For two years, I only knew Adrianne Wadewitz by her Wikipedia username “Awadewit”. She was anonymous in that world, because she worried she might not be able to find a job in academia if her secret life editing pages online was revealed. (Eventually she removed the mask and became one of the great champions for an integration of Wikipedia and the academy.)
I first met Awadewit in 2007, when I submitted an article about the French novelist Honoré de Balzac for review as a “Good Article”. Experienced editors volunteer to do such reviews based on their own interests, so it was mostly luck that she happened upon my work. It was an incredible moment of serendipity that sparked the most profound era of my adult intellectual life.
Adrianne was ruthless in her commentary. She delineated all sorts of problems in my writing, from source materials to sentence structure. She knew her stuff, and she expected me to know it too, and she called me on it. But she was also incredibly supportive. She encouraged me to keep working on it, and make it good enough to be a “Featured Article” (which are described as “the best articles Wikipedia has to offer”).
We’re all familiar with Featured Articles; a different one is highlighted prominently every day on the Wikipedia home page. I had never dreamed that something I wrote might be considered good enough for such attention. (I was still glowing with euphoria when I got a tiny “Did You Know” tidbit to appear on the front page.)
Awadewit’s dual swords of high expectations and compassionate encouragement were vital to my entrée into that project. I would never have done anything worthwhile on Wikipedia if not for Adrianne.
I had done research in the past, of course, but working on that first Balzac article brought me fully into the world of serious scholarship, fastidious attention to detail, and (obviously) variegated usage of polysyllabic vocabulary. (At the same time, of course, she insisted that I “keep it simple”.) She was friendly and accessible throughout the process, and she was first in line to vote in favor of the article becoming Featured, once it had been fully developed. (She even said “it is a pleasure to read”.)
Awadewit was supremely nurturing in the years that followed. She gave me barnstar awards for “excellent teaching skills” and “superb copy editing”. She offered suggestions and reference help, on topics as diverse as 19th century literature and photograph copyright law. Ever fastidious about the tiniest detail, Adrianne never accepted sloppy work or the cutting of corners. Like many others, I became a stronger scholar because of it.
In the best tradition of conscious education, she adapted her relationship to every person as necessary by changing levels of expertise and experience. Once it became clear that I (sort of) knew what I was doing, she dropped some of the nurturing commentary when she wrote to me. I like to think that she was just saving it for people who needed it more; I know she was indefatigable in offering her robust knowledge and vital perspective to students and colleagues around the world.
Adrianne was also a feminist like me, and not afraid to use that term. She waged a vigilant war of ideas against systematic bias and underrepresentation. We bonded in part because of our focus on women’s issues (especially when I wrote the article on Emmeline Pankhurst), and she served as a powerful role model, blending feminist principles with relentless scholarship.
I’m not active on Wikipedia these days, but the things she taught me have woven themselves into my high school English classroom, my fiction writing, and my other forms of scholarship. I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude and appreciation for her guidance, humor, and support. I can only hope that I have a fraction of the influence on students and other people that she’s had on me.
Three days before I learned of Adrianne’s death, I stumbled upon this short video clip by Vietnamese zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh:
He points out that we look at a cloud and think of it as a distinct entity. But when it is time for that cloud to become rain, we can still love the rain that it becomes, and take solace in the continued existence of the cloud as a vital continuity of our world.
I guess it’s time for Adrianne to become the rain, but dammit, I still want her to be the cloud. I want her to post silly things on Facebook, and send me emails that can’t be longer than two sentences, because she’s just too busy helping hundreds of other people. I’m happy to have her rain with me now, nourishing the roots of my intellectual garden. But I wish I could look up and still see the cloud.