The Age of Wikipedia

I noticed an interesting blurb on the Chronicle of Higher Education today: Professors Shore Up Wikipedia Entries on Public Policy. The short article explains how a small group of professors are working with Wikipedia experts to contribute high-quality content to the famous open-access encyclopedia. The article points out that professors are incorporating the writing and editing of Wiki articles into their course expectations. Although many (if not most) educators ignore Wikipedia in the classroom, there is a legitimate pedagogical advantage to a more direct approach. As one of the participating professors explained: “It truly tests [students’] ability to argue complex issues articulately in the public domain, as well teaching them how to be critical consumers of information.” But perhaps the most interesting part of the article is that the Wikimedia Foundation is actively supporting and facilitating course integration.

Although skepticism of Wikipedia continues to run high, few can doubt its overwhelming public presence. Not only is it driving other, more traditional, encyclopedias out of business, it is often among the top three sources of information on any topic in a standard Google search. Four years ago, the late Roy Rosenzweig published a brilliant article in the Journal of American History, which posed the question: Can History be Open Source? Rosenzweig highlighted the occasional analytical failures and lopsided coverage of Wikipedia – a byproduct of its voluntarist construction – but also pointed to its tremendous benefits for research and teaching. And I think Rosenzweig and his followers are correct to call for greater interaction and engagement with Wiki-style projects rather than pious denouncement (an all-too-common knee-jerk reaction from established academics).

Around the same time as Rosenzweig’s article, philosopher (and Wikipedia co-founder) Larry Sanger launched Citizendium, a more closed, peer-reviewed encyclopedia that has struggled to keep up with its big brother. This new Wikipedia-Academia partnership might be a good compromise between the two systems. Scholarly, professional input could supplement and augment existing material while not shutting out the hordes of amateur enthusiasts who have made the open-source encyclopedia such a popular success. Whatever the case, it is clear that the Wiki is here to stay. It is not difficult to imagine a Wiki article given the same (or even more) weight as a standard reference entry by the hiring and tenure committees of the future. And, certainly, it will continue to play a role in classroom environments, whether we want it to or not.

About Joseph Yannielli

I study the history of slavery and abolition, with a special focus on America, West Africa, and the wider world during the nineteenth century. I began this site as a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale University. I have participated in discussions around the burgeoning field of Digital Humanities, and I use technology to enhance my research and my teaching. I have also served as the manager and lead developer for a few projects, such as Princeton & Slavery and Runaway Connecticut.