It is becoming fashionable among academics these days to have a go at Wikipedia. This is inevitable for a variety of reasons. Academics are often behind their students in the use of new technology, and this brings about a reaction of fear. We witnessed the same thing with the advent of the world wide web in the 90s and now that fears about the academic value of internet resources has diminished, a new, narrower target has been found. It is an easy target because its open source basis makes it often apparently "unreliable". The presence of errors, curious slants and incomplete information have confirmed many academics' instinctive disapproval of the resource.
Negative reactions to the use of Wikipedia in the classroom, however, are unnecessary and should be discouraged:
(1) Fear of Wikipedia will eventually catch up on critical academics in the same way that fear of "the internet" caught up with academics who were complaining about it ten years ago. It is still recent history that some academics were forbidding students to access any internet resources in the writing of their papers. I well remember regular disparaging remarks about "the internet" taken as a whole. It is now easy for us to see that it was absurd to discourage students to use the internet and instead the way forward was (and is) to guide and interact with our students in their use of internet resources, not least given the sheer number of academic articles that are available on-line. In due course, broadsides against Wikipedia may look as absurd as broadsides against "the internet" now look.
(2) One of the strengths of Wikipedia is that it is much more up-to-date than its print counterparts. Regularly, almost always, students will find much fresher material in Wikipedia than they will in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is also, of course, becoming ever more comprehensive.
(3) I like the fact that Wikipedia often acts as a gateway and points beyond itself. Its encouragement to all its writers to source their statements sometimes makes it more rigorous than print counterparts, which find it easier to get away with value judgements and even sleights of hand. The multi-author, multi-reader interaction that is at the heart of the whole idea of Wikipedia also helps a great deal in assuring less jaundiced viewpoints and more balance.
(4) Using Wikipedia is risky. That's often taken as a negative ("How can I rely on information found here?") rather than a positive ("How shall I assess the material I find here?"). Criticisms of Wikipedia often proceed from an inadequate model of the educational process, a kind of text book culture in which people find themselves lazily reliant on a limited number of supposedly reliable text books. The sooner that students realize that their text books too should be questioned, the sooner they will begin to learn effectively. This is especially important in the humanities, and nowhere more so than in teaching Religion, where the last thing one wants is narrow reliance on a limited number of viewpoints. It is surely essential for students to embrace the riskiness and uncertainty of our knowledge base in the area, and to avoid the reactionary and lazy temptation to close down the scope of secondary resources consulted.
(5) It is useful, in my experience, to engage with students' use of new technology and resources and not to find oneself lagging behind them. Ideally, it is good to know more than your students do about resources in your own area. Rather than making broad attacks against Wikipedia, therefore, it is far preferable to familiarize yourself with what Wikipedia has to offer in your own area and then you can recommend the best articles in Wikipedia on your area to your students. This is very straightforward to achieve. You know your own area far better than your students know it and it does not take long to assess key articles which you might want to recommend to them.
(6) Where Wikipedia falls short, think about flagging up the offending article for working on yourself or, still better, encourage your students themselves to work on the offending article and engage with them in their updating of it. They will love being involved in this kind of process and it is difficult to imagine any more useful way of getting your students thinking through the necessary issues connected with writing a good encyclopaedia article on the subject. It is a great shame that so many academics have taken the route of criticizing the existing provision rather than attempting to improve it. Do we just sit around and complain about all the existing books and articles that don't do just what we want to do, or do we try to write new ones?
I am not alone, I am happy to say, in this backlash against the negative take on Wikipedia. Last week (H.T.: Gypsy Scholar), this article appeared in the New Republic:
Wikipedia is good for academia
by Eric Rauchway
The article begins with reference to the decision at the History Department at Middlebury College which last month banned students' citation of Wikipedia. The Stoa Consortium (e.g. Middlebury Wikigate Revisited and Wikipedia editing as a teaching tool) has been weighing in and Cathy Davidson, from the English department here at Duke, wrote an excellent op-ed on the issue in The Chronicle last week, reproduced at Hastac:
We Can't Ignore the Influence of Digital Technologies
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 29, Page B20
By CATHY N. DAVIDSON
May the backlash continue!