I have enjoyed the responses to my post In Defence of Wikipedia. Jim West says that he has disdain for Wikipedia, "Disdain because Wiki are “edit-able” by any Tom, Dick, or Harry who may, or may not, know what the devil they are talking about." This confirms my analogy with what many academics were saying about the internet in general a decade ago. The same thing was often said, that any Tom, Dick or Harry can put up their own website. Was the answer to discourage students from using "the internet"? Well, that was exactly the response that many engaged in at the time, but there is now a broad consensus that that was wrong, and that the answer in fact is to point students in the right direction on the internet, and to encourage them to engage critically and to assess the sites they are using in the light of their other reading. The same is becoming true, and will continue to become true with Wikipedia. We can disdain it all we like, but the fact is that it is here to stay, and it is only going to get bigger and better. We may as well get involved if we want to have a stake in the future. And let me throw in another analogy. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can start up a blog. Why should we get involved with the blogosphere when it is clearly so full of dilettantes?
Here's my challenge for Jim, which will help us to test the academic value of Wikipedia. I suggest that he goes to the Wikipedia article on Zwingli, find all the errors and correct them, add any additional important information, and then monitor it over the next twelve months to see whether any Tom, Dick or Harry comes in and spoils his work, and, if so, how straightforward it will be to make further adjustments.
In comments, an anonymous student says that s/he has lost marks by using Wikipedia, something that also confirms my point, which is that academics should encourage their students to engage critically with Wikipedia and not to rely on it indiscriminately. Similarly, Billy V in comments says that "I will not allow wikipedia as a legitimate source; I will however encourage students to go there as an introduction and as a gateway to other material." I am not keen on the term "source" in this kind of context. Wikipedia is a resource, not a source, and as such I encourage students to engage with it critically in the light of their other reading, and especially their reading of primary source material.
Another anonymous commenter (please sign comments) criticizes my use of the term "fear", and I think that's legitimate and, to be honest, I was using it to generate a reaction. But if the Middlebury decision to ban it "was driven by the fact that faculty members were annoyed at student research laziness", then I can think of much better ways of dealing with the latter. The problem here is not Wikipedia but student research skills. Judy Redman's comments essentially agree with the kind of critical engagement model I am suggesting, adding that "The exercise of validating data would be useful."