Via Altercation: A New York Times article on the decision of the Middlebury College history department to ban students from citing Wikipedia in their papers and exams. While I recognize that Wikipedia has its limits, I’ll join the chorus of those who think this policy is a bad idea, but this debate illustrates the degree to which educators will need to rethink how they teach academic research.
Like Jason Mittell, who is heavily quoted in the article, I think the history department’s policy misses a tremendous opportunity for thinking about changes in research methods and knowledge acquisition. In fact, like Jason, I have assignments in one of my classes requiring students to participate in a course blog and wiki. In my case, I have asked students to contribute to a course wiki rather than editing or adding to an existing wiki such as Wikipedia (others are obviously welcome to participate in the blog and the wiki). While the blog and wiki are relatively rudimentary, I think its useful to consider how these forms can inform our goals as educators and researchers. Such activities seem far more effective in thinking about information literacy than an outright ban on using certain sources.
That being said, I encourage students to think critically about such sources as Wikipedia, namely its status as an encyclopedia that offers very little in the way of specialized knowledge and one that may be more subject to factual errors than other encyclopedias. But banning Wikipedia prevents us from having some valuable conversations about how these online tools can be used.
Update: Tim Anderson has a useful defense of Wikipedia on the MediaCommons blog. I’m inclined to agree with Tim that Wikipedia can be especially useful in tracking popular culture ephemera that might otherwise fall beneath the academic radar or get caught up in academic publishing limbo. While he’s right to argue that Wikipedia may appear to be poor starting point for researching events or texts that have been discussed for decades, if not centuries, the site can be of value for those of us who teach and study popular culture.