Wikipedia: Bane or Boon for History Courses

Middlebury College History Dept.’s announcement banning citing of Wikipedia in student papers has resulted in a flurry of articles and posts. While many teachers see this as a “teaching moment” others consider Wikipedia yet another teaching roadblock thrown up by technology. Questioning the Middlebury decision, these three teachers explain why Wikipedia offers a “teaching moment” rather than a roadblock:
Roy Rosenzweig suggests that history students need to learn the role of encyclopedias, either paper-bound or electronic, in research. (In the article he actually compares wikipedia to traditional encyclopedia entries on several topics, with surprising results.)
Jeremy Boggs is incorporating a section into his History 120 course on critical thinking and historical research that will use Wikipedia as examples. T. Mills Kelly has gone one better and has removed the textbook, which he faults for its encyclopedic “just the facts” approach, from his Western Civ class altogether. His arguments for doing so show that Middlebury and others are missing a great opportunity.
During the second week of class he has the students write an entry for Wikipedia. This entry is edited by other students in the class and then posted. At the end of the semester they write a reflection on what happened to their Wikipedia article over the course of the semester. Meanwhile, the remainder of the course is “centered on five historical monographs and the course is structured around a discussion of the differences between analytical history (in the monographs) and the “just the facts” history one finds in encyclopedias.”
On the Middlebury ban he says:
“To me this seems like such an odd position for historians to take, given that so many of the sources we work with every day are highly contested as to their veracity, their meaning, their provenance. Every time I open a folder in the archives and look at a source, I reflexively ask myself “Who created this?”, “Why did he/she/they create it?”, “Is this an original, a copy, or even a forgery?”, “Is this the complete source or was it edited and if so who might have edited it and why?” Responsible historians must ask these (and many more) questions every time we look at a source. But apparently, if we are to follow the policy of our colleagues at Middlebury, we do not need to teach this same reflexive scepticism to our students.”
Why? He continues:
“You see, I’m a firm believer that we can deny, deny, deny that new forms of content delivery are undermining all that we find comfortable, but denial just never seems to work in the end. I know (and so do you) that students are going to use Wikipedia regardless of what I tell them they can and can’t do. Even the folks at Middlebury admit this–students there are allowed to use Wikipedia for their research–they just can’t cite Wikipedia in their papers (explain that one to me). So, it seems to me that as educators we have an obligation to teach our students how to make appropriate use of the
resources they are using and I’m not sure how a ban on citation will teach them anything worth knowing.”
Cited refs:
Rosenzweig, Roy. “Can History Be Open Source?” Journal of American History.
Jeremy Boggs discusses his use of Wikipedia for History 120 at George Mason:
T. Mills Kelly blog postings:
Wikipedia’s own advice: “Wikipedia classroom assignments on the Rise”

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