Sarah Butterill, Mary Katherine Mcintyre, and Zeesy Powers on: critical pedagogy, research, and knowledge production

In late March OCAD University’s Dorothy H. Hoover library hosted the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon. Now that the dust from the keystrokes has settled we’re getting caught up with Sarah Butterill, Reference Intern at the Dorothy H. Hoover Library who organised the Edit-a-thon along with fellow participants and editors Mary Katherine Mcintyre and Zeesy Powers.

Edit-a-thon Image[Image description: black and white image of a woman calling out the word ‘edit’, written atop a stylized megaphone]

SITE-SPECIFIC: What was the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon and what was the idea behind it?

SARAH BUTTERILL: The Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon was an event that we held here at the OCAD library on Saturday, March 22nd, 2014. It was a follow-up to a larger, international event that happened in February, organized by a group of activists in New York (more information here). On that day, hundreds of volunteers at dozens of events around the world (often in art school libraries) gathered to teach each other how to create and edit Wikipedia articles and added more than 100 women artists to Wikipedia, in an effort to make up for gender imbalances in Wikipedia coverage and in Wikipedia writers/editors.

On that day in February, one of the international satellite events took place here in Toronto, at Art Metropole. The women who organized that event, artists Amy Lam and Ella Dawn McGeogh, later approached me about hosting future edit-a-thons here at the library, in order to continue the work of that day and make use of the library’s resources for the project. Everyone at the library loved the idea, and we were really happy to be able to introduce the OCAD community to the project and get students involved. It was also exciting for participants to have access to our collections and databases. We began the event with a tutorial about Wikipedia and then spent the rest of the afternoon working on articles about women artists who either have bare-bones Wikipedia pages or do not have Wikipedia pages at all. In many cases it’s surprising which artists don’t have pages. For example, Toronto artists Diane Borsato, Tanya Mars, and the collective FASTWÜRMS have entire books published about them, but do not yet have Wikipedia pages.

SITE-SPECIFIC: What interested you about the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon and why did you participate?

MARY KATHERINE MCINTYRE: This past semester I took a 3rd year course called Cross-Cultural Currents in Craft (VISC 3B41). The first assignment was to research and write a Wiki for a craft-related subject not already published on Wikipedia. The meta-purpose of the assignment was to make us aware of the fact that relatively few women artists, and literally only a handful of women in craft practice, are represented on Wikipedia. When OCAD announced an Edit-a-thon at the Library, I saw this as a perfect opportunity to see if I could actually get published the article I wrote for class, on the Canadian silversmith and educator Lois Etherington Betteridge.

ZEESY POWERS: I love Wikipedia, and use it regularly as a starting point for research in a wide variety of topics. The lack of representation for women artists (not to mention women scientists, authors, etc.) is a big problem, especially as the initial stages of research shift to online formats. The content available on Wikipedia is entirely volunteer-generated, so if you see there is a gap in representation and you don’t do anything about it, there is a good chance that that gap will be perpetuated.

“I think the questions raised by the event are ones that we can always apply to our cultures/sub-cultures, such as who is overlooked and why? Who and what is celebrated or challenged? Who is writing the articles?”

S: What are some of the critical questions participants explored through this activity?

B: There are so many! Just by showing up I think that participants were questioning how and why gender disparity exists on Wikipedia. All of the participants at our event were women, while the majority of Wikipedia editors are men.

I think the questions raised by the event are ones that we can always apply to our cultures/sub-cultures, such as who is overlooked and why? Who and what is celebrated or challenged? Who is writing the articles? Wikipedia is interesting because it is a subculture with its own rules that is nonetheless, of course, influenced by and reflective of the broader culture. The organisation is based on neutrality and open access, but I think it also demonstrates how this kind of ‘freedom’ doesn’t necessarily lead to equity. Technically, anybody can write and edit on Wikipedia, but there are certain unspoken barriers to becoming an editor that coincide with or reflect other barriers to equity in the ‘real world’: access to education, tech skills, access to resources (books, journal articles). I learned how to edit Wikipedia articles for this event, and it is more difficult than I expected. Besides needing basic research and writing skills, you also need to know a special Wikipedia mark-up language that is similar to HTML, which is going to turn off anyone who is not interested in or skilled with computer coding. There is also a certain specialized etiquette and culture of conduct that seems based in the male-dominated tech world. Part of the aim of the edit-a-thon was to teach these aspects of Wikipedia to new editors, to make it less intimidating.

Another thing is that there are rules about what counts as a legitimate article, which could, I think, limit the representation of certain groups. Articles about living people need to reference at least three separate non-self-published sources or else the Wikipedia community will delete the article (at least one of the new articles from our event was deleted and one was immediately questioned!). While I think it is understandable to have some standard of ‘legitimacy’, and prevent the whole world from writing articles about themselves or their projects/companies, these rules pose limitations for communities that may not have presence or recognition in media/publishing, who tend to self-publish, or who don’t focus on written records/narratives. Any groups who tend to be overlooked by ‘mainstream’ culture are not going to necessarily have much source material to reference for a Wikipedia article, and therefore risk being deleted. Even in the mainstream Canadian art world, which is pretty small, there is not much money for writing and publishing and you’re not necessarily going to easily find that many published sources even about certain artists who are influential. We faced these problems at the event, having some of our work later taken down, and having trouble finding resources.

M: Wikipedia biographies of living persons must focus on “notable” subjects. I needed to consider what that term means, in the context of a “free encyclopedia” that privileges subjects with mass appeal — such as popular culture and media figures — and those that rely on quantifiable facts — such as technology, politics, and history. I needed to justify my article by asserting the notability of my subject, who is not an American Idol contestant, a scientist, a sports figure, or an entrepreneur.

P: Who is notable, and what defines notability? What kinds of information and history is excluded because of obligations to cite sources? Do we have an obligation to tell our own stories? What about the stories of others?

S: How do you think events like this help us think about teaching and curriculum differently?

B: I think that workshops and events like this are a good way to integrate the library into teaching and curriculum, by providing space and resources for co-working experiences that mix independent and self-directed learning with an atmosphere of support and skill sharing. Unlike regular curriculum, this event was not mandatory, so everyone who came was self-motivated, self-directed, and very enthusiastic. Besides the short tutorial at the beginning, the main goal was to create a space where we could all work together and help each other out when we encountered problems, which is what ended up happening. Some participants were brand new to Wikipedia, while others had been doing it for years, and the more experienced editors helped newer ones. As a librarian, I helped answer some reference questions about citations and about how to find resources about certain artists. Overall I guess it was very different from the traditional classroom setting with a teacher at the front of the classroom lecturing. It was really about learning and working together, which is a potentially more equitable model.

“The dearth of design and craft articles, and articles about women in these fields, shows that an entirely consumer-led, consumer-built curriculum can develop major holes over time:  you can’t always know what you don’t know.”

M: Projects such as the Edit-a-Thon, and Wikipedia itself, place the acquisition, collection and interpretation of fact in the hands of students. In that Wikis are written when someone is interested enough to do so, we might consider that teaching and curriculum can be similarly influenced by the interests of those “consuming” the information. As well, the “consumer” of information can also be the “creator” of curriculum, in the form of additional articles and reports. However, there are limits to this dynamic as well.  The dearth of design and craft articles, and articles about women in these fields, shows that an entirely consumer-led, consumer-built curriculum can develop major holes over time:  you can’t always know what you don’t know. Specific initiatives like the Edit-a-Thon are a great way of marshalling the community to supply correctives, and to darn these holes.

P: Working on a Wikipedia article requires a great deal of self-direction, but is ultimately a highly collaborative process. There is a lot of self-policing within the Wikipedia community, and as a result there is a high standard on the relevance and quality of contributions. Through collaboration, it is possible to create detailed, informative and accurate articles on topics that range from highly specific (“Hematite”) to broad and all-encompassing (“Feminist Art“). It is a very nerdy model where you spend a lot of time on your own reading books and other primary sources, then asking for help on very technical things like code and formatting, and then a consensus based process where agreement must be reached among a group of people (who may live in wildly different circumstances all across the globe) with a common interest in a specific topic, who may never meet each other in person. It’s the anti-MOOC, and while it can fit into a classroom activity and benefits from dissemination of expert knowledge, it is something that doesn’t fit in a traditional lecture-based format.

S: What is the relationship between critical pedagogy, equitable access to learning, and knowledge production?

B: This is a big question, so I don’t think I can do it justice in this space, but I think that critically examining knowledge production and creating equitable access to learning are both crucial aspects of a critical pedagogy. In the case of the Wikipedia edit-a-thon and Wikipedia tutorials there is the opportunity to teach students how to be critical of how knowledge is produced, as well as teach them how to become ethical producers of knowledge themselves. Having an event that is open to the public, where everyone can learn at their own pace, also hopefully creates a more accessible learning experience.

“Without equitable access to learning, it is impossible for diverse communities to contribute to the development and archiving of quality knowledge production in their own voices.”

P: Critical pedagogy gives students necessary skills to question what they are learning, and empowers them to make their own conclusion through the synthesis of diverse forms of knowledge (book learning, classroom learning, oral history, lived experience, independent research, etc.). It is not possible to have equitable access to learning without universal empowerment to learn, and access to accurate information on a wide range of topics. Without equitable access to learning, it is impossible for diverse communities to contribute to the development and archiving of quality knowledge production in their own voices.

S: Were there any unexpected outcomes from under-taking this project?

B: We weren’t sure what to expect from the event, so everything was a bit of a surprise. I was really happy to see how enthusiastic the participants were and to see that we actually got a lot of work done! It was also interesting to see who showed up. The event was open to the public, not just the OCAD community, so we also had high school students, alumni, and a U of T student.

M: It was enjoyable to engage the project in a social setting, interacting with other students and Wikipedians in real-time. It was interesting to compare the dynamic with traditional women’s creative and social group activities, typically oriented around religious communities and the home, e.g. quilting, food preparation for community celebrations, etc.

P: Wikipedia has a reputation as a free-for-all, but it is many ways highly regulated. To be most effective as a Wikipedian it’s better to start out by editing a preexisting article. There are many many articles that have been started but lack proper citations, or depth of information, or are just poorly written and formatted. By creating a username and starting out improving existing articles, you build skills as well as a reputation on Wikipedia that will allow you to make better, lasting contributions.

S: Are there any next steps underway?

B: We are hoping to continue hosting this event on a regular (probably monthly) basis, so stay tuned!

S: What is the role of creativity in advancing equity?

B: How can we advance equity without creativity? In the broadest sense, creativity is dreaming up new realities and taking steps to make them happen. This makes me think of all the things that activists dream up to bring attention to certain issues, and in particular a project out of Egypt that I heard about last spring called Harassmap ( This project is an online interactive map that allows people to report instances of sexual harassment or assault, through SMS or online, and map them onto an online map of Cairo, bringing attention to the frequency and seriousness of the problem there right now, and creating a safe way to report it. This is a new way of tackling this (highly gendered) problem and I think that it is a great example of how artists and designers can use their skills to advance equity and social justice issues. We do not have to limit ourselves to galleries or commercial projects… there are endless possibilities for using our creativity to engage more actively with our communities.

M: Creative work encourages lateral thinking, the collation of ideas in different contexts, and the reading of ideas from one context into another. These are all ways that we can check ourselves and our assumptions, and to assert our own perspective and understanding against the mainstream.

P: Creativity is at the heart of our experience of contributing to life outside ourselves. It is what allows us to speak to others about our personal experience, and is the engine of change in human society. Without the ability or agency to express our experience and understanding, we are more likely to be misunderstood and marginalized.

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