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Art history students improve scholarship, representation on Wikipedia

Sac State senior Anya Thompson edited the Wikipedia article for Pastoral Concert, attributed to Renaissance painter Titian, expanding the limited existing information and adding recent scholarship about the piece.

Like all students, those in Rachel Miller’s Art History class must complete research projects.

Unlike assignments for most students, however, one required in Miller’s class focuses on a venue often – rightly or wrongly – maligned in academia.

Sacramento State Professor of Art Rachel Miller says Wikipedia's ever-presence makes it essential that its sources are well-researched and "as reliable as possible." (Photo courtesy Rachel Miller)

“I ask (my students), ‘Do you ever use Wikipedia?’ ” said Miller, a Sacramento State assistant professor of Art. “I think they’re often very reluctant to say yes, and then I tell them I use Wikipedia every day.”

Beginning in fall 2017, Miller has incorporated a Wikipedia research and editing project into her courses, instructing students to expand upon, correct, or otherwise improve subpar entries about works of art. In particular, she tries to focus on underrepresentation, improving articles about works created by women and challenging existing narratives about women artists.

In the process, students learn skills that will be useful to them as artists or art historians, such as the ability to write in nonacademic language and to think critically about even well-known works.

The ubiquity of Wikipedia – an online encyclopedia that anyone can edit – in modern life makes it an ideal and necessary venue for this kind of project, Miller said.

“We can’t ignore the fact that people were going to use this source, and therefore it’s better for everyone if the sources can be as reliable as possible,” she said.

In a recent presentation about the project during the College of Arts and Letters’ U-Nite! event, Miller outlined the scope of underrepresentation. Recent studies demonstrate that between 8.5% and 16% of Wikipedia editors are women, and although data on race is hard to find, most of the website’s editors probably are white, she said.

The results are unsurprising: Of the 10 most-edited Wikipedia entries, Miller said, none are about women. Singer Britney Spears, at number 18, is the most-edited article about a woman, followed by entertainer Beyoncé at number 44. Articles about married couples emphasize the men’s achievements but refer to the women primarily as wives. New articles about women are challenged as unnecessary more frequently than new articles about men.

The Department of Art’s student demographics appear to counter the disparities. Nearly three-quarters of students are women, and about two-thirds racially identify as other than white.

“There is a culture among Wikipedia editors that makes it hard for especially young women and especially students to get involved,” Miller said. “Just by virtue of being different from the typical Wikipedia editor, I think it makes the culture in Wikipedia editing different. It makes it a more welcoming place for other people to get involved and to edit Wikipedia, and improves the source that literally billions of people use.”

Each semester, Miller peruses Wikipedia articles about artwork that fits the theme of that semester’s class – for the Fall 2021 semester, ancient Greek and Roman art – and looks for red flags that indicate the articles need improving. An extremely short article is always a good candidate, as is a long article without citations. Miller also looks for pieces that recently have been the subject of academic debate or controversy, or that are missing important cross-cultural elements, such as non-Western influences on the Renaissance.

Before being edited by a Sacramento State Art History student, the Wikipedia article on the Baroque painting "Judith Slaying Holofernes" was short and did not take into account recent scholarship about the piece and its interpretations.

The painting cited in the U-Nite presentation, Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, is one familiar to any upper division student, Miller said. Its Wikipedia article was extremely short, however, and what little information was included about the painting took a biographical, almost reductive approach in describing it as a self-portrait and revenge fantasy against Gentileschi’s mentor, who raped her.

Miller’s student expanded the article to center on the work itself: how Gentileschi created it and the artistic techniques she used; its history, reception, and relationship to her other paintings; and scholarly interpretations, including those challenging the idea that it is self-referential.

Scott Azevedo, a Spring 2020 student of Miller’s, chose to edit the Wikipedia article on the Zeytun Gospels, an Armenian illustrated manuscript. The project, he said, was a “game changer” and inspired him to add an Art History major on top of his BFA in Painting.

“It was just really amazing to research that manuscript and then to learn about all the history involved, such as the Armenian genocide, and that part of the world,” said Azevedo, who will graduate this spring. “It broadened my horizons.”

Anya Thompson, a senior double-majoring in Art History and Studio Art, similarly called the project “a seminal point in my art history career in college” that taught her important research and communication skills. She worked on the article for the Renaissance painting Pastoral Concert, overhauling the existing, limited information and adding recent scholarship about the piece.

“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, you can just add to Wikipedia.’ No, you need to have the research. You need to back up your facts,” she said. “I have really like taken that to heart, so anything I go into with art history, now I can back it up, and I can say exactly what I mean with verifiable proof.”

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About Jonathan Morales

Jonathan Morales joined the Sac State communications team in 2017 as a writer and editor. He previously worked at San Francisco State University and as a newspaper reporter and editor. He enjoys local beer, Bay Area sports teams, and spending time outdoors with his family and dog.

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