Sam Wineburg’s Twitter Thread About Wikipedia

Some great stuff here from Sam Wineburg:

Wikipedia in the Classroom

By Megan Piette

The use of Wikipedia as a source for scholarly information has been a debated topic since the website’s inception. Over at the blog of The Historical Society, Elliot Brandow, a librarian at Boston College, discusses the positives and negatives of listing Wikipedia alongside the books and scholarly journals in your bibliography. Some people distrust Wikipedia for the same reason that some people appreciate it: group think. Brandow discusses this concept as well as other thoughts about Wikipedia here.

Wikipedia is ubiquitous. It’s at the top of your Google results, of course. And since 2012 it’s in the right-hand sidebar of your Google results, dubbed the Knowledge Graph, as well. With this year’s Apple iOS7 upgrade, when you ask Siri factual questions, those are Wikipedia entries you’ll be offered in response. Even some library systems, like Serials Solutions’ new Summon 2.0, can include Wikipedia entries alongside your list of books and articles.

It’s also our dirty little secret. We know that students use it, but faculty use it, librarians use it, we all use it. Why? We like it for the same reasons that we’ve always liked encyclopedias: it’s fast access to basic information on a topic you know nothing about. It gives you an overview in language written for a novice, offers you key terms that are helpful when you proceed with your search to more scholarly resources, and it increasingly cites some of that scholarly material right there in the references and external links sections. But it’s the unmatched breadth and currency that makes Wikipedia invaluable: entries on wide-ranging–often esoteric or technical–topics, and near instantaneous updates in direct response to news and world events.

When Your History Assignment Fails

Richard Bond of Virginia Wesleyan College (and co-editor of From Jamestown to Jefferson: The Evolution of Religious Freedom in Virginia, a great book on religion in early Virginia) describes what he has learned from history lessons that have not worked.

In this piece in the recent Perspectives in History he discusses:

1. An assignment in which students used Wikipedia to cheat.

2. An assignment in which students doing a roleplaying game found it impossible to empathize with the Ku Klux Klan.

3. An assignment in a “History of Piracy” course in which students found it difficult to employ the skills of “context” and “contingency.”

Bond concludes:

Learning from the above has been humbling, forcing me to realize that no matter how much time I spend on an assignment, there will remain problems that I have failed to consider. Yet, as most know, failures are opportunities, especially in classrooms that are designed to be student-centered. Assignment goals can be made explicit, and conversations can be had between students and professors about how to improve learning. Demystifying and diagnosing such failures can help students to improve their own work; not only can they see such failures are part of the educational process, but they can also think through how to overcome them, certainly a marketable skill. Happily, sometimes spectacular blunders lead to serendipitous results, and so I hope to keep failing, repeatedly, in the years to come.

The Power of Wikipedia

Timothy Messer-Kruse is a professor in the School of Cultural and Critical Studies at Bowling Green State University. He is author of The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) and The Haymarket Conspiracy: Transatlantic Anarchist Networks, to be published later this year by the University of Illinois Press.

Professor Messer-Kruse seems to be an authority on the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886.  He has published two books on the subject with respectable academic presses.  But according to the anonymous guardians of the Haymarket Riot Wikipedia page, his knowledge of this historical event does not pass muster.  I will let him tell his own story, via a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Here is a taste:

For the past 10 years I’ve immersed myself in the details of one of the most famous events in American labor history, the Haymarket riot and trial of 1886. Along the way I’ve written two books and a couple of articles about the episode. In some circles that affords me a presumption of expertise on the subject. Not, however, on Wikipedia.

The bomb thrown during an anarchist rally in Chicago sparked America’s first Red Scare, a high-profile show trial, and a worldwide clemency movement for the seven condemned men. Today the martyrs’ graves are a national historic site, the location of the bombing is marked by a public sculpture, and the event is recounted in most American history textbooks. Its Wikipedia entry is detailed and elaborate.

A couple of years ago, on a slow day at the office, I decided to experiment with editing one particularly misleading assertion chiseled into the Wikipedia article….

When Messer-Kruse made some corrections to the Wikipedia page based on his scholarly knowledge of the subject, here is what happened:

Within minutes my changes were reversed. The explanation: “You must provide reliable sources for your assertions to make changes along these lines to the article.”

That was curious, as I had cited the documents that proved my point, including verbatim testimony from the trial published online by the Library of Congress. I also noted one of my own peer-reviewed articles. One of the people who had assumed the role of keeper of this bit of history for Wikipedia quoted the Web site’s “undue weight” policy, which states that “articles should not give minority views as much or as detailed a description as more popular views.” He then scolded me. “You should not delete information supported by the majority of sources to replace it with a minority view.”

The “undue weight” policy posed a problem. Scholars have been publishing the same ideas about the Haymarket case for more than a century. The last published bibliography of titles on the subject has 1,530 entries.

“Explain to me, then, how a ‘minority’ source with facts on its side would ever appear against a wrong ‘majority’ one?” I asked the Wiki-gatekeeper. He responded, “You’re more than welcome to discuss reliable sources here, that’s what the talk page is for. However, you might want to have a quick look at Wikipedia’s civility policy.”

I tried to edit the page again. Within 10 seconds I was informed that my citations to the primary documents were insufficient, as Wikipedia requires its contributors to rely on secondary sources, or, as my critic informed me, “published books.” Another editor cheerfully tutored me in what this means: “Wikipedia is not ‘truth,’ Wikipedia is ‘verifiability’ of reliable sources. Hence, if most secondary sources which are taken as reliable happen to repeat a flawed account or description of something, Wikipedia will echo that.”

Read the rest here.  Messer-Kruse’s story may make William Cronon’s recent charge a bit difficult to carry out.

Cronon on Wikipedia: "If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em"

American Historical Association president William Cronon encourages scholars to write for Wikipedia.  A taste:

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Scientists, engineers, and programmers have been contributing sophisticated entries to Wikipedia almost from the beginning. Two disciplines in particular—mathematics and music—have systematically sought to colonize Wikipedia on behalf of their scholarly communities. That’s undoubtedly why Wikipedia’s entry on Fermat’s Last Theorem is so much better than Britannica‘s, and why the Wikipedia entry for so many composers and other musical subjects is often so good.

Because the discipline of history is much harder to corral than these more technical subjects, and because it’s nearly impossible to imagine organizing historians to provide editorial input for all relevant Wikipedia pages, it would undoubtedly be more productive to approach this challenge in a “wikier” way. There are few pages on Wikipedia that couldn’t be enhanced with more historical content. There are few historical entries that wouldn’t benefit from more scholarly input. And there are myiad historical entries that are missing altogether. Given the openness of Wikipedia’s protocols, improvements like these can be made by historians no matter what their training or institutional setting. Indeed, some teachers now require students to draft or revise Wikipedia entries as class assignments.

All one needs is to open oneself to the possibilities and give up the comfort of credentialed expertise to contribute to the greatest encyclopedia the world has ever known—which again, I intend here mainly as a symbol for the Web itself.

We might start with the entry for the American Historical Association. It’s pretty inadequate, and would surely benefit from some scholarly revision.

Like Cronon, I was initially skeptical of Wikipedia.  But I am now convinced that it is not going away anytime soon.  I have only edited a Wikipedia entry once, but Cronon has convinced me that bringing scholarly input to one of the most visited sites on the web may be another form of public scholarship/history in a digital age.