a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies (Spring 2012 version)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 April 20, 2008: If I can get the technology set up before my undergraduate historical methods students arrive in class, I will play a clip from The Colbert Report. Stephen Colbert has discovered Wikipedia; he demonstrates to his audience how easy it is for individual actors in the 21st century to create the “truth,” or at least “truthiness.” He alters the Wikipedia.org entry on elephants so that the population of African elephants has miraculously tripled in the past six months,1 a position on environmental degradation roughly consistent with his conservative persona. I have moments when I think that the only reason for this lesson is to create a pretext for convincing the students that I am cooler than I really am. In fact, however, my purpose is to teach students to think about authority, authorship, and argument in tertiary sources.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Yes, I teach Wikipedia. And I teach Wikipedia without apologies.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Historians are notoriously skeptical of the value of encyclopedias. When we discuss this topic in class, my students tell me which colleagues have forbidden them to cite any encyclopedia in their papers. Wikipedia has come in for particular criticism due to its common production. It lacks authority because anyone — you, me, or Stephen Colbert — can change any entry. Most famously, perhaps, in 2007 the Middlebury College Department of History adopted a resolution informing students that, “Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source.”2 This injunction effectively limits the use of Wikipediato what one librarian commenting on an earlier version of this essay called “presearch.”3 Most observers perceived this policy as an outright ban; what are students to do with information they locate only on Wikipedia?  Moreover, college instructors have developed bitter feelings about the ease with which students plagiarize assignments by cutting and pasting from Wikipedia.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Despite the skepticism surrounding encyclopedic writing, however, some historians continue to edit, write for, and consult specialized scholarly encyclopedias. A portion of my own career is staked on the intellectual value of encyclopedia writing. While in graduate school, I also worked on the staff of  The Encyclopedia of Chicago at the Newberry Library.4 In addition to writing entries, I developed and ran the fact-checking process for the project, in the process encountering an astonishing array of specialty encyclopedias on topics I never imagined anyone would bother to compile: they ranged from an encyclopedia of serial killers to one about American first ladies. My work for the Encyclopedia of Chicago deepened my nascent historical skills and understanding of the site of my dissertation research; persuaded me of the value for humanities scholars of scientists’ graduate education apprenticeship model;and built into my career an assumption that encyclopedias are legitimate sites of scholarly productivity. Having written some four dozen encyclopedia entries since 1995, I am now planning an Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, which my collaborators and I hope to launch in print and online in 2016.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Thus when I started teaching the undergraduate history methods course at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), it seemed to me only natural to include tertiary sources in the curriculum. In contrast to other instructors who forbid the citation of encyclopedias, I believe that it is a mistake to hide my head in the sand and pretend that particular sources of information and ideas do not exist. My job as a professor of history is to teach students how to critically evaluate the sources they encounter—wherever they find them. We all know that in the digital age our students’ first stop for information is on the Internet; for many, the first stop is Wikipedia. If my students are going to turn consistently to Wikipedia for their research, then I am going to contextualize Wikipedia for them by embedding it in a larger set of lessons about the utility of tertiary sources for historical research.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The Assignment
Much of my history methods class centers on introducing students to the basic resources of our library.5 My goal is to ameliorate their fear of the library’s mysteries by taking them to all of the major departments where they might find themselves conducting historical research: at UWM, this includes the Research and Instructional Services, Archives, Special Collections, and Media and Reserve Departments,6 and the American Geographical Society Library. At each stop, a librarian orients the students to the department’s physical and intellectual features.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 For their part, students develop short papers imagining how they might use the stop’s sources to craft a research paper. Later in the semester they pick their favorite topic and do preliminary work identifying relevant historiography and contextualizing information, such as is readily found in tertiary sources such as encyclopedias. This task used to involve a lengthy tour of the Reference Room. We walked through the historical section and pulled from the shelves a variety of tertiary sources, examining their contents and marveling at the range of information at their fingertips. In 2009, however, UWM’s Golda Meir library underwent what has turned out to be a typical and wildly successful 21st century renovation. To make way for several hundred computer stations, high tech classrooms, and a coffeeshop, 90 percent of the reference collection was dispersed to the stacks. To keep the reference collection accessible, the library subscribed to Paratext’s Reference Universe database, which enables subject and keyword searching within more than 20,000 reference sources. Many of these tertiary sources are available electronically and linked right from the database; for some sources, however, students must still go up to the stacks and pull a book from the shelf. Although I regret the loss of the hands-on, sensory-oriented approach that allowed for serendipitous discoveries of the riches of evidence available, I applaud the capacity to zero in quickly on desired information. In either case, the initial reference assignment has been the same: using reference room or database sources, write a list of twelve questions and answers. The assignment reads: “For each of the three research projects, produce a list of four factually-based questions. Using the library’s tertiary sources, find answers to those questions. Turn in a list of the questions and their answers. Each answer should conclude with a precisely footnoted citation (including page numbers) where those answers can be found.”

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Simultaneous with the visit to the reference room, I introduce my students to Wikipedia. I assign the late Roy Rosenzweig’s pioneering 2006 essay “Can History Be Open Source?” which concluded that historians should contribute to Wikipedia. Rosenzweig acknowledged some of the most important reasons for historians’ reluctance to write for Wikipedia, including challenges to their information from other contributors, the site’s prohibition on using original research, and the role of expertise in determining historical significance. The most important problem, he saw, was that historians earn no professional credit for contributing to Wikipedia precisely because of its basic, collectivist premise: anyone can contribute to it, so there are no authors. A historian might work very hard to include information she knows from her own painstaking research to be correct, only to find that someone else deletes it.7

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The purpose of the classroom discussion of Wikipedia is to make sure that students—to use a metaphor originating in the days of print culture—are all on the same page in their understanding of how Wikipedia works. It is a tertiary source; anyone can contribute to it, subject to a certain increasing range of restrictions8; and what appears in an entry one day might be gone or changed the next. As an authoritative reference source, then, Wikipedia has advantages and disadvantages. It is often current9, and a crowd of dedicated, volunteer editors constantly defend its contents against controversy and vandalism. But some topics are mysteriously given short shrift, while fans and boosters lavish attention on their favorite topics.10

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The next step on my pedagogical tour of Wikipedia is to ask students to compare its contents to those of a more conventional tertiary source. My syllabus instructs the students:

Part I: find three articles on historical topics on Wikipedia.org. One article should be good, one article should be bad, and one article should be excellent. You should use your own best judgment in deciding what counts as bad, good, and excellent. List these articles, indicating which you think was excellent, good, and bad, including the date and time you accessed them. Print the first page of each article and turn it in.

Part II: for each of the three articles, find a corresponding (as close as you can get) article in a specialty print encyclopedia (such as those found in the reference room). Try to avoid general reference encyclopedias; part of the point of this assignment is to familiarize you with the breadth of tertiary sources available to you. Make photocopies of these articles and on the photocopies write citations indicating where they came from.

Part III: write a short paper (2-3 pages) comparing the Wikipedia articles to those from the specialty encyclopedias, in answer to the question: “What qualities make a tertiary source good and useful for historical research?” Use specific examples from the articles you have selected. The focus of the paper should be about what works and does not work in all six articles; the paper should not try to answer a question about whether Wikipedia articles are better or worse than those that appear in specialty encyclopedias. In writing this paper, you should think about such issues as the interpretive power of the article; the accessibility of the prose; the level of factual detail; the visual layout of the information; and any other issues that strike you as relevant. Turn in copies of the print articles (with citations noted on the copy) with your paper.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In class, we discuss the merits of the various tertiary sources at their disposal. My students tend to notice things like the convenience of the Internet over the library, how long entries are, how much detail they offer, whether they answer the particular questions that they had in mind, and whether they are comprehensive in scope.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Yet no student has hit what I consider to be the crux of the matter: how well the tertiary sources convey their arguments.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 “Whoa!” someone might reply here. Encyclopedias are not supposed to have arguments. They are supposed to convey factual information without bias. Wikipedia enshrines this claim with its philosophy that all articles must be written from a Neutral Point of View (NPOV).11 When we seek out an encyclopedia article on a topic, we are (theoretically) looking for a basic introduction to the topic, an introduction that is balanced. We are not looking for the cutting edge of a scholarly debate. If we wanted argument, we would go to the monographic literature on the topic. Among the virtues of Wikipedia (and other tertiary sources) is the ease of locating just that quick hit of information that we need to write a lecture.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 I would suggest, however, that even in a brief encyclopedia entry, argument — whether coherent or not — is unavoidable. Environmental historian William Cronon explains the impossibility of NPOV in his article, “A Place for Stories.” Cronon conducts a thought experiment: describe the history of the Great Plains. Cronon argues that the only “pure chronicle would have included every event that ever occurred on the Great Plains, no matter how large or small, so that a colorful sunset in September 1623 or a morning milking of cows on a farm near Leavenworth in 1897 would occupy just as prominent a place as the destruction of the bison herds or the 1930s dust storms.” Choosing which details to include and exclude is implicitly an act of argument, prioritizing one facet of an experience over another.12 In this volume, Shawn Graham’s “Wikiblitz” essay suggests that NPOV is itself a point of view that enables certain kinds of rhetoric but not others.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Editors of scholarly encyclopedias recognize that their authors are making arguments. I learned this multiple times as my own encyclopedic career unfolded. My first professional publication was an encyclopedia entry about Canada’s Montagnais-Naskapi people.13 Indians are far afield for me intellectually, so when I got to the point in my reading where I understood the essence of the anthropological debate about the Montagnais-Naskapi I concluded that I had done enough research and should start writing. Although I did not know enough to intervene in the debate about whether the Montagnais-Naskapi were pre-capitalist or extra-capitalist, my narrative structures an argument into the article by threading throughout it observations about how the European colonial encounter changed the name by which these small bands of nomadic people were known, culminating in the rise of their preference for “Innu” at the turn of the 21st century.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 My work for The Encyclopedia of Chicago reinforced the lesson about the centrality of argument. There, James Grossman explained to me, the reason that authors’ names appear on their entries is that they are making arguments, sometimes controversial ones. For example, the editors anticipated that Joseph Bigott’s article on balloon frame houses would argue that this form evolved over the course of two centuries of white settlement in the continental interior rather than springing up de novo in Chicago—contrary to general belief in popular Chicago architectural history.14 The majority of my entries were about city neighborhoods. My goal was to make legible the history of each area as revealed in its modern landscape. The argument of each entry rested in its explanation for the neighborhood’s development over time. For some that meant the class origins of its initial subdivision dictated its present condition; for others, periods of economic deterioration and overcrowding determined its future; for still others, deliberate interventions in the area, such as those wrought by urban renewal or community organizations, shaped a dramatic change in the neighborhood’s status. Sometimes editors treat length as dictating the capacity of an article to offer an argument. In addition to the 1,000 word entry on the Montagnais-Naskapi in The Encyclopedia of North American Indians, I also wrote several unsigned, short, “factual” entries on US-Indian treaties. Because these pieces were supposed to convey only introductory information, the publisher chose to leave these anonymous. But at The Encyclopedia of Chicago, authors received credit even for entries as short as 100 words.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Students, I have found, have enormous difficulty detecting argument in encyclopedia entries. I am not sure why that is the case, but I have some theories. First, they operate on the implicit assumption that all encyclopedias are NPOV. Additionally, in the context of an authoritatively written encyclopedia entry it is usually very difficult to discern the broader scholarly context that might allow a student to envision an alternative argument. Unless the author explicates the alternatives, the novice reader has no way of knowing what other lines of argument might be possible. That very novelty is probably what impelled the student to a tertiary source in the first place. Additionally, the emphasis on narrative writing in history makes it hard for students to grasp what arguments are present even in longer secondary sources. Historians do write dissertations that engage explicitly with the relevant historiography. But to compete with popular history for bookstore shelf space, we often drop our overt lines of debate while embedding the argument in the narrative structure of our prose. It takes concentrated training to get advanced graduate students to learn to unpack the arguments and debates of scholarship; asking the majority of undergraduates to see argument as an intellectual puzzle implicit in every act of writing, especially in the context of encyclopedia entries, is probably one of our greatest pedagogical challenges.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Maintaining the argument in a Wikipedia entry presents a special problem because of the collective character of authorship. Both the NPOV policy and the ability of “just anyone” to contribute to an entry make it enormously difficult to build and protect a coherent argument in this context. Indeed, the place of argument in the commons authorship — not the issue of credit, as Roy Rosenzweig argued — is the fundamental problem for historians contributing to Wikipedia. We are trained, and train our students, to make careful and sustained historical arguments, considering both the interpretive sweep of our ideas as well as how small nuggets of evidence contribute to our points. Historians who want to participate in Wikipedia with the same seriousness that they bring to their individual scholarship need to commit themselves to a long-term relationship with the entries they want to improve. They must prepare themselves to consider whether changes made by others are consistent with the changes they themselves have introduced. As Martha Saxton’s essay in this volume makes clear, Wikipedia editors with “bots” at their disposal constantly “patrol” entries in their bailiwick, making it necessary for new contributors to prepare not only prose about their topics of interest but also defenses for the inevitable challenge to their planned comments — a state of affairs, incidentally, that neatly underscores Cronon’s point that the addition of even an apparently innocuous fact is a form of interpretation. Relatedly, contributing historians should consider whether evidence introduced by another Wikipedian challenges, enhances, or undermines their own arguments.Wikipedia’s collective character, I suggest here, complicates the labor involved in sharing one of our two greatest scholarly contributions (the other being close scrutiny and interpretation of primary sources). What we should keep in mind is that writing for Wikipedia is making a contribution, not being an author, that is, someone with the primary responsibility for the interpretive power and factual accuracy of the writing in question.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 I do not mean to dismiss the value of either Wikipedia or other 21st century experiments in commons authorship. I applaud the pedagogical creativity of the other authors in this volume who make Wikipedia contributions part of their classes. The model offered for the production of Writing History in the Digital Age assumed the capacity of an author (or co-authors) to offer a consistent, untrammeled interpretation, even while the comment feature allowed real-time peer review of the central argument — crowdsourcing to improve the overall quality of the content. The editors’ postings of the two versions of their book proposal to the University of Michigan Press and their response to the peer reviewers suggest that they did not entertain the possibility of including an unauthored essay made up of “contributions” from volunteer peer reviewers. They did, however, plan to “invite up to three of the most thoughtfully engaged online commentators to submit reflective essays for the conclusion.”15 This points to the salutary, I think, and unchanged assumption that historians in the digital age should aspire to clean and consistent lines of argumentation in our scholarship — even as we grapple with how real time commenting pushes us toward having to continuously patrol our “published” work.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Herein lies the challenge of Wikipedia for teaching and writing history for the digital natives that make up our 21st century student body. Our students now enter the classroom with a widely-used model of unauthored writing as a standard resource. For their first (and often last) pass at obtaining information, they turn to an asynchronous, nonprofessional community that does not incorporate argument as a central goal. As historians, however, we continue to value sustained argument. The challenge that Wikipedia presents to 21st century history pedagogy is persuading students of the value of embedding argument in historical writing. We must not only teach our students how to make a coherent argument; we must also persuade them of the value of the underlying assumptions about the character of our inquiry.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 About the author: Amanda Seligman teaches history and directs the Urban Studies Programs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her books include Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) and Is Graduate School Really for You? The Whos, Whats, Hows, and Whys of Pursuing a Master’s or PhD (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

  1. Permalink for this paragraph 0
  2.  The Colbert Report, “The Word-Wikiality,” July 31, 2006, http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/72347/july-31-2006/the-word—wikiality.
  3. Email correspondence with Louisa A. Burnham, April 14, 2010.
  4. Barbara Rockenbach, comment on Amanda Seligman, “Teaching Wikipedia Without Apologies,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book edition.
  5. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005)http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org, and its print counterpart.
  6. For a recent syllabus, see https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/xythoswfs/webview/_xy-30013072_1.
  7. I take students to the Media and Reserve Department, which has recently absorbed the Microtext Library, for an introduction to microfilm and microfiche formats, because I want the students to experience the evolution of information storage.
  8. Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History (2006): 141-146.
  9. Such as the locking of a page following “vandalism” like Colbert’s enjoining his audience to change the information on African elephants.
  10. During the Fall 2011 open review period for this essay, for example, Wikipedia incorporated the death of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi into his biographical entry before The New York Times had confirmed the news.
  11. My students check Wikipedia for plot summaries of TV episodes they miss.
  12. Wikipedia, “Neutral Point of View,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Neutral_point_of_view.
  13. William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78(4) (1992): 1347-1376; quotation on p. 1351.
  14. Frederick Hoxie, ed. The Encyclopedia of North American Indians (Boston:  Houghton-Mifflin, Co., 1996).
  15. Joseph C. Bigott, “Balloon Frame Construction,” The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago Historical Society, 2005), http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/105.html.
  16. “How this book evolved,” Writing History in the Digital Age, web-book edition, http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evolution/initial-proposal/ and http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evolution/revised-proposal/.
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