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

Teaching Wikipedia without Apologies (Fall 2011 version)

Permalink for this paragraph 3 This essay examines a portion of my undergraduate history methods class devoted to teaching about the use of tertiary sources. The online, collectively-written encyclopedia Wikipedia is explicitly folded into my pedagogy. In this essay, I argue that despite skepticism about the value of encyclopedias and other reference works, teaching about the use of tertiary sources is legitimate. The inclusion of the born-digital Wikipedia site in my undergraduate teaching is continuous with, rather than a break from, my long-standing personal commitment to the value of encyclopedic writing as part of scholarly enterprises. The challenge that Wikipedia presents to 21st century history pedagogy is persuading students of the value of embedding argument in historical writing.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 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 shows his audience how easy it is for individual actors in the 21st century to create the “truth,” or at least “truthiness,” by altering the Wikipedia.org entry on elephants so that the population of African elephants has miraculously tripled, a position on environmental degradation loosely consistent with Colbert’s conservative persona.1 If there is enough time in class, I will also play Colbert’s interviews with Jimmy Wales, the slightly loopy chief of Wikipedia.2 The next time I teach the class, I will show the clip of Colbert interviewing Andrew Schlafly, who founded Conservapedia.com as a politically conservative reaction against the “liberal bias” in Wikipedia.3 I have moments when I think that the only reason I give teach Wikipedia 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 4 Historians are notoriously skeptical of the value of encyclopedias. Faculty of many stripes, but it seems historians in particular, actively denounce the worth of encyclopedias to their students.4 In our discussion of Wikipedia, my students regularly report to me the names of my colleagues who have forbidden them to cite encyclopedias 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, the Middlebury College Department of History adopted a resolution that students should be informed that “Wikipedia is not an acceptable citation, even though it may lead one to a citable source,”5 which most observers perceived as an outright ban.  Moreover, college instructors have developed bitter feelings about the ease with which students cut and paste prose from Wikipedia into their plagiarized homework assignments.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Despite the great skepticism surrounding encyclopedic writing, however, some historians continue to edit, write for, and consult specialized historical encyclopedias. I am among the historians who have staked a portion of my career on the scholarly value of encyclopedia writing. While I was earning my doctorate in urban history at Northwestern University, I also worked on the staff of The Encyclopedia of Chicago at the Newberry Library.6 In addition to writing entries, I developed and ran the fact-checking process for the project, in the process discovering an astonishing array of specialty encyclopedias on topics I had 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 the model of apprenticeships for graduate students that is ubiquitous in the sciences; and built into my career an assumption that encyclopedias are legitimate sites for scholarship. Having written some four dozen encyclopedia entries since my third year in graduate school, I have now undertaken the planning for an Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, which my co-editor Margo Anderson and I hope to launch in print and online in 2016.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 Thus when I started teaching the undergraduate history methods course at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee several years ago, it seemed to me only natural to include lessons about tertiary sources in the curriculum. In contrast to my colleagues who forbid their students to use encyclopedias, I believe that it is a mistake to hide my head in the sand and pretend that certain sources of information and ideas do not exist. My job as a teacher 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 of them, the first stop is Wikipedia, which is now included in the drop-down menu of the search box on their favorite browsers. If my students are going to turn to Wikipedia for their research, then I am going to contextualize that kind of resource for them by embedding it in a larger set of lessons about the utility of tertiary sources in historical research.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The Assignment
In my history methods class, I introduce the students to the basic resources of our library. I am committed to ameliorating my students’ fears of the library’s mysteries by taking them to all of the major departments where they might find themselves conducting research: at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, this includes the Research and Instructional Services, Archives, Special Collections, and Media and Reserve Departments7 and the American Geographical Society Library.8 At each stop, I ask the library staff to orient the students to the physical and intellectual features of the department. For their part, students develop short papers imagining how they might use the sources available there to craft a research paper. In order to prevent students from being too narrow, I insist that they choose at least one source from before the 20th century and one from somewhere other than the U.S. 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. When I first started teaching History 294, this task involved a lengthy tour of the Reference Room conducted by a librarian. 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 wildly successful and typical 21st century renovation. In order to make way for several hundred computer stations, high tech classrooms, and a coffeeshop, 90% of the reference collection was dispersed to the stacks. In order 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 new 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 4 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?” in which he concluded that historians should contribute to Wikipedia. Rosenzweig, whose work was crucial to George Mason University’s innovative digital history graduate program, 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.9

Permalink for this paragraph 3 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 what Wikipedia is. It is a tertiary source; anyone can contribute to it, subject to a certain increasing range of restrictions10; 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 current (just check it immediately after the breaking news of the death of a celebrity to test this claim), and a crowd of dedicated, volunteer editors constantly patrol it to control its contents against controversy and vandalism. But some topics are mysteriously given short shrift, while fans and boosters lavish attention on their favorite topics.11

Permalink for this paragraph 1 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 When students return to class with these papers, 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 4 “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). When we seek out an encyclopedia article on a topic, we are (theoretically) looking for a basic introduction to the specified topic, an introduction that is balanced, that is not on 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 that it is the ease of locating just that quick hit of information that we need to write a lecture.

Permalink for this paragraph 3 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 “A Place for Stories,” an article that I assign in both undergraduate history methods and doctoral Urban Studies classes. Cronon conducts a thought experiment: describe a day on the Great Plains. 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. Cronon’s own scholarship pushes back against the writer who excludes the nuances of the physical environment in order to highlight human actors, reminding us that “nature,” as well as people, is central to events.12 I am not enough a philosopher of history or historiographer to pick through the details of how this claim has played out in historical scholarship, but it seems to me to be essentially sound.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 And, in fact, 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, written as a third-year graduate student for Frederick Hoxie’s The Encyclopedia of North American Indians,13 was about the Montagnais-Naskapi people. 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, I did structure an argument into the article. Without every saying “in this article I argue that,” I gave the entry intellectual coherence 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 1 I learned the lesson of the centrality of argument even in encyclopedia writing again as a Research Assistant for The Encyclopedia of Chicago. There, James Grossman explained to me, the reason that authors’ names appear on the entries they wrote is that they are making arguments, sometimes controversial ones. For example, in picking Joe Bigott to write about balloon frame houses, the editors knew that he would argue—contrary to general belief in popular Chicago architectural history—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.14 The majority of the entries I wrote for the Encyclopedia of Chicago were about city neighborhoods. I structured most of those entries with the goal of making legible the history of each area as revealed in its modern landscape. The argument of each entry rested in its characterization of 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 explained 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 believe that length dictates the ability of the author to make 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 they 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 absolutely certain 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 encyclopedia entry, which is structured to appear authoritative, it is usually very difficult to discern the broader scholarly context that might allow a student to envision an alternative argument. Unless the author writes to the effect that “in contrast to what other scholars have said about this topic, I am going to tell you that…” 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 a longer secondary source. While historians write dissertations that are required to engage explicitly with the relevant historiography, to write books that compete for shelf space with popular history, we often drop our overt lines of debate even while we embed 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 their 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, may be one of our more hopeless prospects.

Permalink for this paragraph 4 Finding 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 a Wikipedia entry at any time make it enormously difficult to build and sustain a coherent argument in that context. Let me offer my own thought experiment based on my own scholarship. In my monograph, Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side, I argue, inter alia, that the term “white flight” is a misnomer whose use in scholarship and popular culture should be reconsidered. As far as I can tell, this argument has gained no traction in the profession, remaining an outlying theory rather than being integrated into others’ works.15 Now imagine trying to reshape the Wikipedia entry on “white flight” around the idea that the very name is a faulty premise. The NPOV policy means that if I made a concerted effort to rewrite the entry so that is a critique of itself, a higher-level editor would come along quickly, challenge the legitimacy of my interpretation, and probably restore a prior version of the article to its unadulterated state. Alternatively, I could simply (and self-aggrandizingly) insert a sentence like the one above into (inter alia) the article, explaining that the notion of white flight is problematic, inviting attacks on my decontextualized point for being an apology for behavior  whose racism I explain at (to me) satisfactory length the context of my book. On the flip side, if I do manage to insert my comments without difficulty, any other contributor might come along and insert a contradictory sentence, without having in mind an effort to preserve the argumentative coherence of the entry as a whole.16 The effectiveness of the entry then is undermined by its intellectual inconsistency, for failing to address fully the challenge to its interpretive soundness now embedded in it. Finally, the ability of other Wikipedians to come along and delete or modify my added interpretive layer means that to protect any intellectual coherence I was able to bring to the entry on white flight means that I must exist in a state of constant vigilance, prepared to defend my view over and over again by re-inserting it into the entry itself or getting into a lengthy (and perhaps ultimately losing) exchange in the discussion section of the entry. It might be possible to mount this debate and even win it, but the time invested might not be worth the effort.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Thus the problem for historians contributing to Wikipedia is not, as Roy Rosenzweig argued, that we do not get credit for contributing to it. Historians already earn little credit for contributing to encyclopedias of any stripe (a problem that I would like to address separately in the profession). The problem with professional historians writing for Wikipedia is in its commons authorship. We are trained, and train our students, to make careful and sustained historical arguments. Wikipedia’s common character, I suggest here, undermines our ability to bring to the table 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 1 This is not to dismiss the value of either Wikipedia or other 21st century experiments in commons authorship. The model offered for the production of this book, for example, sustains the capacity of an author (or co-authors) to offer a consistent, untrammeled interpretation, even while the use of the comment feature allows real-time peer review of the central argument—all with the intent of improving the overall quality of the cotnent. 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, decide that “we will invite up to three of the most thoughtfully engaged online commentators to submit reflective essays for the conclusion.”17 This points to the (salutary, I think) assumption that historians in the digital age should continue to aspire to clean and consistent lines of argumentation in our scholarship.

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 (physical or digital) with a widely-used model of unauthored writing at their fingertips. For their first (and often last) pass at obtaining information, they turn to an asynchronous, nonprofessional community that does not incorporate into its goals the sustaining of argument. 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 of 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, in press, 2012).

  1. Permalink for this paragraph 0
  2. http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/72347/july-31-2006/the-word—wikiality
  3. http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/87528/may-24-2007/jimmy-wales
  4. http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/258144/december-08-2009/andy-schlafly
  5. See, for example, the comment of larryc that “Of course, no encyclopedia should ever be cited in a research paper,” March 15, 2007, http://chronicle.com/forums/index.php/topic,35606.msg503092.html#msg503092
  6. Email correspondence with Louisa A. Burnham, April 14, 2010.
  7. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/ (Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005), and James R. Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating, and Janice L. Reiff, eds.,The Encyclopedia of Chicago (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).
  8. 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.
  9. http://www4.uwm.edu/Libraries/AGSL/, a resource unique to UWM’s campus.
  10. Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History (2006): 141-146.
  11. Such as the locking of a page following “vandalism” such as Colbert’s enjoining of his audience to change the information on African elephants.
  12. I have learned from my students, for example, that if they need plot summaries of your favorite TV show, they just check Wikipedia to find out what they missed.
  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 http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/105.html.
  16. Amanda Irene Seligman, Block by Block: Neighborhoods and Public Policy on Chicago’s West Side (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2005).
  17. Viewing the “talk” page of a Wikipedia entry is a way to grasp what the involved contributors do think is at stake in a given entry, and where they think the argument—implicit or explicit—should lie. The contributors to the article on “white flight,” for example, debated whether the term should apply only to the US context and whether it is used appropriately and relevantly for African contexts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:White_flight, July 19, 2011.
  18. http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evolution/initial-proposal/ and http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/evolution/revised-proposal/