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Wikipedia’s Status in the Writing Classroom

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When I was a kid, a man showed up at my door selling a set of encyclopedias. I lived on a gravel road in rural Missouri. We had to drive to get our mail, and the nearest gas station was almost ten miles away. Though the town I lived in had a library, I never visited it when I was little because I went to and from school on the bus. It was, to my young eyes, pretty exciting to see a stranger on the doorstep, but the fact that said stranger brought with him books full of information made it downright magical.

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We didn’t buy the encyclopedias. We didn’t have the money for them. The salesman, however, was persistent and left behind the first in the series, the “A” book, in the hopes that we would be so impressed with it that we would later buy the whole set. Alas, my passionate appeals did not make encyclopedia money appear, but I devoured that “A” book from cover to cover, learning all I could about Antarctica and anacondas, left in the dark about what all the other letters of the alphabet might have to offer me.
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Perhaps this longing for knowledge is why I get a lump in my throat every time I tell students not to use Wikipedia as a source in their papers. I tell them this because I know many of my colleagues are not going to allow it as an appropriate academic source, and I don’t wan
t them to practice research habits they will have to unlearn or, worse, think that they have solid research practices only to get failing grades for them later. This is especially true because I am working with developmental writers, and I know that they will be facing tough standards. I also know that for many of them my class is their first real taste of research and academic standards, so I don’t want to set them off on the wrong track.

It’s something of a shame, though, because I do really value Wikipedia.

I was reflecting on this today while listening to Krista Tippett interview Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales for the latest episode of On Being. (You can listen to it here). In this episode, Tippett repeated Wikipedia’s vision statement several times:

Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge

What’s so beautiful about this is that the “sum of all knowledge” suggests not just that we can access all of the knowledge “out there” in the world that other people have gathered, but that we, too, are part of it. That our contributions and experiences become part of that fabric. The “all” is a promise that reaches beyond scientific inquiry and into philosophical optimism.

I want my students to view research that way. I want them to see their contributions as valuable and meaningful. I want them to believe that they have something worth saying, and that researching is a tool that allows them to find a space in which to say it, a space that is hopefully supported and contextualized with the carefully-considered ideas of others.

Listening to this interview also made me appreciate the complexities of the editing process in much more detail. The checks and balances that the site imposes in an attempt to keep things accurate, balanced, and subjective is impressive. Of course, we all know that it is imperfect. There are “vandals” who intentionally put misinformation on the site as a kind of joke. There are those who are so passionate about a topic that they stray from the site’s subjective intention and edit information with an agenda. Even people who are whole-heartedly attempting to adhere to the standards of credibility set by the site can find themselves disagreeing about just how to do that.

There have been discussions about how academia should handle Wikipedia as a paper source. This article in The Guardian, for instance, has some warnings:

Both of the academics questioned for this article agree that it is easy to spot essays that are over-reliant on Wikipedia, and that direct citation of the site was always unacceptable. While following the footnotes in Wikipedia pages is a way to access stronger content, they say a critical mind should be applied to each source individually.

That’s largely how I treat the source in my classes: as a working bibliography where students can turn to find an initial set of sources (in the references) to run through a more vigorous check. For my developmental writers, I very rarely ask them to do this work on their own. Instead, I model these practices for them and encourage them to use the sources that we’ve, together, decided made the cut.

Indeed, these practices are in line with Wikipedia’s own page on academic guidelines for citation, which states (in part) that users  “should not cite Wikipedia itself, but the source provided.” Ironically, at the time of this post, that quote is flagged with a “needs citation” tag.

And while any decisions about how to use the source should probably keep in mind studies that vouch for its relative accuracy and how some fields may get different scrutiny than others, the part of Wikipedia that interests me the most is still the idea that it is based on community, that knowledge is shared and curated through participation, that we rigorous debate over which facts should be included helps maintain the boundaries around subjectivity.

While I want my students to learn good research habits that are going to help them write excellent papers for my class and the work they’ll do in the future, I also want them to have a simultaneous appreciation for the vastness of human knowledge and the fact that there is still room for them in it. I’ll continue to tell them to use Wikipedia as a jumping off point instead of the end, but I’m going to look for opportunities to point out its more inspiring collaborative aspects as well.

What do you think? Do you allow Wikipedia as a source in your classes? How do you discuss it with students? Do developmental students need to learn stricter rules at the early stages of research? 

Images: Rishabh Mishra

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