Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Ever since Diderot

Noel discovered some months back that he had a giant man-crush on Ken Jennings, the all-time Jeopardy! champion. Ken's blog, Confessions of a Trivial Mind, reveals something quite different from the trivia geek or socially-stunted dork one might expect would be the type to win 74 Jeopardy! games in a row. Number one: Terrific, writer. Number two: A passion for film, and astoundingly astute taste in same. Number three: Opinions about the broader culture that show good sense, rather than its much-vaunted populist cousin, "common sense."

I can love Ken Jennings in a much more heterosexual way than my hubby, albeit for the same reasons. And every time I catch up with his blog, he gives me another reason to fall head over heels. Take this post on Wikipedia, prompted by a sensationalist story from Pennsylvania about a few secondary and higher-ed faculty members who discourage use of the collaborative encyclopedia.

Few topics in academic circles raise my hackles more than Wikipedia. My colleagues almost without exception have a knee-jerk reaction to mention of the site: mouths turn down, tongues cluck, eyebrows raise. We're all supposed to commiserate with each other about the sorry state of the world where any yahoo can edit a compendium of knowledge, and where our students are too stupid (or too lazy) to realize (or care) that it's all a pack of lies.

I can rarely stop myself from butting into any conversation anyway -- being a know-it-all is one of my many character flaws -- but I take it as a personal mission never to let negative stereotypes about Wikipedia go unchallenged. "Actually," I pipe up, "a 2005 study by the journal Nature found that Wikipedia was almost as accurate as the Encyclopedia Brittanica. And of course it's much more up to date, not to mention including much more information about topics in popular culture and current events."

Heads generally turn. "But anyone can change it," someone usually points out. "You don't have to be an expert to write an article in Wikipedia, or change one that's already there. There are no editors, no oversight. Nobody should be using it as a source."

"True, anyone can edit it, and there aren't official arbiters of content," I respond. "But an unofficial group of people, many of whom are experts and nearly all of whom are committed to the project for the common good, maintain the site and weed out bad or unverified information. The vast majority of edits on the site are done by a tiny percentage of those using it. It's simply not true that everyone who stops by sprays graffiti all over the site -- in fact, only a few do, and others almost always come along and clean it up."

"But I do agree with you about one thing. Nobody should be using it as a source -- nobody should be citing its articles in a research paper. It's just like any other encyclopedia -- a starting point for research, not a stopping point. Would you let your students cite the Encyclopedia Brittanica in a research paper?" I ask. My colleagues usually shake their heads begrudgingly. "Exactly," I say. "There's no reason to single out Wikipedia as a bad source; in fact, it does what it's designed to do perfectly well, like all its encyclopedia cousins, and better than some. And that's to give a reasonable overview of the subject, a quick source for dates or lists, and a bibliography one can follow for more in-depth and specialized information."

I've had some version of this conversation -- usually a less one-sided, more contentious one -- at least a dozen times in the past year, at gatherings of faculty in my institution, at workshops and conferences, at dinners, on planes. Not once have I encountered as reasonable, as open-minded, or as sensible a perspective in my conversation partners as the one Ken provides in this blog entry. I wish I could make it required reading for everyone in education.

I ranted recently about how little my fellow academics trust people in general, and Web 2.0 in particular. Hey, why bother getting a Ph.D. if Joe Podunk's thoughts on any given subject are going to be given as much weight as yours? But that's a caricature of collaborative technologies that harness the wisdom of crowds. It's not survival of the most popular, or validation of every vandalistic impulse found in the human id. It's not even democracy. It's the aggregation of expertise far beyond the traditional academic realm -- without excluding that realm. (Wikipedia entries on academic subjects typically cite the standard works in the field, and are often informally moderated by folks with the pertinent degree.)

And of course, our irrational hatred of Wikipedia has everything to do with elitism. We all use it, after all -- but we don't think our students are smart enough to use it, too. We think their poor credulous minds will be unable to distinguish between good uses of the tool and using it to murder Shakespeare or butcher the law of relativity. Let me ask this: Whose fault is it if our students can't figure out what tool to use for what purpose? Whose fault is it if they don't know how to tell a credible piece of information from crankery? We'd rather ban power tools than risk our apprentices nicking their fingers, and so we create for them an artificial world where everybody does research as if it were still 1975. And we think that training with hand saws and drill bits is preparing them for a job as a twenty-first century carpenter.

How did I know how many Jeopardy! games Ken Jennings won? You guess.


Sonny said...

I had just forwarded this to every teacher/future teaching I know last night.

The problem is that what teachers are usually asking students to do (pre-college mostly) is reproduce exactly what Wikipedia has to offer, but they're discouraged from looking at it. E.g. "Tell me when Pat Conroy was born and what books he wrote...but don't look at Wikipedia."

Where students inevitably end up are the likely student-made geocities, aol member pages etc. on these topics that lack the peer editing that's Wikipedia's strongest suit. It's all so very frustrating.

katie j. said...

I think I'm going to make my students read this, because I think it sums up perfectly how Wikipedia can and should be used. Hell, I'm glad I read it--I use Wikipedia all the time, and felt a little guilty for it. No more.

Adam Villani said...

Heh, yeah, Ken is actually a pretty nice guy for somebody who robbed me of $22,000!

Yeah, actually, I'm more just bitter that I can't go on the show again than the fact that he beat me once.

doafy said...

I will admit that I sometimes do exhibit a knee-jerk response to Wikipedia (as well as other encyclopedias) when my students are researching. However, I am leading my students through what is usually their first *real* foray in to academic research (with meticulous citation and all). That they are getting this for the first time in eleventh grade is not my fault, but because of this I have to break it down into pretty simple guidelines. (Most things from proquest or Questia are good; many things ending in .gov, .org, or .edu are reliable, but you have to think about them; articles from respected news source websites are good; everything else ending in .com must be approved;) I have tried many times to explain the subtleties of using Wikipedia as a starting point, yet it still ends up on works cited pages. Many of their previous teachers haven't expected more, so many of my students think that Wikipedia is the end-point to research, not the beginning. It's when it shows up when I've addressed the point many times that really makes me bristle. I can see how frustrated people could translate that into a ban. Not that it makes it right.

I will say that I have gotten much worse on works cited pages though. I hope that this is out of poor time management, and just trying to get something in by the deadline, rather than stupidity. I've had perfectly brilliant students claim in annotated bibliographies that they will use sources from bona fide crazies on the internet. (One recent one was a website written by someone who claimed anyone could learn to shape-shift as he had).