Two weeks ago I was in a meeting at the National Endowment for the Humanities and Bruce Cole, Chairman of the Endowment, asked those in attendance what we thought about the Wikipedia. I went first and tossed out the bombshell that I’m using Wikipedia as my textbook in Western Civ next semester. Needless to say, that was a show-stopper.
But I can’t take credit for the idea. Jeremy Boggs suggested it back in early December and I jumped on the bandwagon with him. When people in the NEH meeting asked me how I could use the Wikipedia as a textbook, I I explained that:
- Textbooks (especially Western Civ textbooks) are largely one fact after another and so they tend to reinforce students’ beliefs that history is just a big pile of facts to memorize. Encyclopedias aren’t much different, so why not assign a free resource rather than one that costs between $50-$85?
- The typical university student uses Google to find answers to factual questions before any other resource and when those questions are historical, Wikipedia entries are almost always in the top five hits returned by the search. Since they are going to use Wikipedia anyway, why not go ahead and assign it?
Am I caving in to the students by making this decision? I would be, if it weren’t for the assignment I give them in the second week of the semester. I make them write a Wikipedia entry on any topic from European history that they want (or to substantially edit a stub). Then they submit that entry to the entire class for review and everyone in class is encouraged to edit the entries written by their peers. Finally, at the end of the semester the student authors have to review the history of what happened to their entries and write a paper in which they discuss what happened to those entries. In this way they learn more about the information resource they rely on so much.
The second aspect of the course that I think insulates me from the charge of “caving in” is that the rest of the course is centered on five historical monographs and the course is structured around a discussion of the differences between analytical history (in the monographs) and the “just the facts” history one finds in encyclopedias.
Will it work? The Wikipedia assignments I’ve been giving over the past year have certainly made a dent in my students’ belief that the Wikipedia is the best possible source for historical information and have taught them how to use this resource in appropriately critical ways.
For more on the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, see the December 26 issue of Signpost, Wikipedia’s newsletter.