Eric Rauchway: Wikipedia is good for Academia

The History Department at Middlebury College last month banned students' citation of Wikipedia, saying the free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit "suffers inevitably from inaccuracies deriving in large measure from its unique manner of compilation." In The New York Times, a professor explained that the policy would help students "escape the consequences of errors."

But if, as the Middlebury history professor Amy Morsman said, "Middlebury College students ... are beyond making Wikipedia the starting point of their research," they must also have advanced beyond believing that Wikipedia suffers by comparison with other encyclopedias: evidently, it doesn't--not in science nor in history. What's at stake here isn't error. It's how we in the professional knowledge business greet our new overlords--the plain people of the Internet. Right now, we're lobbing fibs at them of just the kind the Internet is good at puncturing--and, indeed, of just the kind the losing side used the last time our civilization endured a revolution in the ownership of knowledge.

Wikipedia's founder Jimmy "Jimbo" Wales agreed with the Middlebury historians. "Basically, they are recommending exactly what we suggested--students shouldn't be citing encyclopedias. I would hope they wouldn't be citing Encyclopaedia Britannica, either." All encyclopedias stand several degrees of separation away from the events on which they report, saying in effect "he said she said he saw a document that described it."

But, "by ... barring Wikipedia citations without mentioning other encyclopedias," as the Middlebury American Studies professor Jason Mittell said, "it would seem that their problem is with the Wiki- not the -pedia." Indeed, the History Department's policy says so, and so does Morsman in her debate (video) with Professor Mittell: "It suffers from inaccuracies due in large part to ... its open source nature." Nor do Middlebury historians stand alone in decrying Wikipedia for this reason. The newest edition of Mary Lynn Rampolla's Pocket Guide to Writing in History for students says, "Wikipedia ... allows any reader to add or edit entries. Consequently, its entries cannot be assumed to be accurate."

On examination, this argument has itself proved inaccurate. As Roy Rosenzweig wrote, "Wikipedia for the most part gets its facts right," and contrariwise, "[y]ou can find bad history in the library." ...

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Lisa Kazmier - 3/24/2007

Here's my problem with Wikipedia. There is a quality variation on the information and one has to be able to evaluate it to use it. I'd prefer frankly. Any of my students who last year defined "balance of power" not in terms of how I used it or the textbook used it but by using the first sentence of Wikipedia discussing being a "balancing or bandwagoning" power didn't get the point; they didn't define the term nor discuss its use in history.

So, it makes students lazily rely on something they can get from the computer. AND they do this by not looking at their own textbook. Indeed, they do not know how to use a table of contents nor do they know how to use (or maybe even find) an index. That's how lazy things have gotten. I just had students email me because they couldn't find an article in the book despite the fact that they were supposed to have read it and the corresponding pages were given on the syllabus as well as in the ToC.

Wikipedia is enhancing this culture of laziness. That's my problem. I got students that have trouble reading an "easy" textbook. Wikipedia can't solve that obviously nor will help the student who essentially is functionally illiterate. But I think if students are made to rely on the stuff they're supposed to have, as in their books or what's in the library, it's better, so I definitely sympathize with those who want to discourage using Wikipedia.

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