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Studying WikiProject Universities

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By Mono
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WikiProject Universities is an active project with some 180 participants, focusing on improving Wikipedia's coverage of universities, colleges, and related topics. The project has more than 9,000 articles in total, with 23 featured articles, 34 featured lists, and 57 good articles, and maintains a portal. We talked to Madcoverboy, ElKevbo, Notyourbroom, and Mabeenot, who coordinates the monthly collaboration (the September collaborations involve the University of Sydney and the University of South Dakota).

The Royal College of Music in London, UK
Stanford University after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake
  • Madcoverboy: My first edits to Wikipedia back in 2005 were on the things I (thought I) knew best: where I grew up (Las Vegas Valley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology). I imagine I was motivated, like many editors, to start editing to get the article on their alma mater into tip-top shape. However, I also interacted with some experienced editors on the article (User:Dpbsmith and User:Lentower) who really took me down a notch by pointing out my boosterism. I began looking around at other articles and realized how pervasive this self-focused bias was and resolved to help do something about it.
  • ElKevbo: Technically, I'm not a member of the project. But that's splitting hairs and picking nits.... I hang out with the project and its members because American higher education is my field of study. Regularly monitoring this project's articles and pages gives me a good view of what many people believe to be important about higher education, a view that is very different than that I get from my colleagues. I hope this view is more aligned with how the general public views higher education because it's easy to forget or minimize those views when one remains ensconced in academia. (In fact, I'm presenting a paper on this topic in a few months.) I also believe in public scholarship, and that there is a proper role for scholars to fill in editing Wikipedia.
  • Bill Price: I'm a student. Very early on as an editor, I was interested in helping to maintain the article of the Cornell University Glee Club, as I was a member of that organization for my entire undergraduate career. I branched from there to the main Cornell University article, then decided to do a major photoshoot project to better document the campus. I did a similar photoshoot of Roger Williams University later that year (2009), then shifted my focus to the University of Pittsburgh because I started graduate studies there. I've done small edits to a few other universities' articles as well, but those three are the ones I watch most closely.
  • Mabeenot: Like many of our project's members, I'm a student. This was the first WikiProject I joined and it continues to be the project I watch closest. I've cleaned up and expanded quite a few university articles, particularly smaller schools that don't seem to get as much attention. I also watch frequently vandalized articles like Public Ivy, a task that can be exhausting at times. I currently organize the Collaboration of the Month.
The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, England, as viewed from the tower of the Church of St Mary the Virgin.
  • Madcoverboy: Probably my favorite FA experience was working on the United States Military Academy. User:Ahodges7 was a new editor and like many, wanted to improve the article. I counseled him to seek out the right people and look at other articles as examples and he busted his ass and got it into really great shape. With User:BQZip01, we were able to get the article from a pretty sad state to FA in less than four months (I believe). A nice high-tempo collaboration with talented people where no one had an axe to grind and the result was a truly outstanding article.
  • ElKevbo: Probably, but I don't remember any notable experiences. Isn't the UC Riverside article now featured? That one had an interesting history with a very persistent and clever editor who did his or her best to subtly (and not-so-subtly) denigrate the institution. A student with the institution's student newspaper even contacted me to ask some question (I guess it was an e-mail interview...?).
  • Bill Price: I've never participated in those fabled mad dashes to attain higher grades of quality :) I did initiate major overhauls of the references of Cornell University (B-class, former featured) and Cathedral of Learning (B-class)—unglamorous work, but I did it with the thought in mind that any FA ought to have a meticulously-maintained stable of sources.
The University of California, Berkeley's, Sather Tower at sunset.
  • Madcoverboy: By the skin of our teeth. There are a few really outstanding editors like User:ElKevbo, User:Mabeenot, User:Eustress, User:Notyourbroom, User:Noeticsage, and User:Jamesontai (in no particular order) who really do their best to patrol pages, revert vandalism and naked POV, and participate in discussions as they come up. As I mention below, we have lots of editors who contribute to our articles, but only a handful contribute between our articles.
  • ElKevbo: I don't think the project "keep[s] 9,434 articles going." Other editors seem to do most of the heavy lifting with us providing some guidance and oversight, particularly when things seem to be going sour. The project seems to be more of a centralized venue for a handful of editors to communicate and loosely coordinate than a community.
  • Bill Price: I realized very early on just how sparse our ranks are. It's common for IP editors and throwaway accounts to pop in and out, but there are not very many active people with the institutional knowledge necessary to keep articles from bloating and decaying. I check my watchlist about 8–20 times per day, so I'm often quick on the draw to revert vandalism or to fix up good-faith edits. I can't watch everything, though, and I don't try to.
  • Madcoverboy: Not as far as I can tell. Sometimes you have a teacher or professor who think it's a great idea to assign the college/university Wikipedia article and we here at WP:UNI only find out after the fact because of a rash of edits. These are great opportunities to get editors to contribute pictures of campus or get some archival material, but they also have a tendency to degrade into unchecked boosterism.
  • ElKevbo: I don't think so. Sadly, that seems to mirror the scholarship of higher education in America as it is largely disconnected from other fields of study, including primary and secondary education.
  • Bill Price: Not that I am aware of. Most of the "collaboration" I see between projects occurs by default due to overlapping membership.
  • Mabeenot: WikiProject Universities has a number of child projects that focus some of our project's energies. Frequently, this results in excellent articles about the history, sports teams, and notable people for large schools, as is the case with WikiProject Texas A&M, WikiProject Texas Tech, and WikiProject University of Oxford. There are also regional and athletic projects ranging from WikiProject Bangladeshi Universities to WikiProject Big 12 Conference.
The "hat toss", now a traditional ending to the ceremony, originated at the Naval Academy in 1912. The hat toss has since become a symbolic and visual end to the four-year program. Here, 976 midshipmen graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy to become commissioned officers.
  • Madcoverboy: We could always use more people who leave the comfort of their own alma mater's article and help out on improving other college and university articles. We have 23 featured articles and 24 featured lists, but unfortunately a lot of these really talented editors rarely contribute beyond them or stop contributing altogether once they reach status. I'd say the best way for a new contributor to help today is to read a few of the university FAs, take note of the huge variance in topical coverage and quality even among these great articles, then go read their own alma mater's article and start contributing to substantive content about the history, campus, organization and academic programs rather than copying all the glossy brochure information.
  • ElKevbo: I agree that it would good if editors could step out of their comfort zone a little bit and edit articles other than their alma mater. I think that would give them a broader view of what these articles should contain as they would be able to read an article more from the perspective of a disinterested reader than a committed alumnus. I also think that many of the project's articles - like many other articles in Wikipedia - focus much too heavily on the present and the very recent past, losing historical insights and developments.
  • Bill Price: Expanding on what Madcoverboy and ElKevbo have said: As I was beginning to mature as an editor, I witnessed this storm of drama, and it very much soured my desire to "step outside of my comfort zone" and edit other universities' articles. (See this relevant comment of mine from that RFC.) I feel like I would inevitably encounter overzealous students or alumni and invite drama. (See Madcoverboy's answer to the next question.) That disinclination of mine seems to be limited to university articles, however. When it comes to other topics, I'm no stranger to writing articles about things I lack familiarity with—virtually the entire article of Canonsburg Lake (minus the "Wildlife" section) was written by me, but I'd never previously heard of the lake until someone created a stub for it.
An autumn view of Cleveland tower at the Graduate College, Princeton University.
Keble College
  • Madcoverboy: We're in a bit of a tough spot that I imagine a few other WikiProjects have experienced. First, there's obviously a huge amount of content to cover and coordinate. Second, the vast majority of contributions to this content come from people who attended, are employed by, or are otherwise involved in the topic they cover. I don't imagine that the editors who contribute to RNA view adenosine triphosphate as a competitor that should be shunned or badmouthed. This isn't to say there's an overt COI issue, but a lot of the problems with have with NPOV (rampant use of self-published sources, peacock and weasel words, and synthesized claims) stem from that original motivation to portray one's school in a favorable light. Third, (I think) our goal is to support and channel these editors' motivation into something productive such as improving content about history or the campus rather than accumulating more and more "cruft" about rankings, selectivity, awards, and popular culture references. Some people respond favorably to other editors' pointing out that a consensus exists for including or excluding some types of content and are happy to emulate and improvise. Other editors understandably don't like it when strangers tell them to take their school pride down a notch. It's obviously a touchy subject and sometimes leads to some unpleasant encounters for those few of us who patrol and participate beyond the safe confines of our own alma mater's article. On the upside, we're dealing with a lot of college-educated and generally rational and literate people and what happens on our articles is rarely a battlefield for larger meta-issues of Wikipedia policy or culture at large (as I imagine climate change, Obama, Islam, etc. are). I think our biggest coordination failure to date is our inability to sustain a collaboration of the month to improve university articles. I suspect this is largely because of the aforementioned problem of recruiting editors to contribute beyond their own school's article. I think our greatest coordination success has been the development and adoption of substantive style guidelines for college and university articles -- WP:UNIGUIDE.
  • ElKevbo: First, it's my impression that nearly all of the consistent contributors to these articles are lay persons, mostly alumni with the occasional staff or faculty member. That colors the content and tone of these articles, largely because most of those editors have a relatively narrow point of view. In fact, broadening the viewpoints of those editors seems to be much of what we try to do. Second, like many projects, we deal with some very passionate editors with strong views about particular institutions. In many cases those views are overly positive and we find ways to appropriately tone down the praise heaped upon the institution. In some cases, those views are strongly negative and we have to find ways to acknowledge controversies without denigrating the institution. Finally, many of these articles rely very, very heavily on resources published by the institutions themselves. Not only does that tend to promote a narrow and positive POV but it also leads (sometimes accurately) to accusations that we're only praising institutions. It's very difficult to find and maintain balance in these articles given the constant push and pull of energetic but novice editors.
  • Bill Price: Edited to add this preface: I did some poking around and found Wikipedia:UNIGUIDE#Neutral_point_of_view, which addresses this issue to an extent. It doesn't seem to rule out cherrypicking, however, beyond the admonishment that reported rankings should "represent a comprehensive cross-section of rankings by national and international publications". I'm concerned that editors cherrypick which rankings and accolades to report, and that this is enabled by the fact that there's no definitive standard to decide what rankings ought to be included and what ought to be excluded. Different articles report rankings and scores for very different dimensions of evaluation, making cross-article comparison difficult. The net effect is that everyone looks above average because everyone frames their accomplishments differently. For example, The Princeton Review recently rated the University of Pittsburgh as having the eighth happiest student body in the nation. I incorporated that fact into the university's article, but I didn't spare a second to check to see what the university had ranked poorly on. It's a bit like the boiling frog story—one instance of cherrypicking isn't that bad, but the more it happens, the more an article swerves toward boosterism. One could partially excuse that by saying that only exceptional rankings are notable, but then wouldn't the abysmal rankings be equally notable? And if both the excellent and terrible rankings were reported side by side, isn't that still lopsided, because it only focuses on the "extremes" of a school's image while neglecting the more mundane facets of its operation? I don't know that there's any reasonable solution other than judging these things on a case-by-case basis, though.
  • Mabeenot: I agree with the above responses. The biggest problem we face is that students, alumni, and staff edit most of these articles on a frequent basis and they will always have a fondness for their alma mater. Some editors can show objectivity, while others cram as much academic boosterism into an article as humanly possible. And don't even get me started about contentious ranking systems, athletic rivalries, and the nicknames bestowed on certain schools... Members of WikiProject Universities routinely spend nearly as much time guarding articles as they do creating new content. Needless to say, we can always use a few more eyes.
Jerwood Library, Trinity Hall, Cambridge
  • Eustress: Some of my most treasured offline Wikipedia moments have occurred while laboring in behalf of WP:UNI. For instance, while working to improve university b-school articles, I came across two with anemic history sections (Johnson School and Marriott School). Unable to locate any reliable sources for pertinent information on the Web, I reached out to university libraries, dean’s offices, and alumni associations for research help in my capacity as a member of WikiProject Universities. Each time I was enthusiastically received and led to volumes of rich university history that had seldom seen the light of day and never graced the Internet. Now such information can be enjoyed conveniently and without charge on Wikipedia. Furthermore, the information I found helped not only to fill in the history gaps for the schools I was targeting but also for other departments and for other universities.

Next week, we'll set out to catalog the unknown. Until then, browse the archives.

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