USF Class Uses Jane Austen To Teach Lessons About Wikipedia

Feb 6, 2018
Originally published on April 18, 2018 12:06 pm

Even though Jane Austen died in 1817, the English author’s works – like “Sense and Sensibility” and “Pride and Prejudice” – have lived on for more than two hundred years.

Laura Runge, the chair of the University of South Florida Department of English, thinks she knows why.

“People comment on the realism or the realistic characters. People relate to these characters, and they still do," she said. 

Now, Runge’s students are doing their part to help Austen’s legacy live on, through the internet.

(This report originally aired Feb. 6, 2018)

It’s part of a graduate level course named “Austen: Bits to Bytes.”

While "bytes" refers to computer memory, "bits" refers to a reference Austen made to her own work. She once said that she couldn’t write a serious romance story, and instead would stick with what she called “the little bit of ivory on which she worked with a fine brush.”

“It’s a neat contrast between the original materiality of her text and what it’s like today, and to sort of have those two points on the continuum to talk about," Runge said.

In addition to analyzing Austen’s major novels, the class looked at her online presence. Runge had each of her students work on a digital humanities project involving Austen. Six chose to edit Austen-related topics on Wikipedia.

“It’s open access, it’s crowd sourced, and it provides a huge audience with information every day," she said.

For years, students have been discouraged from using Wikipedia as a source. But Runge said, in many cases,  that’s not true anymore. 

“Everything has to be documented with a published resource and the people who care about their subjects are editing those subjects so that they represent the best knowledge that we have available,” she said, adding, “That really raises a lot of questions about facts and truth and what’s available on the internet and what makes for a legitimate resource, and so it opens up a conversation about knowledge that is really productive.”

The work was done in conjunction with the Wiki Education Foundation, a non-profit nationwide network of university professors who use Wikipedia as a teaching tool by having students write or edit entries.

“Eighty-seven percent of professors participating in our programs say their students learn more about information literacy through the process of writing and editing articles on Wikipedia than if the students had taken a traditional assignment," said Foundation executive director Frank Schulenberg. 

Second year literature PhD student Elizabeth Ricketts worked on the entry for the novel “Sense and Sensibility.” While she knows a lot about the book, she said she had to stop thinking like an academic when editing.

“Because as a literary scholar, you’re mostly publishing argument-based writing and evaluating and looking at the sources, putting them in conversation with each other and ultimately making your own argument. I had to take all of that argument out and just say, ‘here’s what this source says, here’s what that source says,’ and very factual-based," she said.

Ricketts also enjoyed interacting with other Wikipedia editors in defending her decisions.

“There’s a lot of talking back and forth, you’re not just working with a vacuum, you’re working with whole public and interconnected scholarly and public knowledge community, and it was really cool," Ricketts explained.

There was one more thing that was really cool - the impact of the students' work. Runge said that her students normally just write for a small audience. But the class’ six Wikipedia pages have been viewed a total of more than 640,000 times.

“That makes a huge impression on a student, and it should because people are reading their work," Runge said. "It has a huge audience which is going to lead to an impact. You may not be able to see it or know it, but you know it’s being read.” 

Graduate student Ricketts admitted that’s more people than who will likely ever read anything scholarly she writes.

“And that is not to diminish the importance of scholarly writing whatsoever, but it was very humbling to know that my work over the course of its lifetime will be seen by so many thousands of people," Ricketts said.

Ricketts worked for ten years in public schools, where she used to tell her students not to use Wikipedia. But after taking this course, she has a different message for the USF students she teaches literature to as a graduate assistant.

“I tell them, 'Use Wikipedia as a reference, don’t cite it in your paper but give it a great look, especially at the sources at the bottom of the page,' because that can really let them know about things people that are saying about the subject,” she explained.

Runge said that the point of the class – beyond teaching the students about the power of both Austen’s words and Wikipedia’s reach – is to get them to share what they know with the world.

“I feel a responsibility to the subject, as well as to the public. The subject is something I know really well, I should share that with people so that they can get to know it too.”

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