We more or less know what the “public humanities” look like: specialists explain their research in clear, relevant terms for a broad general audience, or apply it in service of a community, institution, or other small or large public. But what do public humanities look like for our undergraduates? Can non-specialists engage in meaningful contribution to the public good? Occasionally we are able to involve them in local Russian communities – working with Russian-speaking immigrants or the elderly to record oral histories, for example, or helping at a local cultural center. Sometimes we forge international connections, for example partnering with a peer institution in Russia for a collaboration. These types of projects are wonderful, and I want to add two more ideas to the list from my own teaching practice.
These are: writing for Wikipedia, as a substitute for one traditional essay, and subtitling, as a substitute for the translation assignment in a language class. While many of us teaching in the humanities loved writing papers, we are constantly encountering students who simply don’t share this passion, and who are feeling the pressures of “professionalizing” and “adding lines to the resume,” so to speak, without necessarily knowing what that looks like. These two options – writing for Wikipedia, subtitling films – in addition to creative projects such as online gallery curation, podcasting, music composition, performance, etc. are meant to bridge Slavic/REEE Studies courses with their public application – in the span of one academic semester. Moreover, these projects are easily incorporated into virtual classes, and were a blessing to me in the Zoom age.
The Wikipedia assignment is great for showing your non-major students in large courses how the knowledge they’re able to acquire within the span of a semester can be useful in the public sphere. The subtitling assignment may be adapted for intermediate or advanced language students, and simply shows them how their language skills might be applied creatively in visual media. For me, both the Wikipedia assignment and the subtitling assignment are part of a growing list of creative projects that I offer to students – while still keeping the traditional essay an available option for those who want it or need it. What follows below are some suggestions on how to incorporate this type of work into your courses. Please do connect with me for any questions or feedback.
Suggestions for Incorporating Wikipedia-Writing
Our students are avid users of Wikipedia and helping them learn to write for it empowers them to understand what makes a reliable source – and puts pressure on them to write a well-researched essay that will be seen by far more people than just their teacher!
By the way, you have to plan in advance to teach a course using Wikipedia and apply by their deadlines on Wikiedu.org. They have a limited number of spots for courses because you get a consultant who is available for advising and troubleshooting. Wikipedia has an extensive course infrastructure, including training modules on reliable sources, citation, and encyclopedia entry-writing. My students and I breezed through the modules, which took very little time and were generally enjoyable and helpful even for the quite-advanced students in my seminar. It’s important to create the Wikipedia Course Dashboard for your class early on in the semester, as Wikipedia requires students to do some of the modules in order to contribute. At a minimum, the course should have a six-week timeline for the Wikipedia entry-writing assignment.
When the time came to identify Wiki entry topics, we used Wikipedia’s Project Pages where Wiki Editors point out gaps and suggest much-needed topics. Wikipedia established several initiatives to improve public information about women in history (including “Women in Red”) after it found that a majority of its crowd-sourced biographical entries were written about male figures and that Wikipedia editors are, overwhelmingly, men. For Slavic courses that emphasize gender studies, a Wikipedia assignment might be a great fit. By making our small dent in the extreme gender imbalance that characterizes one of the most widely visited sites on the internet, and creating something for free, public use, we showed students that even a college assignment can be a contribution to the public sphere. For my part, I received extraordinarily well-researched and well-written “papers.” My students, in turn, were happy to see how much traffic their entries were getting when they were
My own participation in the project was made possible by the Art+Feminism edit-a-thon hosted at University of Michigan STAMPS in February, where volunteers helped me get started with Wikipedia (and made faces at my baby so that I could work!)
In the future, I would do a few things differently:
- Connect my course with an edit-a-thon, so that students can get the in-depth training (though mine, at least, figured out Wikipedia very quickly with the help of some training videos and a bit of class discussion).
- Build more time for editing already-existing entries related to the course, in addition to writing new entries from scratch.
- In a language course, ask students to edit Russian Wikipedia articles on subjects they know well, or even write short, well-sourced articles in Russian.
Film Subtitling as Translation
In lieu of papers, which they had been writing all semester, I asked the students in my Russian 499 Advanced Language Seminar to create subtitles in Russian and English for several new films. The project was a professionalization opportunity for my students (in translation, in working with subtitling software and films). It was also a free service for emerging filmmakers who cannot necessarily afford professional subtitles. Russian acquaintances were very helpful in connecting us to recent film school graduates with new work that needed a wider audience and could use English subtitles for opportunities like international festivals. My students so enjoyed the project that, as the semester came to a close, four of them decided to create, with me, the Flying Subtitles Collective. We have free accounts on the online subtitling site Amara, a Slack Workspace where we discuss our ongoing projects, a Google Drive Folder where we keep our translation files and film files, and a website under construction. Typically, we translate collaboratively in Google Docs and then, after much discussion, input subtitles (condensing and editing) into Amara. Throughout this process, we discuss translations and do lots of research on terms, jargon, synonyms, social/historical context, etc. We also communicate with filmmakers and ask them questions.
We have a good relationship with a few Russian filmmakers and instructors. We are hoping to keep offering this service to organizations and individuals that need it, while learning about Russian history and contemporary culture.
The Flying Subtitles Collective is seeking new members. We are also happy to work with instructors and courses looking to integrate film subtitles into their assignments. While we can share our process and experiences, we recognize that Amara, the program we use, is very easy to learn – you probably don’t need us showing you the ropes, and the public accounts are free. A downside of Amara is that simultaneous group work is impossible: only one person at a time can edit the subtitles of a film, though the second person can do so as soon as they are done. Another downside is that Amara requires films to be on YouTube and Mosfilm and some other film channels have very recently updated their settings to restrict the use of their films, making subtitling in Amara impossible. As a group we are looking into workarounds. In the meantime, we are partnering with new and emerging filmmakers to create Russian and English subtitles for their films.
Conclusion: In Defense of Writing
Digital creative assignments are most successful when they complement good writing prep. Students will need it for writing encyclopedia articles and they will need it for translation. Asking the right questions, doing lots of research, striking the right tone, and revising thoroughly – all of these are crucial for the successful completion of both assignments. When I design rubrics to evaluate these and any other project options (which, again, I would stress, I offered alongside traditional essay prompts), I find it helpful to consult the Association of American Colleges and Universities VALUE rubrics for creative projects. To students, these rubrics help bridge the creative projects with the academic writing they do in class with common objectives and a measure of success in terms of creativity, rather than in tension with it.
Ania Aizman is a postdoctoral fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows and assistant professor in the University of Michigan Slavic Department.
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