Secret Wikipedia and Possible “Grade” Hypocrisy?

Yesterday, my group mates and I were discussing what to do if a student cites Wikipedia as a source on a graded project. And this discussion led to some interesting insights about how Wikipedia can and is used. On one hand, we all agreed that a Wikipedia entry could and should not be accepted as viable source material. The fact that Wikipedia “is a collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopedia” obviously leaves it open to inaccuracy and thus too much risk (I got that brief definition off of Wikipedia’s own Wikipedia page—I imagine it is monitored pretty well). That point is superfluous, but what was interesting is that everyone in our group, and I imagine class, confirmed using Wikipedia regularly, almost on a daily basis. So we began to wonder if it was hypocritical to keep our students off of it. Understandably, we concluded that it was not hypocritical for several reasons: 1) We all stated that we used the website to either satisfy simple curiosities or as starting points for basic research. 2) We all stated that if we did use Wikipedia to find something for academic purposes, then we always checked the citation on the page and then confirmed if the citation was real and accurate—also we figured out that there is a lot of legwork involved in using Wikipedia as a starting point. 3) We all stated that Wikipedia entries regarding more obscure topics in our fields were actually highly reliable and that Wikipedia itself has become increasingly regulated as to take care of blatantly inaccurate edits. With regard to that last comment, personally I can attest to adding an entry on one of my friends, as a joke, to the “Notable Residents” residents section of the small, obscure Iowa county that he grew up in—Wikipedia had it removed in under 20 minutes. So if Wikipedia is increasingly becoming a more accurate website, that is highly policed, then what can we make of it as academics? Naturally, to answer that question, I turned to other academics.

In the article “Academics’ Views On and Uses of Wikipedia,” in gnovis: Georgetown University’s peer-reviewed Journal of Communication, Culture, and Technology, five academics, from various disciplines, were asked to express their views on the use of Wikipedia and other Web 2.0 technologies within their institutions. And again, as in my group’s discussion, the author of the article highlighted several common trends among the subjects:

  1. All but one of the interviewees indicated that they use and actively encourage their students to use Wikipedia as a starting point for research.
  2. All interviewees indicated that they use Wikipedia to look up definitions and descriptions of concepts and theories for both professional and personal interests.
  3. All but one of the interviewees stated that Wikipedia is more up-do-date than many other sources that are considered legitimate by professionals. Not only did they mostly find it accurate, but one interviewee found that contemporary topics regarding his own research were accurately updated within one minute of the event or information being recognized publicly.
  4. Two interviewees stated that the communal nature of Wikipedia expresses a higher variety of perspectives on a topic than a journal article or textbook.
  5. All interviewees stated that they thought Wikipedia was relatively accurate, but that they did approach it with skepticism. All indicated that other scholarly sources and encyclopedias were more credible and reliable.
  6. All interviewees abhorred the idea of citing Wikipedia in an academic research study.
  7. Most interviewees stated that the “technical and factual” information on Wikipedia is reliable, but the interpretive value of those facts varies depending on the entry.

Personally, I found some of those common themes interesting, especially the frequency with which the interviewees used Wikipedia. However, there were three trends in the research (not listed above) that I not only find interesting, but am also weary of. The first is that two of the interviewees stated that they would, and do, let students in introductory courses cite Wikipedia in their work and do actively use Wikipedia for those courses. This is worrisome to me because I do not necessarily agree with setting a standard in introductory courses that leads students to believe that Wikipedia is a reliable source for academics. But is this not hypocritical, especially being that we all appear to use Wikipedia? Regardless, I was then troubled by the contentions that all interviewees took regarding the role of academics in Wikipedia: each believed that Wikipedia serves its purpose under its current structure and expressed negative views concerning an increased role of academics in writing and updating Wikipedia entries. Given that the interviewees used Wikipedia themselves, and two used it in the classroom, why would they not be in favor of more academics writing for the website? And finally, and perhaps most troubling, none of the interviewees knew anything about the guiding policies of content generation on Wikipedia nor had ever changed or updated online material on the site.

So what do we do with Wikipedia articles? We all use it (don’t lie, I know you do), but I cannot support using it as an academic source, even for introductory courses. But I do find it valid for finding general information and as a starting point for basic research, so long as the source can be verified. Additionally, I do not know if Wikipedia will ever bridge the small gap it needs to be considered credible, no matter how well policed it is or how expansive its web of editors are. Perhaps all we can do is continue to not, under any circumstance, let a student cite it, but to keep using Wikipedia in secret ourselves—not giving it any credit when stealing its sources to jump start our own research. I do understand that Wikipedia bypasses normal  academic intellectual property laws due to its basic structure. But is it not hypocritical for academics that must adhere to those regulations to use it as a kickstarter? It’s at least an interesting loophole.

PBL: A Disciplinary Critique

In a recent post—that I consider a valuable read for all involved in pedagogy—my esteemed colleague Sascha Engel criticized Problem Based Learning (PBL) as a “political stratagem” and for “reducing politics, and its science, theory, and philosophy, to mere ‘ethical problems.’” And while I concur with many of his thought provoking assertions, and sympathize with his concern for the social sciences in today’s economic climate, I would like to convey some additional thoughts from within another discipline—even though many of the issues that Sascha and I face are, inherently, political.

PBL in the history classroom faces similar concerns to Sascha’s but also some that are unique to the discipline. On one hand, and this should be obvious, I do not have as many opportunities to implement a case study like the ones our groups are putting together in class. I simply cannot make up a case study—and, if I remember correctly, in one video we watched earlier in the semester there was an instance where a high school history teacher was creating fictional historical case studies in her classroom—which is something that I adamantly disagree with. That is not history, nor the practice of the historian. However, I do think that real historical case studies can be given to help inform decisions regarding current issues. For instance, my own group is putting together a fictional case study on the plausibility of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on private land in Appalachia, and there are certain insights that can be gained by providing a longer history—containing numerous primary sources and secondary literature—of mineral rights within the region. But this practice also reduces history to a mere ethical problem for a panel of experts and students and is in great danger of throwing away any notions of historical empathy. In other words, PBL case studies in the history classroom (that seek to find an answer to a particular ethical, political, or economic decision or issue) make it easy to forget that real decisions are, and were, already made for reasons that no panel of experts may be able to account for. I mean, again with regard to mineral rights, it is easy to understand the environmental issues, but can we truly sympathize with the true weight that the selling of those rights entails for individuals of an exploited and impoverished region of the United States? I would argue that PBL would not foster that level of understanding—that level of empathy for very real emotions—and instead would focus the panel entirely on the economic, scientific, and environmental vitality of the business of resource extraction. And that historical and contemporary empathy, or at least an attempt at it, I think, is one of the roles of the historian.

Above, I attempted to put words to a difficult problem, and I am not sure how successful I was, but structurally, PBL is entirely different in the history classroom (once the practice of making up historical case studies is thrown away, which I must stress, needs to be). That is, historical case studies where students determine an answer based on their judgment and discretion are antithetical to the discipline—those decisions have already been made. I can, and do, however, provide numerous primary sources (political documents, speeches, maps and guide books, diary entries, fiction, music, film, music, etc.) in order to give my students a glimpse at how historians practice and think about history (systematically and empathetically). And we do go through this practice together, each of us hopefully learning something along the way. This is what historian Lendol Calder calls “uncoverage,” and despite its usefulness, it too has its limitations. First, historians need context and they need to be privy to the current debates in the field—most students simply do not have this luxury coming into the class. And that is why historians must lecture: students do not understand the context of the primary document and complex scholarship must be synthesized for them (which is difficult to do in a mere fifty minutes) in order for them to place historical events, documents, and actors within said contexts. And history is important in this regard. The historical discussion itself is a discussion of the present and those they do have real world ramifications (politically, socially, and economically). That is, I think, why there is a place for PBL, with regard to modern case studies (real or hypothetical) and room integrate historical documents into them. But as a teacher of history, I simply cannot teach my undergraduates entirely with, or with a majority of, case studies or uncovereage, no matter how many cutting-edge scientific studies say that I should because students don’t learn as well within a lecture setting. And there is merit to those studies; I cannot thrown them away either. Honestly, the only answer that I have arrived at is that my class periods must consist of a combination of lectures, discussions, and moments to “uncover” history by analyzing primary sources. To what extent each of those are important, which also depends on the level of the class, I am still unsure. But that is my role as the teacher to figure out; I must learn to teach as my students learn how to “do” history. For the sake of all of us, the problem solving skills and conversations taught in history classroom are still important to our modern world. And those skills, and those conversations, cannot be completely accommodated for within the PBL paradigm that seems to be being put on us to use if we plan to keep up in our fields. But history needs context; it wouldn’t make much sense without it. And context needs more than lectures, PBL, and scientific knowledge.