Anyone teaching history these days knows how ubiquitous the Wikipedia has become in our students’ imaginings of what sorts of historical information they might use in their research. This semester I’ve received more papers that rely almost exclusively on the Wikipedia than ever before. To try to get my students to think a little more carefully about using (a) an encyclopedia and (b) an open source encyclopedia as a source of information at the college level, I spent a fair amount of time talking about the virtues and failings of the Wikipedia all semester long.
In addition to talking about Wikipedia often, I also assigned my graduate students several readings on Wikipedia and had them create their own entries. I gave my undergraduates the option of creating an entry for extra credit (only two did took me up on the offer). The discussion the graduate students had in our blog was especially interesting, because, while many remained skeptical of the virtues of Wikipedia and almost everyone disliked the interface, as a group they were intrigued by the possibilities of “open source history” and at least one is convinced the Wikipedia is worthy of more serious research.
I also posted on my undergraduate class blogs a recent article by USA Today columnist John Siegenthaler in which he wrote about his travails caused by a malicious posting about him in Wikipedia. I think the response of my undergraduates (one sample) is very interesting, because they largely thought he ought to not take it all so seriously and, as one of them wrote, “learn to deal with it.” In short, they thought being maligned on Wikipedia was just not that big of a deal. I wonder, though, if this attitude carries over to their attitudes about other false information on Wikipedia? Does that mean that when a student turns in an essay with false information in it derived from Wikipedia that his or her instructor ought to “learn to deal with it”?
It’s clear that the Wikipedia is here to stay and I’ve even authored or edited a couple of entries myself, if only to correct glaring errors in my own small corner of the historical world. How we teach our students to use this resource in a critical way will say a lot about how well we manage to meet them on the ground they are most comfortable standing on.