’s input helped bring the article up to meet the Did you know requirements, which landed the article on Wikipedia’s main page in late November. By early December, the article had passed the Good Article review process as well.
Karl credits help from his professor, Piotr Konieczny, for forcing students to write Wikipedia articles for class. A longtime supporter of the Schools and universities projects on Wikipedia, Piotr is also an Online Ambassador and instructor in the Wikipedia Education Program in the United States. Piotr’s course was the first to participate in the American Sociology Association’s new Wikipedia Initiative.
“Our instructor really helped on every step of the way, especially when showing us how to interact with the community,” Karl says. “You occasionally get people who are not the nicest when they disagree with you, but in general individuals tend to remain respectful with each other, and for the most part all criticism ends up leading to a higher quality article in the end, which is a good thing.”
In fact, the research skills he gained through doing the Wikipedia assignment actually helped him tremendously in another class he’s taking this term on research methods. Learning to cite every sentence and making sure that every claim he made could be backed up to a reliable source for Wikipedia taught him valuable research and writing skills.
“I still maintain that this Wikipedia project made a world of difference in being able to write well,” Karl says. “And unlike a term paper, which is thrown away at the end of the semester, all the work that goes into a Wikipedia article continues to help people even after the class ends. I like knowing that the joint custody (United States) article is being read by 80+ people a day.”
Karl’s research for the Wikipedia assignment led him to want to add more to Wikipedia. He’s already created stub articles on Split custody and Sole custody, which he intends to expand in the near future.
“I will absolutely continue to edit after the class is over,” Karl says. “My instructor was outstanding and it will be a nice way to keep in touch with him. And not only can I do this to keep providing new information to others, but it also looks pretty darned good on a resume to say you spend your free time working on making articles to help people than sitting around watching TV. Thankfully, I enjoy doing this, so it is not like a chore to do.”