Keep your ears open and I’m sure you’ll hear this rant. Some member of the division — probably one of the more tradition-bound ones — will announce loudly that he or she forbids students to use Wikipedia or any other Web sources. Those within earshot will be regaled with a pious tirade on declining intellectual standards, the implication being that our fearless one-person crusader will single-handedly rescue Western thought from imminent collapse.
If you’re skeptical of such pronouncements, you should be. It doesn’t matter whether we think students should or shouldn’t use Web sources such as Wikipedia; they will. We can and should require students to consult what we might call — for lack of a better term — more conventional sources. By all means schedule time to take your students to the library and meet with library specialists. Take them to the college archives as well. Show them where back issues of non-digitized journals are housed, where government documents are shelved, and let them know about germane special collections. If your college has a specialized library for your discipline — such as an art, music, science, or business collection — take students there as well. (You’d be shocked to discover the number of students who’ve never been inside repositories for their own major.)
Sing the virtues of those processed pulp products called books. Hit students with your best shot about why they cannot find everything they need by sitting in their pajamas and surfing the Web. Require that research projects cite a certain number of items from the library. And after you’ve done all of that, take a cold shower and face the reality that most of them are still going to rely primarily on electronic sources. Don’t tell students not to use them; you’re only setting them up to deceive. (They’ll simply consult these but not cite them.)
Last semester I experimented with limited surrender and concluded I should have gotten out the white flag years ago. I reconsidered Wikipedia after a friend researching how it’s compiled and edited convincingly demonstrated that it’s at least as reliable as (if not considerably more so than) traditional encyclopedias such as Britannica. Like any general source, Wikipedia is of limited use, but that doesn’t mean it has no value whatsoever or that we should piously (attempt to) bar students from accessing it.
Instead of telling my students that Wikipedia is not always an appropriate source, I let them discover it for themselves by integrating a simple exercise into a writing seminar. I assigned a text titled Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum. The author, Gerald Nosich, lays out standards for critical thinking: clearness, accuracy, relevance, sufficiency, depth, and precision. We thoroughly discussed these and did practice exercises that reinforced the notion that critical thinking involves regular application of the standards. Like most writing seminars, a major research project lay at the end of the intellectual tunnel.
About halfway through the process I threw students a curve ball. I knew that some were beginning to see the holes in their own research and I wanted to make sure they plugged these with substance, not generalities. To that end, I assigned a simple 750-word exercise that I provocatively titled “Does Wikipedia Suck?” (I can get away with slightly off-kilter language at my university; if you can’t, tone it down to something along the lines of “Is Wikipedia Useless?”) Students were told to pick a concept, theory, or individual central to their paper, read the matching Wikipedia entry, and assess how useful it is for their research. The criteria for usefulness were the standards of critical thinking from the Nosich book.
The concept was dead simple, but the results were better than I could have dreamed. Contrary to what enemies of Wikipedia claim, my students did find value in the entries. It was praised for its clarity, organization, relevance and accuracy. (Not a single student detected a factual error in an entry.) Quite a few students found useful cited sources. That was as far as it went, however. Students immediately came to the same conclusion that professors have been harping upon from time immemorial: Most encyclopedia entries sacrifice depth for breadth. Not a single student felt that Wikipedia passed the sufficiency test and most noted that the material contained in the entries was nonspecific, anecdotal, and incomplete; hence Wikipedia also failed the precision test. Aside from the 2 (of 21) students who were so put off that they vowed that they’d never consult Wikipedia, the rest commented that it was a place to get very basic information, but that it could not be relied upon for serious in-depth research.
The most valuable lesson of all took place in the debriefing discussion the day papers were handed in. Students shared their concerns about Wikipedia’s virtues and deficiencies with each other and saw that it was a peer consensus, not a professor’s rant. I then asked them how they could evaluate all sources — electronic and print — in the same fashion as they judged Wikipedia. Within a week I had to but ask of any source “Is it sufficient?” in order to trigger thinking about evidence, logic, and data.
This worked so well that I’m now contemplating ways to adapt the exercise for other courses. I’ll probably reword some of the Nosich standards for history classes — the word “evidence” might make more sense than “precision,” for example. I envision a short paper in which students compare topics they’ve just studied with Wikipedia entries. I’ll probably theme it on what they learned versus what they failed to learn, ask students to speculate on why important exclusions occurred, and brainstorm on how historians use evidence and evaluate the sufficiency of a thesis.
Of course, professors always harp on the need to evaluate the soundness of an argument and the quality of the sources used to advance it. To reiterate, though, the virtue in considering the assignment described above (or its equivalent) lies in self-discovery. It also gets students to think critically of sources they’re going to consult whether we like them or not. Conclusions students reach on their own are likely to bear more weight than a professor’s cautionary tales. If you worry about students relying too much on the Web, heed Abraham Lincoln’s advice: “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”