Jaclyn Michael wanted her students to think about two things on one subject: the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam.
She wanted them to think about how the book is being interpreted in today’s society versus its meaning when it emerged in the Seventh Century.
“Any tradition where you have a sacred text that is said to be revealed in a religious context, you have modern-day religious persons looking at that text and saying, ‘Can I find myself in it as a 21st century Muslim?’,” says Michael, an assistant professor in philosophy and religion.
She also wanted her students to read entries about the Qur’an on Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia whose information is compiled and written by its users. When it comes to the Qur’an on Wikipedia—the first source for many students writing research papers—the entries aren’t considered very accurate due to bias and information taken from academically unreliable sources, Michael says.
The UTC students’ task was to see if the entries were accurate and unbiased and, if they weren’t, to edit them by adding corrected information, removing the bias or offering deeper interpretations of Qur’an text.
“A lot of professors and educators today will complain: When a student has a research project, what is the first thing they do? They go to Wikipedia and they think that’s it,” Michael explains. “In the project, I had students write reflection papers and all of the students commented, ‘I’m going to think twice about using Wikipedia in the future.’ I was like, ‘Bingo! That’s exactly what I wanted.’”
Students were divided into groups and given a specific theme: Prophets and Messengers in Islam, Eschatology—”a fancy word that we use to describe the end of days, hell, all of that,” Michael says—and Hermeneutics, an interpretation of the Qur’an’s text.
Savannah Stout, a student in the class, says the fact that anyone can go on Wikipedia and write and edit its entries is “a bit unsettling.”
“Humans, some who are far from scholars on certain topics, can edit, add, and publish anything they please to Wikipedia pages,” she wrote in her reflection paper. “The readers have a right to be concerned.
“The majority are warned that Wikipedia is not a reliable source of information, although, even blessed with this knowledge, most take what they see at face value as fact,” she continues. “This is why it is pivotal to make the Wikipedia articles factual as possible.”
By diving deeply into the public editing process of Wikipedia, Michael says she wanted to give students the chance to participate in the “public service” element of the website.
“I wanted them to feel like they’d done something that would benefit the public,” she says. “Wikipedia is us. We create it; we edit it. In their reflection papers, the students noted that they felt good that they had contributed to something that benefits the public good.”
Stout, whose group examined the topic of Prophets and Messengers, notes that there were about 20,000 page views after her group made edits to the Wikipedia entry on the subject. While the actual editing was daunting, she says, the work was “rewarding.”
“It is intimidating editing an article, especially knowing that many people will view the page and rely on the edits for information,” she wrote. “This specific type of research feels rewarding in a different way than a typical final research paper would. It feels more impactful and effective, and I am glad I had a chance to do this project.”
Casey Newell, who also enrolled in the class, echoed Stout’s sentiments.
“I am glad that you had us do the project. I was able to learn things that I would likely have never learned without participating in this,” Newell wrote in her written reflections at the end of the course. “It was definitely more challenging than a final paper, but now I know how to do something that I never knew before. It was humbling, educational, and very much worth it.”