Why I Won’t Get Hired at Middlebury

Oh my.

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.

18 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Get Hired at Middlebury

  1. Amanda French

    I commented on that Inside Higher Ed article, and I’ll tell you what I think of you: I think you’re probably an excellent teacher and scholar.

    That’s only an educated guess, of course. I have much firmer evidence for the argument that you’re an excellent writer. Thanks for writing such an articulate and lively piece. Go reflexive skepticism!

  2. Jon K

    What a wonderful pedagogical stance! Would that more professors were willing to teach students how to think and create new knowledge than fortify their positions in the Ivory Tower.

  3. Jeremy

    Well, I may be selfish, but I don’t want to see you go to Middlebury, or anywhere else! I want you to stay at George Mason, at least until I’m done here. So keep using Wikipedia.

  4. guez

    Okay, I am going to dissent here. What bugs me about your course, and many similar endeavors, is that you have essentially turned your WESTERN CIV course into a TECHNOLOGY course. Yes, I know that the point is to encourage “reflexive skepticism,” but shouldn’t students be learning about history-how we understand the past, how history is written, etc? The last time I checked, there was little serious discussion of any major historical/historiographical question on Wikipedia.

    Maybe your students will be better consumers of “electronic historical content,” but you should at least entertain the idea that the students of Middlebury might be better versed in the infinitely richer and vaster world of print scholarship.

  5. tkelly7 Post author

    Thanks to everyone for the comments thus far…Quez, I understand your dissent, which is why I have also assigned six historical monographs in the course. Wikipedia merely replaces the textbook I was using. I don’t know how many monographs they are assigning at Middlebury, but I’m pretty happy with six for a freshman level course required of all students regardless of major. In this way, I can introduce them to the richer and vaster world you call our attention to.

  6. Delaney Kirk

    We know that our students are going to look at Wikipedia regardless of what we say. Thus your approach makes sense…show the students HOW to determine the credibility of this source and others!

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  8. Ken

    It seems to me there are apples and oranges here. I think your idea to use Wikipedia as a text book replacement is an excellent approach. It is a reference work, the same as a text book. It might even possibly carry less weight than a text book in a student’s mind, which would be even better, opening the door to teaching them about the contested nature of knowledge, meta-narratives, etc.

    However, as Roy has written and others have repeated, encyclopedias in general should not be used for research papers. While Middlebury certainly has set Wikipedia apart from other encyclopedias in its ban, I would hazard they have practically prevented students from citing encyclopedias more broadly. Wikipedia’s prominence in student work is almost certainly closely tied to both its easy access and its general reliability. Perhaps Middlebury would do better to clarify their motivation, but I have a feeling the effect will be the same whether or not they choose to ban all encyclopedias as references.

  9. Keith Patrick Sied

    I have to say that it is obvious that you don’t agree with the stand that Middlebury is taking against Wikipedia. In a way, I do agree with you. Encyclopedias do hold important information and they can be very helpful when it comes to research papers, or any other types of assignments. To be honest, I am actually a fan of Wikipedia, and I tend to use Wikipedia a lot; whether it comes to school assignments or just plain curiousity about any type of person, place, or thing while “surfing” the internet. Wikipedia, to me, is a very valuable teaching tool, and I agree with you 100% that you use it as your textbook. In my assignments in the test, I used Wikipedia and it seemed as if every bit of information I used I got from Wikipedia because there was so much information. This information I got from Wikipedia just happened to check out with other information I got from other websites. I believe that Wikipedia is an excellent tool for higher learning. It other people who have used Wikipedia in the past have found out that Wikipedia is not a loyal teaching tool, then I’m sure they have their reasons. But for me, there is no reason why I should disagree with Wikipedia as a teaching tool, or as a textbook for your class.

  10. Leslie Harris

    I think it’s great that – instead of being afraid of Wikipedia – you are *using* it as an assignment for students. That’s a much wiser and more practical approach, consistent with some of the “best practices” teaching I’ve encountered in my career. Basically, you are starting from where the students already are, and then teaching them to think at a higher level – to use Wikipedia in a self-conscious, reflective way. I think your assignment of having students write (or revise) an entry in Wikipedia and then analyze what happened to that entry is outstanding. Students are so rarely put in the position of being authors in a public forum. When they are, they tend to find it *very* empowering. They own the work that they are creating and have a greater sense of authority, as well.

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  13. sarah

    I am very happy to see that someone … has actually done research about the reliability of wiki- and encyclopedias. They are both very reliable and, after doing endless research about art history (that was my major), I firmly believe they are just as accurate as any print source. I am thoroughly pissed off at educators who say wikipedia and encyclopedias are ‘bad sources.’ I guess they are “old school” and are afraid of change. Scholarly journal articles are never perfect and history books are MOST DEFINITELY not perfect.

    I am angry about this because my boyfriend just started college and was marked down 10% for citing an encyclopedia. Meanwhile, his instructor told him the Bible is a great source!! The Bible is no more credible than Roman mythology.

  14. Mark Stoneman

    Mills, I myself also accept that students use Wikipedia, so I try to help them understand how to do it. But I’ve never actually asked them to write entries. I would like to hear more about your experiences now that the semester is over. I would also like to hear if anyone else has tried an assignment along these lines.

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