With nearly 5 billion visitors each month, Wikipedia is a popular global information-sharing resource. Its knowledge base depends on users’ contributions, meaning some articles have robust details and extensive sources, while others contain only a few sentences, if any. Among English-language Wikipedia sites, there’s a particularly large gap in coverage of politics in Sub-Saharan Africa—something Williams students are working to close.
In the spring-semester course Aid, Arms and Armies: The Politics of Intervention in Africa, visiting professor Beth Wellman introduced students to the history and dynamics of peacekeeping forces, election monitoring, foreign humanitarian assistance and other interventions from outside the continent.
This is the third year Wellman has taught a course on African politics, and she is concluding her term as the Stanley Kaplan Visiting Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science and Leadership Studies Program. Before coming to Williams, she earned a Ph.D. in political science at Yale and was a postdoctoral research associate with the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice at Princeton University. Her research explores how international migration is reshaping electoral politics and national citizenship, particularly within the Global South.
Aid, Arms and Armies is also the second course in which Wellman has incorporated a semester-long Wikipedia project. Each student was tasked with selecting an existing Wikipedia article or a subject that hasn’t been covered yet and fleshing it out with well-sourced research.
“There is an incredible systemic inequality in terms of the dearth of African politics [on Wikipedia],” says Wellman. “For example, there have been five presidents since Rwanda gained independence, and three don’t have Wikipedia pages. There’s a lot of potential for students to make a huge impact on what we know and what the world knows.”
Wellman takes a broad view of interventions, and students chose a wide range of topics, from basketball in Africa and the Ethiopian Golden Age of music to the Rwandan Red Cross and South Africa-Sweden relations. She also requires students to use a variety of sources, including academic articles and books, newspapers and government documents local to Africa, foreign-language news and non-traditional sources such as podcasts and documentaries.
This past semester, Maria Lobato Grabowsky ’25 rewrote the Wikipedia article titled “United Nations Operation in Mozambique.” The article—about a two-year effort that led to free elections in 1994—included only two paragraphs and a few bullet points, all sourced from the U.N. website. Grabowsky’s draft expanded on the goals of the intervention and provided a more detailed description of the work and its challenges.
A sociology major, Grabowsky is from Brazil and speaks Portuguese, the official language of Mozambique. She chose the topic because she wanted to use her language skills to translate news and better represent the local perspective.
“The United Nations reports didn’t give the point of view of people in Mozambique,” she says. “How did the operation impact them? How did the people respond? Were there any protests? There’s very little of that [on Wikipedia].”
In the spring of 2022, students in Wellman’s course Contemporary African Politics also completed Wikipedia projects. They created two articles and edited 38, adding more than 88,000 words and more than 1,000 references to the platform. Collectively, the articles have received more than 616,000 views.
Max Chayet ’22, who took the class last year and is now pursuing a master’s degree in international affairs and cybersecurity at George Washington University, expanded the Wikipedia article titled “2011–2012 Mauritanian protests.” A history and political science major, he earned a certificate in Arabic at Williams and used his language skills to translate newspapers, blogs and video footage of the demonstrations to add new insights and nuance. Since Chayet published his edits, Wikipedia has translated the article into seven other languages.
“Wikipedia is an important tool; its reach is incredible,” he says. “For some people, this is all they’re going to see, and it’s important for them to have accurate and succinct information. Other people are going to use it to get a quick background and look for other sources. Having these local sources presents a more complete picture of the events.”
In researching and sharing their findings about various political interventions, Wellman says her students are also participating in their own intervention through knowledge creation and distribution. Rather than accessing “gated” academic content to write a paper that might only be read by her, they are expanding access to knowledge for everyone.
“The first time I taught this class, my students did extensive research projects, and I learned so much from them,” Wellman says. “But it was for an audience of one. It felt so selfish.
“By doing public-facing scholarship, they contribute to something much bigger than the class or Williams. They’re using their learning to potentially make the world better in terms of access to information.”
—Kim Catley is a frequent contributor to Williams Today.