Academic Skills, Research, teaching

New Assignment Alert: Wikipedia Historiography Paper

Image representing Wikipedia as depicted in Cr...

This trimester I’m teaching a senior elective entitled, “Slavery in the Atlantic World.” We’re using a class blog extensively to conduct a discussion prior to meeting in person to them follow up on the readings. In designing the course, I drew extensively (and with great gratitude) from Ben Wright at Rice University, who generously offered lots of advice and ideas about how to structure and conduct this type of course (which he ran in the Spring of 2013) effectively.

One of these cribbed ideas was a “Wikipedia Historiography Paper” assignment that asked students to do the following:

Using the “View History” function of Wikipedia, students will write an 800–1000 word historiography of a Wikipedia page relevant to their subtopic. We will spend time in class discussing how to think about and trace the historiography of a topic, what to look for within this “View History” page, and collaboratively decide how this assignment should be evaluated.

In asking Ben about this assignment, he explained that he didn’t have a formal instruction sheet as his class spent a lot of time discussing it face-to-face before they embarked on the research and writing process. As I noted to my students in my follow-up post about this assignment, however, our meeting constraints don’t allow for this type of extended discussion, so instead I wrote up an assignment sheet that I hope will be of use.

So, below the line I’ve reproduced my post to my students. I’m passing it along here to get any feedback, suggestions, reactions, etc. that people may have so I can refine it for future classes (or improve it for this current one).


As a reminder, historiography is essentially the study of how writing history changes over time. As historians develop and embrace new approaches, encounter new sources, and perceive the world in new ways given their present circumstances, the way they analyze the causes of past events change significantly. Wikipedia (what a shocking source to draw on here, I know!) has a nice encapsulation of how these changes have been seen in the historical profession in the past 40 or so years:

So, in order to assess these types of interpretive changes for a Wikipedia page, here’s a list of questions to consider as you read through the “View History” tab of your selected topic.

  • Who created the page and when? Who are the major contributors?
    • What can you find out about these people and their educational or professional backgrounds
    • What other pages or types of edits have they made on Wikipedia? Do they seem to have an academic or topical specialty? Do they tend to make particular types of edits on all the Wikipedia pages to which they contribute?
    • What sources do these editors cite? What can you tell about the quality of their research and the sources on which they draw?
  • What are the major sources of disagreement about the page? Where do the Wikipedia contributors seem to go back-and-forth the most?
  • What images have users added to the page and how do these contribute to its usefulness and/or the argument that it conveys?
In terms of then structuring your paper after you’ve done a close and thorough reading of the “View History” tab, you might consider the following framework (though it is not set in stone):
  • Intro ¶
    • Brief overview of topic and its origin on Wikipedia
    • Structural thesis statement (e.g. clear argumentative claim and a roadmap/blueprint for your body paragraphs) establishing the most significantareas of interpretive controversy or debate AND/OR the most significantcontributions to the page.
  • Body ¶s
    • Elaborate on each of the points from your thesis and provide evidence from the page about the interpretive debates AND/OR contributions.
  • Conclusion ¶
    • Evaluation of the page’s value/trustworthiness as an introductory source on this topic.
      AND
    • A consideration of how the page’s transformation fits into some of the major trends about historical interpretations and arguments about transatlantic slavery that we’ve read about thus far in class.
NOTE: Please use footnotes in your paper. If you’d like to use full Chicago Style citations for all URLs you may, but you can also just footnote the URL by itself.
I hope this set of questions and potential structure prove useful in guiding your research and helping you organize the evidence you encounter. Please post any questions you have in the comments so that your peers, who may have the same concerns, can also see my response or provide feedback and guidance of their own.

And for good measure, I’ll include my favorite historiography-related cartoon below (because there are sooooooo many to choose from):

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