I think I am Going to Ban Brittanica from my Class

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

In the past week both The Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed have run stories about professors at Middlebury College taking a “stand against” Wikipedia. But this really doesn’t tell the story. In fact what Middlebury has done is tell students to not use Wikipedia as a primary source, and including such language on the syllabus. “Wikipedia is fine for some background research, it is not to be used as a primary source.” This to me seems obvious. Wikipedia is an excellent portal for knowledge, a good place to get an initial sense and a broad overview. As a commentator on the Chronicle article writes, “I am an administrator on the Wikipedia project, though I’m writing this in a personal capacity. I’m writing in to say that I encourage this move. Wikipedia itself recommends that it should be the first point of call for information, not the last! All those students who use it for papers, please be aware that it has NEVER been a good idea to cite an encyclopedia for most academic papers.”

What I want to know is that if I were to put a policy on my syllabus that said, “Students are not to use Brittanica as a primary source, only for background research,” would this warrant an article in the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed? And, since I assume the answer is no, why so much coverage about Wikipedia? The fact that students use Wikipedia as a primary source says far more about how education teaches them to evaluate sources, or how poorly assignments are crafted. I would argue a well crafted paper assignment (at least in English) could never be addressed by using Wikipedia as a primary source.

What I would rather see is coverage on how professors use Wikipedia or Wikis in general in new and/or productive ways. For example, because Wikipedia is governed by a GNU public license agreement you are free to use the content and disseminate such content, even free to change said content. So, if you are teaching a historically based novel in class, say The Things They Carried, you could easily prepare a brief historical overview for the students by using the Wikipedia article. But what is better, is if you disagree with something on the page, want to remove or add content, no worries feel free. This is like making your own easy, free, and quick reading guide. (I should say this wasn’t my idea, although I can’t remember who originally told me this.)

Geeky Mom and Easily Distracted have more.