In December 2006 I was a panelist for the first (or maybe second) round of NEH Digital Start Up grants. Because this was a new program at the NEH, then NEH Chairman Bruce Cole sat in on our deliberations to see what issues the panelists thought were important or not. At the conclusion of the review process, Bruce then engaged us in an open discussion about what was happening in the digital humanities. At some point in that conversation, he asked us what we thought about this newish online encyclopedia called Wikipedia. I went first and said, “Well, I assign it as the textbook in my Western Civ survey.”
That was a show stopper.
At the time there was already a great deal of angst about the maleability of Wikipedia entries, the popularity of the encyclopedia among young people who didn’t seem to understand that (a) it was an encyclopedia, not a work of scholarship and (b) that as a crowd sourced document, it was constantly evolving and based on the wisdom of the crowd, not of experts. That I had junked my textbook in favor of such a resource earned me more than a few odd looks that day.
Why would I do that? And why was I already assigning my students the task of creating new entries or significantly upgrading existing entries as a standard assignment in all of my courses–an assignment I have included in every course I’ve taught (except one) for the past six years. In fact, a little research in this blog reminds me that my first foray into assigning Wikipedia editing was in the fall 2005 semester.
Since then, I’ve been a strong advocate for Wikipedia as a teaching tool, not only in this blog, but also in various talks I’ve given at colleges and universities around the country over the past half decade. I have also written several historical entries myself and edited a number of others.
Given that long record of support for Wikipedia, its mission, and its ethos, it’s more than a little ironic to me that I am now the bête noire of the Wikipedia community and Jimmy Wales in particular.
Let’s enumerate my crimes, sticking to the facts (given the rumors and innuendo that are so often part of this conversation). In the spring 2008 semester, students in my course Lying About the Past, created a false entry on a fictitious American pirate (Edward Owens) that they allowed to remain online for about two weeks, at which point they changed the entry to reflect the fact that it was a hoax. Despite the perceptions of many around the web, I did not require my students to create a false entry. This was their choice — one they made after a long discussion about the ethics of doing so — but I likewise did not tell them not to create the entry. Doing so was their choice, and I approved of that choice, with the proviso that they would out themselves on the last day of the semester.
My second crime was to teach this course again. This spring, students in my course created three Wikipedia entries in the service of their online historical hoaxes — all three of which were 100% factually accurate. Two of those entries were deleted for being insufficiently notable and because the students subverted Wikipedia’s new editorial process that requires a certain number of editorial reviews of a new entry before it is posted. The third entry remains and has already been improved by the crowd. As with the prior version of the course, students this spring were not required to create Wikipedia entries–they chose to do so. Further, they chose to create completely accurate entries after a long discussion of the ethics of their actions.
Reaction to my course, spurred largely by an article at theAtlantic.com by Yoni Appelbaum, was swift. In addition to being called names such as “pond scum,” and, “a cancer on the ass of humanity,” I even received one death threat (referred to law enforcement for investigation). Among Wikipedia administrators, the conversation drifted briefly toward an all institution blockade of George Mason IP addresses, but later settled down. What this discussion demonstrates, I think, is that robust conversation among interested parties is worth reading. The Wikipedia admin discussion aired both sides of the debate and arrived at a “no decision” decision…much like the way Wikipedia entries are edited, ending up in compromise between the interested parties.
On the personal Wikipedia back end page of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, several members of the Wikipedia community have weighed in as well. [NB: When I first wrote this entry, it was unclear to me that the personal talk pages were places for users to contact someone -- I assumed that someone's personal talk page was their page, i.e., the place where they conversed with others. See Ben's comment below for more detail on that.] Given that Wales himself is guilty of editing Wikipedia entries (his own) to make the past seem different than it was, I wonder how those Wikipedians who are angry at me feel about the founder of their project also recreating the past?
So, where does this leave me with respect to Wikipedia? I’m in the same place I was seven years ago when I started requiring my students to add to and improve the encyclopedia. But I will also continue to teach Lying About the Past. Given the ubiquitous nature of Wikipedia in the information landscape, I think it’s fair to say that whenever I teach the course again, Wikipedia will be a part of it some way, some how.