Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Betting on Wikipedia

Two of my first-year students approached me this week to play Solomon in a bet they had apparently made with one another, over whether Wikipedia were an acceptable resource for university students. The provocation for the bet was apparently an interaction with another tutor, who had instructed them strictly that Wikipedia was unreliable and therefore had no value for university-level work.

Since many students in fact do find Wikipedia valuable, this advice contradicted their practical experience, and was therefore disregarded: its impact was essentially a social one, causing the students to feel that it is vaguely disreputable to admit to their Wikipedia use in polite circles – or at least in front of teaching staff… The result is a strange social situation that I’ve also seen in some of my other classes, where students with an unusually high respect for teaching staff dutifully stop consulting Wikipedia, while others continue using it clandestinely (one imagines them looking over their shoulders in computer labs), while disguising their use by never citing it…

I’m obviously not present in other classes and tutorial sessions when this anti-Wikipedia advice is meted out, so I don’t know exactly how other staff try to justify that Wikipedia is somehow a pariah resource for anyone with academic pretensions. My sense from what I get second-hand is that the objection involves one of two issues:

(1) doubts about how reliable Wikipedia content could be, when it has not gone through peer review and {{shudder}} can in fact be edited by anyone; or

(2) a more general objection to encyclopedias of any kind, on the theory that the use of encyclopedias as source texts for student writing encourages students to think of knowledge as a static given that they must learn from other people, rather than as a dynamic construct they must actively participate in creating.

I’ll address each of these objections in a moment, but I wanted first to mention in passing that these two objections actually sit in tension with one another, and rely on conflicting notions of how students should position themselves in relation to knowledge construction: the first objection relies on the notion that there are certain sources of information that students can and should treat as authorities – as materials that have been appropriately vetted so that students can cite them as true – while the second relies on the notion that claims about knowledge are arguments, and that students should therefore assume an active, critical relationship to all of their sources. So, from one perspective, Wikipedia is “bad” because it’s not a good enough source while, from the other, Wikipedia is “bad” because students might be tempted to treat it as a source.

My personal approach is more compatible with position 2: I think it is a quite central dimension of a university education, to learn to understand claims about knowledge as arguments, and to get yourself to the point that you can participate intelligently in the argumentative fray. I’m always a bit surprised when I receive assignments from quite advanced students that omit an explicit authorial “voice” from the text – I’m looking for students to say things like: “Crazyauthor argues that Martians first colonised Earth 100 years ago (2006: 34).”, but it’s not unusual for me to get things like: “Martians first colonised Earth 100 years ago (Crazyauthor 2006: 34).” When you preserve a sense of the source author’s “voice” in your text, you’re more likely to adopt a questioning attitude toward that author’s claims: you’ll have an easier time recognising when different authors disagree, when authors make enormous claims that are disproportionate to their evidence, etc., because you’ve explicitly acknowledged the argumentative nature of the claim.

For my taste, then, too many students act as though they should treat texts as authorities – and I think that positions like objection 1 actually encourage them to do so, by suggesting that you can easily divide the academic universe into sources that are okay to cite in academic papers, and sources that aren’t, rather than asking students to develop a critical appreciation of the strengths and weaknesses of individual sources – an appreciation they can argumentatively defend.

While I’m more generally sympathetic with the framework from which objection 2 is posed, I think there are still two problems with its application to Wikipedia: First, Wikipedia actually has some strong advantages over traditional encyclopedias in making it quite easy to see that its content is actively constructed – this is something that can easily be demonstrated to students and, in fact, used as an accessible, intuitive model for how debates over knowledge formation in the academy unfold. So, to me, some experience with Wikipedia – particularly if you bother to show students how the project works, and where it periodically goes off the rails – can actually be a useful way of teaching a more critical relationship to knowledge claims.

On another level, however, I also think we need to remember how much background knowledge you actually need, before you can meaningfully contribute to the broader conflicts over contentious knowledge in the academy. We want to equip students to participate actively in these debates, but this process will happen in stages – and one of those stages needs to involve a substantial amount of accumulation of consensus information – information which, if nothing else, will at least equip students to understand how normal or strange are the claims presented in particular academic texts.

A number of trends within the university sector have reduced opportunities within the classroom for the acquisition of detailed factual background – and many of these trends reflect positive and valuable pedagogical developments: the concept that students learn best when allowed to engage actively with a subject matter, and that therefore lectures should be minimised; the belief that universities need to emphasise critical reading and thinking skills, rather than rote memorisation; the notion that, by the time they’ve reached university, students have already mastered the skill of teaching themselves basic factual information and can therefore pursue this task relatively independently, etc.

I don’t have a particular problem with any of these trends – I actively agree that, since we have such a limited period of time in which we can interact directly with our students, it’s important to focus on those skills that are very difficult for students to teach themselves, like critical reading, thinking and writing. I also agree that students, as adults beginning to take responsibility for their own education, can then be asked to manage the kinds of learning that they can do more independently, like the accumulation of basic relevant factual knowledge.

Somewhere, however, that accumulation of factual knowledge does need to take place. Students need to learn to recognise (and this, I think, can and should be covered in the classroom) gaps in their knowledge, and they deserve to be trained how to resolve those gaps efficiently. And encyclopedias, textbooks and similar materials have a major role to play in this process. I find it counterproductive, at best, to make students feel like they need to be ashamed for consulting organised reference materials to fill in gaps in their knowledge: if they don’t do this, and if we aren’t covering similar material in lectures (and no lecturer, no matter how masterful, if ever going to cover everything a student might conceivably need to know, to achieve their own mastery of the subject), then how, exactly, are students meant to gain essential factual knowledge?

And if we want students to use reference materials in a sophisticated way – not placing too much trust in this material, not viewing references as the static “last word”, retaining a level of critical agnosticism, recognising that reference materials can oversimplify complex issues, etc. – surely we would be better off teaching these skills directly, showing students how to use a reference text for what it can do well: providing a preliminary orientation and serving as a gateway for more sophisticated material…

At the very least, it would be better than driving students to feel a vague guilt about using reference materials – as though professional academics do not also and routinely use them ourselves, generally without hiding them in crumpled paper bags and ducking into the closet to consult them where no one can see… This doesn’t mean, of course, that Wikipedia needs to be the reference of choice – although, for cost, accessibility, and scope, it’s a fairly good option for many students. It would be an even better one if, instead of demonising it, we would simply teach students how to use it effectively.

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