08 March 2007

Writing on Wikipedia

As most of you know, Middlebury College announced that Wikipedia, the encyclopedia anyone can edit, was forbidden as a cited reference in academic work . The sounds of the uproar still ring in my ears.

Subsequently, my college's Center for Teaching and Learning reached out to the faculty to gauge their opinion on Wikipedia with the catchy quip, "Do you think Wikipedia is wicked or "wicked" cool?" The volume of responses illustrated that this is clearly a hot but controversial topic. At our college, it made clear a divide between the technologists and the traditionalists, leaving some of us in the middle, bracing the challenges of being budding academics in the age of mass collaboration and interactive information. To my mind, however, the discussion over Wikipedia's appropriateness in academic work is most often a discussion of two, equally important, but different topics: 1. the interactivity of information best encapsulated by the collaborative and democratic nature of wikis, and 2. Whether Wikipedia is an appropriate source to be submitted for academic work,particularly as a basis for scholarly analysis.

Elaine Young, one of our faculty members and fellow blogger, in her posts on Wikipedia, brings up a number of interesting points in terms of the consumer driven nature of information. This is an exciting time to be driving down the "information superhighway" (how can I resist such a wonderfully hokey yet apt metaphor). To continue the metaphor and borrow from Volkswagon’s ad campaign, on the road of life, there are passengers and drivers. Wikipedia does offer unparalleled opportunities to engage in epistemological discourse: it asks for drivers. But I must take issue with the presupposition that posters to Wikipedia do indeed have "knowledge" in a topic area and are "experts" in different areas, essentially that they are qualified drivers. As the much heralded "Nature" article points out, Jimmy Wales (the founder of Wikipedia) is not as interested in "checking articles with experts as getting them to write the articles in the first place". While that might be a terrific teaching point for students in the need to rethink, revise, and rewrite, needn't we wonder if that is an appropriate selling point for an "encyclopedia" that purports authoritativeness?

And that gets to the heart of the matter for me. Calling something an "encyclopedia", whether collaborative, electronic, or dust-laden and multi volumed, connotes a level of authoritativeness. Students look to encyclopedias (and yes, most often Wikipedia) to gather essential information on a topic. And it is up to the authoritative community of the college and knowledge, professors and librarians, to a) point out to students the limitations in looking at issues in such a myopic way as is often done in encyclopedias and, b) to decide what we demand from our students in their research. In my classes, encyclopedic entries are starting points and are not acceptable, whether from Wikipedia or not, as a source for academic work. It's a great place to go to find out what something is and what are some key terms to apply to further research. Students should be bringing their critical thinking skills to all and any information they procure, whether for academic work or out on the road of life.

Wikipedia is an exciting project and I admit to using it often. It is a valuable resource for information and to deride it soley on its nature is to ignore the changing nature of information. But it is a question of what we are using that resource for that is of paramount importance to me as I consider how to answer questions about Wikipedia in library instruction sessions and as I consider
whether to put a disclaimer on my syllabus or my assignments.

There are a myriad of fascinating and informative articles on Wikipedia out there. I have listed a few on the side bar HOT TOPIC, and I am always looking for more.
(NOTE: most links are through Champlain affiliated databases and may not be accessible to general readers)

No comments: