It’s a good thing I’m not a finalist for a job at Middlebury College, because my decision to assign the Wikipedia as the textbook in my Western Civ course this semester flies in the face of a decision the History Department there has made to ban students from citing Wikipedia in any of their work. In a January 26 article in Insidehighered.com, Don Wyatt, chair of the department is quoted as saying, “Even though Wikipedia may have some value, particularly from the value of leading students to citable sources, it is not itself an appropriate source for citation.”
To me this seems like such an odd position for historians to take, given that so many of the sources we work with every day are highly contested as to their veracity, their meaning, their provenance. Every time I open a folder in the archives and look at a source, I reflexively ask myself “Who created this?”, “Why did he/she/they create it?”, “Is this an original, a copy, or even a forgery?”, “Is this the complete source or was it edited and if so who might have edited it and why?” Responsible historians must ask these (and many more) questions every time we look at a source. But apparently, if we are to follow the policy of our colleagues at Middlebury, we do not need to teach this same reflexive scepticism to our students.
Instead, we should just tell them that some sources of information simply are too unreliable to use.
I wish someone in my graduate program had told me the same thing about the Habsburg secret police reports that I spent months sorting through as part of my attempt to understand as much as I could about late-Habsburg Czech political figures. How much easier it would have been to just say, “Even though secret police reports may have some value, particularly from the value of leading researchers to citable sources, they are in themselves not appropriate sources for citation.” After all, those Habsburg spies made up all sorts of things about Czech politicians, fabricating evidence of disloyalty, drunkeness, and other misdeeds.
Oh well, the book is written now, so it’s too late for me. But maybe I can save some of my students from making the same mistakes I made and ban them from citing unreliable sources in their work.
I wonder what the folks at Middlebury (and some of the others who chimed in in the comments below the Insiderhighered.com article) will think of me now that I’m assigning Wikipedia as my textbook?
You’re doing what?!? Ah, but there’s a method to my depravity.
You see, I’m a firm believer that we can deny, deny, deny that new forms of content delivery are undermining all that we find comfortable, but denial just never seems to work in the end. I know (and so do you) that students are going to use Wikipedia regardless of what I tell them they can and can’t do. Even the folks at Middlebury admit this–students there are allowed to use Wikipedia for their research–they just can’t cite Wikipedia in their papers (explain that one to me). So, it seems to me that as educators we have an obligation to teach our students how to make appropriate use of the resources they are using and I’m not sure how a ban on citation will teach them anything worth knowing.
To address this problem, I’ve required each student in my class to create or substantially edit one historical entry in Wikipedia, complete with bibliography, link to other entries, an image (where appropriate), and so on. Then they must track what happens to their entry during the 14 weeks they are enrolled in my class and at the end of the semester they will write an essay in which they (a) analyze what happened to their entry and (b) analyze what they learned about the creation of historical content from the experience. Along the way we’ll be discussing all the things that make us squeamish about Wikipedia–the constant ebb and flow of facts in the entries, the problems of vandalism, and so on.
I may be going out on a limb here, but I’m willing to bet at least a few dollars that at the end of the semester my students will be much better consumers of digital historical content than those enrolled at Middlebury.