Teaching Tiananmen: Using Wikipedia in the Undergraduate Classroom to Learn How to Write about Recent History
Jeremy Brown and Benedicte Melanie Olsen, April 2012
With more than two decades of hindsight, it has become clear that 1989 marked a key turning point in world history. It is now possible to analyze the momentous events of 1989 in a historical fashion, and also to teach history classes about them. In fall 2010, 19 students in an undergraduate history seminar at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia embarked on a group writing project about the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Their original compositions were published at the end of the term as Wikipedia entries, and have already reached an audience of thousands. They are also archived online at the SFU Tiananmen Square Project.1
It used to be controversial for university students to use Wikipedia as a reference. That is no longer the case. After 10 years, many Wikipedia articles on historical topics are more comprehensive and better referenced than their counterparts in other encyclopedias.2 While it used to seem innovative for university students to write original Wikipedia content for classroom assignments, the practice has become increasingly common.3 Students already use and edit Wikipedia all the time. The question, then, is how to use Wikipedia effectively in the history classroom. Our experience suggests that student contributions to Wikipedia are a particularly good match with a seminar focused on a recent, contentious topic like the Tiananmen protests.
Our class approached Tiananmen Square from multiple angles. We spent part of the first two class meetings watching The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a documentary about the Beijing student movement of April and May 1989 that ends with the government's violent crackdown on June 3–4. After watching the film, everyone had a basic understanding of the movement's chronology and knew what the student and government leaders looked and sounded like. Over the next four weeks, we focused exclusively on primary sources, including student proclamations and The Tiananmen Papers, a book about Communist Party leaders' internal decisionmaking. After grappling with the biases and inconsistencies in the primary sources, we spent the rest of the term analyzing different interpretations of the Tiananmen protests. These included Denise Chong's Egg on Mao, a nonfiction trade book about the provincial workers who threw paint-filled eggs at Mao Zedong's portrait in May 1989; sociologist Dingxin Zhao's The Power of Tiananmen; and Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, a novel narrated from the perspective of a comatose victim of the military crackdown.
The events of 1989 float in a scholarly limbo familiar to researchers who work on the history of People's Republic of China—they are too recent to have attracted much attention from historians (and still far too politically sensitive in mainland China for scholars to openly collect sources or conduct interviews), but too distant in the past to interest most social scientists. Many journalists and participant-observers who were living in China in 1989 published valuable firsthand accounts of the protests in the early 1990s. Since then, only a handful of scholarly works in English have been published about the Tiananmen protests.
This dearth was more of an asset than an obstacle as our class began working on original Wikipedia contributions. We had to develop our own interpretations of primary sources rather than reading already digested scholarly works. We also had to consider how cinematic, nonfictional, and fictional approaches to the topic helped us to gain a fuller picture of the Tiananmen protests. Most importantly, the relative lack of recent scholarly work about Tiananmen meant that many people interested in the events of 1989 start by reading Wikipedia articles like the main "Tiananmen Protests of 1989" article, which averages more than 75,000 monthly page views, and also by referring to other entries, including biographical articles about the leaders of the student movement.4 In other words, there was room for us to make a real contribution to knowledge about Tiananmen Square by writing new articles and improving existing ones.
Publishing Wikipedia entries online at the end of the term was the final step in a long process. Throughout the semester, students accumulated knowledge about the Tiananmen protests and also skills that would help them communicate this knowledge to the public. Students wrote two primary-source analysis essays and two book reviews, each approximately 800 words long. Every assignment was accompanied by an in-class peer review in which the entire seminar critiqued and suggested how to improve each other's essays. Going through multiple peer reviews pushed us to improve our writing and bring it in line with academic standards. We were taught to write articulately and concisely, and we constantly reminded each other to avoid common traps such as wordiness. Some students admitted that when writing long term papers in previous courses, they had become accustomed to padding their sentences with unnecessary words and jargon. Short essays forced us to be as concise as possible.
These writing exercises were the foundation of our Wikipedia project. Because our peers regularly scrutinized our work throughout the semester, we had more or less unwittingly participated in a miniature forum resembling Wikipedia. Similarly, but on a much larger scale, Wikipedia exposes a contributor's writing to the critique and revision of others. Armed with an understanding of how to clearly convey our knowledge, everyone set out to create or expand a Wikipedia article we thought would provide a more complete understanding of Tiananmen.
Despite our preparation, writing a Wikipedia entry soon proved more difficult than we had first thought. Choosing a topic was relatively easy because many aspects of the Tiananmen Square protests were inadequately covered on Wikipedia, and also because we could write about whatever interested us most. We could focus on an individual like student leader Wang Dan, an important book or newspaper article like The Tiananmen Papers or the People's Daily editorial of April 26, 1989, or a related phenomenon like Vancouver's reaction to the Tiananmen protests. The much more difficult challenge was to adjust our analytical skills to have them comply with Wikipedia's standards of neutrality.5 Rather than pursuing a clear-cut thesis throughout the article as we had in our previous writing assignments, the success of our encyclopedia entry would depend on our ability to communicate as dispassionately as possible. Most of students' previous university assignments had stressed creating an original argument, but Wikipedia articles are supposed to be written from a "neutral point of view." Furthermore, the charged and controversial nature of the Tiananmen protests made it difficult to downplay personal opinions. The peer-review process eased this challenge. Working together freed us from the emotional attachment many of us had to our individually written texts. Ultimately, after multiple revisions, we posted 20 Wikipedia-worthy contributions online, including one by the professor (who authored a new article in order to provide even numbers for in-class peer review).
Publishing a Wikipedia article was for many a first experience in writing for an audience of thousands. Undergraduate assignments often stress the importance of "academic integrity" (usually a fancy way of saying "don't plagiarize"). Writing for Wikipedia went beyond academic integrity, however, and fostered a sense of "academic dignity," meaning the pride and responsibility that comes with adding to public knowledge. Our determination to write successful Wikipedia articles—ones that would be approved and improved by thousands of online peer reviewers—meant that we cared deeply about our articles and how they were received. Unlike submitting term papers to a professor at the end of a semester in return for a grade, we were painfully aware that our work could be deleted or changed beyond recognition if it fell short of Wikipedia's standards. As a result, we found ourselves constantly checking and tweaking the published articles, even after the semester had ended.
While most of the articles have already been altered by others multiple times (amusingly for many students, the professor's article was the only one flagged for a neutrality violation), writing and rewriting the texts proved to be a positive experience. Frequent peer-reviews by classmates and fellow Wikipedians helped improve the quality of the articles and to strengthen student writing overall. The course as a whole instilled knowledge about the Tiananmen protests and also motivated students to combat the dearth of new scholarship about it. One of the principal tasks of historians is to not let the complexities of history go unnoticed. Wikipedia's ubiquity has made it a useful forum to communicate such complexities to the public, as well as an effective tool for future historians to improve their academic abilities.
Jeremy Brown is assistant professor of modern Chinese history at Simon Fraser University. He is author of City versus Countryside in Mao's China: Negotiating the Divide (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2012).
Benedicte Melanie Olsen is a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts, double majoring in history and international studies.
1. "SFU Tiananmen Square Project." Wikipedia.
2. Roy Rosenzweig, "Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past," The Journal of American History 93:1 (June 2006), 117–146. See also William Cronon, "Scholarly Authority in a Wikified World," Perspectives on History 50:2 (February 2012), 5–6.
3. One of the most successful examples is "Murder, Madness, and Mayhem: Latin American Literature in Translation" at the University of British Columbia, which pushed students to achieve "featured article" status on Wikipedia in Spring 2008.
4. Article traffic statistics are available online at http://stats.grok.se/en/latest/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989.
5. "Five Pillars," Wikipedia.