Decolonizing Wikipedia through Advocacy and Activism:The Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project
Latina/o Theatre Scholarship as Activism
In its short history the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC) has sought to magnify the visibility of Latina/o performers and promote Latina/o-generated theatre through four main pillars: advocacy, art-making, convening, and scholarship (Herrera 120). The latter of these tenets served as the impetus for a breakout session during LTC's Carnaval of New Latina/o Work in July 2015. During this gathering of theatre academics, the conversation focused on a wide array of strategies and platforms for documenting the history of Latina/o theatre in the United States and the ongoing contributions of present-day artists. Scholars spoke of the need for making artists visible to unknowing academics and theatre-making institutions, while remaining mindful of the ways in which this labor must be made legible to university administrators. At the outset of the organization's formation, LTC partnered with the online theatre platform HowlRound to create a repository of essays, interviews, pedagogical pieces, and reviews called Café Onda. However, projects like this and Trevor Boffone's 50 Playwrights Project largely serve as spaces where the theatrical community converses with one another. Their reach does not extend into the general public.
As one possibility for circulating the contributions at Latina/o theatre artists broadly, Carla Della Gatta, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's School of Dramatic Arts, spoke of the concept of Wikiturgy, a term coined by dramaturgs Jules Odendahl-James, Russell Dembin, and Catherine María Rodríguez in their online essay "Public Dramaturgy, Wikipedia, and Combatting 'Columbusing'." The essay advocated for a form of public dramaturgy in which interested parties convened in order to create Wikipedia pages for underrepresented artists without articles within the digital encyclopedia. When this concept was evoked at LTC's Carnaval, the participants in the breakout session envisioned the generative possibilities of collective contributions to Wikipedia as a means of disseminating introductory information about Latina/o artists and circulating their work to a wider audience.
Although the momentum for an LTC-sponsored Wikiturgy event ultimately did not come together, I grew intrigued by the possibility of engaging with Wikipedia in my Latina/o theatre course at Tufts University, where I teach a class predominantly populated with students of color majoring in American or Latino studies and who have little-to-no artistic or spectatorial engagement with theatre. Initially, I believed that the project would serve Latina/o theatre-makers by enhancing their visibility on Wikipedia and expanding public knowledge of Latina/o theatre studies. Additionally, I aspired to diversify Wikipedia by creating a platform for students of color to engage in acts of authorship on a site that lacks racial and gender diversity. Finally, I sought to provide my undergraduate students with an educational experience that would enable them to hone their research and synthesis skills while writing about artists whom I could not teach over the course of a semester for an audience wider than me and my teaching assistants. However, as my students embarked on this project they also described relief about escaping the monotony of writing a research paper or [End Page E-1] participating in other traditional forms of academic knowledge production. In doing so they voiced a desire to take account of potential readership beyond the academic institution, referring to their labors as a form of public activism, echoing trends in critical writing pedagogies and addressed through Linda Fernstein and Mary Reda's explorations of student attitudes toward the writing process (176). In this specific instance students were immediately able to see the public impact of their work through access to information about the number of unique visitors to their Wikipedia sites, and by observing the numerous comments and accolades offered on the LTC Facebook page announcing the project's completion.
Yet, in spite of the assignment concluding with encouraging evaluations from student participants and enthusiasm and support from the LTC community, the project did reveal tensions between Wikipedia's aspirations as a space for producing collective knowledge and the editorial limitations of the site's scope as an online encyclopedia. This tension revealed itself on a number of occasions to systemically disenfranchise students and the artists of color whom they wished to write about. Wikipedia's tenets of notability and neutrality created many difficulties for representing artists from the Latina/o diaspora. For example, some students faced difficulty demonstrating the notability of their selected artists because of outside editors' perceptions of significance. This is most clearly rendered visible in the site's insistence that authors must rely upon secondary research in order to verify their articles. This requirement inherently limits the ability to use the webpage as a space to create visibility for significant Latina/o artists who have not been written about by other news outlets or academic sources. Wikipedia also aspires to grassroots knowledge-building, yet insists on documentation and certifications that do not serve grassroots artists. Moreover, Wikipedia relies upon a peer-to-peer editorial process that creates the appearance of neutral collaboration, but reveals a partnership burdened by implicit biases due to the racial and gender backgrounds of its most active editors.
Consequently, the Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project revealed a fissure between Wikipedia's potential for transformative advocacy on behalf of theatre-makers of color and the site's own policies and values. Nonetheless, I believe that the Wikiturgy project did allow my students to make some interventions through the website that served to increase the visibility of several Latina/o theatre artists and empower students to feel as though they contributed to public discourse in a way that broadens the diversity of Wikipedia authors through a medium that could be seen and augmented by readers throughout the world. Additionally, students' efforts expanded their own perceptions of US Latina/o theatre history in a way that decolonized their understanding of the theatrical canon, introduced them to artists who have contributed to the history of the theatre, and also made legible the difficulties that Latina/o artists have in making themselves visible to audiences, producers, and other theatre-makers who explicitly and implicitly marginalize their labors. In order to navigate this process, the class had to negotiate a fraught space that is reflective of Latina/o theatre artists' lived experiences in which they must balance their efforts toward self-empowerment with a nuanced understanding of the restrictions and regulations that seek to keep their efforts illegible to a wider audience.
The Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project and Its Goals
Like an ever-growing number of scholars documented by Bryan Selwyn, I am interested in using online technologies in support of teaching and research (36). As the seventh-most-visited website globally, drawing over 15 million unique visitors daily, Wikipedia is among the world's most highly publicized distributors of knowledge (Eijkman 176). Additionally, Wikipedia is often the first site that US college and university students visit when initiating scholarship, serving as the initial point of contact for over 70 percent of students' research projects, according to Anna Samoilenko and Taha Yasseri. As a result, the online encyclopedia seemed like an ideal space to engage in an assignment designed to distribute information about Latina/o theatre artists and advocate for their visibility. [End Page E-2]
Following the LTC Carnaval, I began exploring the possibility of a classroom Wikiturgy assignment more rigorously. Consultations with theatre/performance scholars Amy Hughes and Jessica Pabón, who both use Wikipedia regularly within their curriculum, alleviated my fears that working with the online encyclopedia might prove to be too technologically daunting for me and my students. Based on their advice I initiated contact with Helaine Blumenthal, Classroom Project Manager for the Wikipedia Education Foundation. This organization seeks to partner with university professors in order to develop curriculum that incorporates Wikipedia authorship into classroom activities. Through several email conversations Blumenthal and I devised a seven-week assignment that would instruct students on the basics of Wikipedia authorship and editing, while simultaneously providing time for students to hone their research and synthesis skills in order to explore information about the Latina/o theatre-makers who I suggested might be viable subjects for an article. Moreover, as part of ongoing conversations with Blumenthal, I articulated several goals that would serve the multiple constituencies invested in the project. Although it was clear how LTC would benefit from Wikipedia pages advocating for its significance and expanding the potential for public knowledge about Latina/o theatre studies, the needs of Wikipedia and my students required continued deliberation.
In consulting with Wikipedia, one of the areas of emphasis in which it felt my students could make a significant impact on the site was in diversifying article authorship. My class of twenty-one students consisted of sixteen who identified as Latina, Latino, or Latinx; additionally, thirteen identified as cis-gendered women, and two as transgendered. Consequently, my classroom composition differed substantially from the traditional demographics of Wikipedia contributors. Although nearly 50 percent of surveyed men and women across the United States use Wikipedia in order to gather research, Jodi Wilson's 2014 survey of Wikipedia contributors revealed a homogeneous group of active participants in writing and editing articles. Over 85 percent of the website's volunteer authors and editors are male, and the average participant lives in the United States, speaks English as a primary language, and possesses a university degree (884–85). Wikipedia has attempted to address its gender disparity on several occasions, most notably through an initiative that aspired to increase female contributors to 25 percent of the sites' articles by 2015 (Gruwell 117). According to a 2016 survey conducted by Julia Bear and Benjamin Collier, however, the current proportion of female contributors to Wikipedia is roughly 15 percent (256). Unfortunately, Wikipedia does not track contributors by race; however, scholars have posited that people of color are not well-represented within the website's active contributors by exploring racial imbalance within Wikipedia articles. Mostafa Mesgari and colleagues have examined racial imbalance in the website by exploring content about artists of color. Assuming that a Wikipedia article's length correlates to comprehensiveness, the researchers find that entries about artists of color are almost universally shorter in comparison to white artists of comparable fame and repute (222).
I envisioned the Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project empowering my students by inviting them to engage in collaborative work that would facilitate sociopolitical activism in a forum with wide public viewership. As part of the course assignment, students drafted their own entries before editing their classmates' articles. Students wrote topic proposals, conducted research on their selected artists drawing from scholarly and journalistic source material, and received additional responses to their work from me, my teaching assistants, and outside editors. Initially, many of my students expressed surprise that major Latina/o artists such as Richard Montoya of the ensemble Culture Clash, Octavio Solis, and Tanya Saracho did not have active articles on Wikipedia. While these discoveries led to fruitful discussions about the website's aforementioned racial biases and contributor demographics, the revelations also fostered opportunities to reflect on the ways that knowledge is enmeshed in social structures. Students read excerpts from Michel Foucault's The Archaeology of Knowledge in order to explore the ways that academic discourses work in a symbiotic relationship with social structures. Hegemonic forces consolidate power by archiving information and determining how that knowledge is distributed (137). Through the Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project, students began to envision their assignment as an intervention in traditional pathways for advancing knowledge discourses. [End Page E-3]
Moreover, students in the Latino theatre course noted that the Wikipedia project advanced a goal of their own by participating in an alternative to the traditional research paper, which is often the final assignment in humanities courses at Tufts. Increasingly, students are asking questions about who their assignments are for and the purposes that they serve. While undergraduates concede that a term paper teaches research skills, argumentation, analysis, and engagement with other academic discourses, Gerald Graff and Cathy Berkenstein posit that students, particularly those from under-represented communities, feel as though academic discourse is engaging in conversations that feel removed from their own lived experiences (7). Creating Wikipedia articles for Latina/o theatre artists enabled the students to speak to an audience that they could more easily imagine as "real" in a way that helped them develop their own agency. The articulation of these goals is echoed in the work of Christine Tardy, who sees her own experiences with Wikipedia-based classroom projects as enabling her students to draw on "multilingual resources and cultural experiences to write from a knowledgeable position" (17).
During the initial writing and research phase, Wikipedia seemed to exist as an optimal space for engaging in advocacy and activism on behalf of LTC artists through an activity that empowered students and contributed to Wikipedia's diversity. The website offered what Adele Santana and Donna Wood refer to as the promise of "collective intellectual enterprise, informed consensus . . . and the free sharing of information" (134), but as students began to migrate their articles from Wikipedia's draft spaces onto the actual website, editors began to enforce the encyclopedia's standards of notability and objectivity in ways that threatened to undermine the project.
Wikipedia Problems: Neutrality, Objectivity, and Systemic Bias
As students began to move their articles from Wikipedia's sandbox, or drafting space, onto the website itself, many noted that their work was flagged by site editors. These voluntary figures who serve as Wikipedia's regulators and protectors blocked entries from publication predominantly through two critiques: first, the editors questioned whether the subjects of the Wikiturgy entries created met the website's standards of notability; second, many students who included political readings of their selected artist's corpus found that their submissions were flagged for violating the core Wikipedia value of having no point of view. Both of these instances speak to problematic implications for writing that aims to increase knowledge and centralize visibility for underrepresented artists of color. The requests for article revision made legible the ways in which Wikipedia regulates racially based strategies of writing and knowledge production.
In writing about Wikipedia, Leigh Gruwell notes that "our varied experiences shape how and what we know" (119). Wikipedia attempts to standardize knowledge production, however, through its insistence on enforcing a neutral point of view policy, which it describes as "representing fairly, proportionally, and as far as possible, without editorial bias, all significant views that have been published by reliable sources" ("Neutral Point of View"). However, Donna Haraway notes that "neutrality is an illusion in the service of reinforcing privileged and hierarchical ways of knowing" (189). Although Wikipedia's neutral point of view principle attempts to create uniform content removed from potential author bias, it fails to acknowledge the impact of racial, cultural, and national identity on authorship. This is particularly troubling given the demographics of Wikipedia editors. As Ewa Callahan and Susan Herring note, "Wikipedia can only be as balanced as its authors and their demography" (1914).
Wikipedia's neutral point of view principle particularly hindered students who wished to provide interpretation of key themes in authors' works, drawing from their understanding of particular ideas and motifs of Latinidad. For example, Chris Fitzpatrick, a student in the Latina/o theatre course, attempted to explore readings of Chicano identity in the work of playwright and performer Evelina Fernández.1 However, when he posted his first draft of the Wikipedia article, the editors flagged his [End Page E-4] appraisals of her work as imposing an editorial bias that could not be universally determined without sufficient secondary scholarship. Unfortunately, substantive critical writing on the author's body of work did not provide the necessary evidence to demonstrate a neutral point of view, and this section of the article had to be excised in order to meet Wikipedia's publication standards.
Even with secondary research, notability proved to be another factor that emerged in editorial requests that students revise their articles before Wikipedia publication. Notability is determined based on whether a subject has received "significant coverage" in multiple secondary sources that are independent of the subject ("Notability"). A particularly frustrating instance of Wikipedia's editors rejecting an article on the basis of notability arose in the case of a student writing about Ricardo Bracho. The article submission was rejected on the grounds of notability in several instances, in spite of the fact that Bracho has been the subject of secondary scholarship in Theatre Journal and in Cherríe Moraga's Queer Aztlan. Although Latina/o theatre student Reneé Vallejo selected the playwright/ activist for their Wikiturgy project because Bracho's work to document the lives of marginalized queer bodies resonated with them, the student ultimately had to abandon the article as it became apparent that Wikipedia editors were not going to allow its publication. As Vallejo wrote in reflection, the process of writing the article revealed the ways in which Wikipedia and other sites of knowledge production can play an unwitting role in marginalizing the contributions of Latina/o theatre artists.
Although the aforementioned difficulties with Wikipedia editors proved frustrating, these instances did generate substantive discussion about the role of embodied experience and knowledge production in the scholarship that students consume and produce. As noted by Gruwell, Wikipedia's privileging of neutrality and notability borrow from traditional conventions of scholarly discourse (128). Although contemporary research written by and about scholars of color challenges positivist epistemologies, assignments such as the Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project call attention to the ways in which such discourses linger to reinforce particular biases and privileged ways of knowing the world. In engaging with Wikipedia, however, it is possible to analyze articles that are published in order to address the site's community values and the ways in which they sustain particular authors while marginalizing others. Students may seize the opportunity of such projects to understand how to work alongside, or when necessary in resistance to, the website in order to perform acts of activism like advocating Latina/o theatre-makers, either through more careful wording or thorough documentation.
Latina/o Theatre Commons and Latina/o Theatre Student Reactions to the Wikiturgy Project
As students published their completed articles on Wikipedia, I began to post links to their work on LTC's Facebook page, which is where much of the organization's conversation occurs. Upon sharing the students' work, several artists voiced their appreciation for the students' labor, while other academics noted that they would look for opportunities to incorporate this Wikiturgy assignment into their own classes. Most notably, however, several of the theatre artists who received encyclopedia entries in Wikipedia, including Evelina Fernandez, Anne García-Romero, Magdalena Gómez, Marisela Treviño Orta, and Milta Ortiz, expressed feeling as though the student's advocacy through Wikiturgy made their careers and contributions to US theatre visible in ways that they hoped might foster additional attention. As of November 2016, over 6,000 readers have read the twenty-one articles produced through this Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project adapted by my Latina/o theatre class. Additional Latina/o theatre Wikipedia assignments have been taken up by other professors affiliated with LTC, and the work of advocating on behalf of affiliated artists and expanding the canon of US theatre history continues.
As LTC's Facebook page populated with "likes" and comments, I shared the post with my students, along with updates about the escalating numbers of unique readers who were visiting the [End Page E-5] sites they created, and asked them to reflect on their work in short response papers that they submitted to me. Repeatedly, themes of visibility emerged. For instance, Tufts student Sarah Bahn wrote of her recognition that Wikipedia can serve as validation for an individual's success, particularly among those constituencies who look toward the site as the first place for conducting research or gathering information about a topic. Similarly, Liz Palma wrote that although she initially met the Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project with resistance, she recognized that it helped to create profiles for Latina/o theatre artists who might have otherwise remained ignored on the seventh largest site for knowledge production globally.
While many students noted the increased visibility that Wikipedia offered, others connected that visibility to an act of political activism. Sylvia Montijo wrote that
for artists of Color, visibility goes beyond the act of making oneself visible to the public—it becomes a matter of survival; it is about being able to survive within a realm, a theater realm, in which you are already rendered invisible. . . . While I myself only created a Wikipedia page for one Latina artist, reflecting upon this process even further has convinced me that my work goes beyond this. I say this because, although each Latino/a theatre artist may not directly work with one another, they are all connected by their Latinidad. This class has truly decolonized my image of what theatre can be, what theatre is, and what theatre can be about.
Likewise, Miranda Perez noted that although she had difficulty finding secondary material for her Wikiturgy project from academic journalistic sources, she did find extensive information through her artist's personal webpage and published materials, which was instructive in informing her of the invisible labor that Latina/o theatre artists must endure in order to produce bodies of knowledge about themselves that would not necessarily be expected from white theatre-makers.
Lastly, student respondents noted what seemed to be missing from a number of magazine essays, newspaper articles, and other secondary sources: an engagement with the artists' Latina/o identities, and the ways in which those backgrounds informed their theatrical participation. Newton Portorreal lamented his inability to find a "noteworthy" article detailing the ways that his artist's Latinidad informed his work. Similarly, Micaela Slotin, writing about playwright Miranda Lopez, noted that although she had discerned the writer's Cuban heritage, she could not find materials that spoke to the ways that growing up as the daughter of an exile informed her writing. Finally, Kianna Medina expressed the need to include on the Wikipedia page every aspect of Candido Tirado's biography that she could find so that there was some location that could consolidate all of the information she procured from scattered sources.
Conclusion and Assessment
Latinas/os are often rendered invisible in contemporary theatre. They are underrepresented in theatre leadership structures, in onstage roles, and in discussions about the plays and artists who will work on national stages, from Broadway to community theatres. Through efforts such as LTC and its pursuit of advocacy and expanding the narrative of US theatre history, theatre artists and scholars are advocating for a change in the national dialogue. My fall 2015 Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project was designed in order for the course's students to understand the ramifications of that invisibility, participate in an ongoing process of Latina/o resistance to that marginalization, and explore strategies to redress the biases that undermine Latina/o theatre-makers' lives and accomplishments.
My students used knowledge accumulated in the classroom to participate in real-world activism through their Wikipedia articles. Class participants felt as though they contributed meaningfully to making Latina/o theatre artists' accomplishments visible and performance history legible to a wider audience, and that their efforts had the potential to affect others. In reading the students' project [End Page E-6] evaluations, however, I did not realize the personal impact that the project would have on their sense of selves. Many of my Latina/o students wrote about discovering the racial biases that inform the process of archiving knowledge, and recognized how they could use their voices to enact change. However, the occasional difficulties my students faced when navigating Wikipedia serve as a reminder to consider the emotional costs of encouraging students of color, who already feel underrepresented and marginalized, to use time ensuring others' visibility and representation, particularly in forums that act to resist such interventions. I am also aware of the time and technological access needed to create Wikipedia entries, and the ways in which those resources are not equitably distributed across race, class, and nationality. Nevertheless, the online encyclopedia is a valuable resource, read by millions daily, and engaging in activism-minded interventions on behalf of Latina/o artists is worth doing for classrooms and students with the necessary resources.
In future iterations of the Latina/o Theatre Wikiturgy Project I will work more closely with the Wikipedia Education Foundation and my students to ensure that we are prepared to overcome the biases that are bound up in editorial notions of objectivity and notability, so that students are no longer told that their artists are insignificant. But ultimately, I believe that LTC's Scholars Breakout Session at the 2015 Carnaval of New Works inspired me to design a classroom exercise that inspired my students to produce knowledge that will live on the internet for others to see and build on, creating space to continue expanding and complicating Latina/o theatre narratives.
Noe Montez is an assistant professor and Director of Graduate Studies in Drama at Tufts University. His book Memory, Transitional Justice, and Theatre in Postdictatorship Argentina is forthcoming, and his writing can be found in Theatre Topics, Latin American Theatre Review, New England Theatre Journal, Texas Theatre Journal, and the edited collection Public Theatres and Theatre Publics. He is a member of ASTR's Executive Committee, and serves as Conference Planner for ATHE's Latinx, Indigenous, and the Americas Focus Group.
This essay expands significantly on ideas initially introduced in my essay, "Pedagogy Notebook: Creating Visibility and Empowerment for Latina/o Artists through Wikiturgy," written for HowlRound.
1. All students referenced in this essay signed consent forms agreeing to allow for their written responses to the Wikiturgy assignment to be quoted with attribution.