The Elephant in the Digital History Room

I got in an argument last week about Wikipedia’s role in the classroom. I’m certainly not the first professor to find myself in a pickle regarding Wikipedia. I was explaining to a friend who also happens to be starting his first semester teaching in tenure track position (in literature) that on one of the first days of my Global History course I planned to teach my students how to use Wikipedia. Many college students will use Wikipedia as a reference (just as professors and other educated folks do) but they should learn how to evaluate Wikipedia articles and better yet–how to use the references, external links, and discussion pages to find other primary and secondary sources.

My friend’s position during our little discussion was that Wikipedia is not a good interpretive source, as it doesn’t tell a reader which “facts” are most significant or help students in developing an analytical perspective. He’s basically right. But I argued that despite its very purposeful stance as a non-interpretive source, Wikipedia does have a role in the classroom, both as a reference resource and as an opportunity to think about who writes history and why.

And now that I’m working on syllabi for my fall courses, I’m trying to figure out exactly how I want to put my perspective into play.  For my 100 level Global History course I will do as I told my friend: show students how to acquire basic information about an event or person from the text of a Wikipedia article, instruct them in paying attention to warning signs that an article is not reliable, and most importantly, how to treat Wikipedia articles like any other secondary source: follow the footnotes in order to learn more.

My other Fall course goes by the name: Computer Applications for Historical Research, and antiquated course title that I will change as soon as the paperwork goes through the system. I plan to teach this 400 level course as an introduction to digital history. While I will introduce my students to various aspects of digital history, I practice it from a public historian’s stance. I can think of no other more public form of history than Wikipedia. So it will certainly be on the syllabus. But exactly how we engage with Wikipedia, I have not fully fleshed out.

I want students to understand the crowdsourced nature of Wikipedia and how that is actually a good thing, so we will of course turn to Roy Rozenweig’s article on the subject, which first made it somewhat acceptable for trained historians to even acknowledge the website’s existence. Some instructors have had good success in assigning students to edit and/or write articles as part of coursework. But some have experienced difficulties. But the challenges, such as having students’ contributions not recieve approval from experienced Wikipedia editors, are good learning experiences too. If nothing else, I hope exposing my digital history students to the complexity of Wikipedia will empower them to make their own informed choices about how to interact with (or not) this massive public history force.

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