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Like most TAs, I tell my students to stay away from Wikipedia when writing their essays. To be fair, I don’t simply condemn it as the source of all evil, I merely point out how problematic it is to rely on information posted anonymously unless it can be checked elsewhere and that encyclopedias and dictionaries, while very useful to get started, do not provide enough information to support the kind of essays they need to write in history courses.

A friend of mine argues that better than blankly forbidding the use of Wikipedia, we would do the students a better service by teaching them how to use Wikipedia effectively. She talks about creating an assignment that would require the students to do extensive research on a given topic and either create a Wikipedia entry for it, if that doesn’t exist, or edit the existing entry with the information they gathered. That would teach them that anybody can create a Wikipedia entry and perhaps help them use it more critically in the future.

While Wikipedia has a big no-no in many academic circles – and historians are perhaps the most critical of it – some articles suggest it’s not all bad:

David Parry, “Wikipedia and the new curriculum: digital literacy is knowing how we store what we know” in Science Progress, 11 Feb 2008.

Nicholson Baker, “The Charms of Wikipedia,” review of Wikipedia: The Missing Journal by  John Broughton, in The New York Review of Books, 55 (4), published 20 March 2008.

Michael Booth, “Grading Wikipedia“, in The Dever Post, 30 March 2007.

All the articles above suggest we need not dismiss Wikipedia completely, that it can be very useful and its dynamic nature means that many subjects in it reflect some of the latest developments in a given field. An example is the entry on global warming, considered by specialists in the field to be “a great primer on the subject, suitable for just the kinds of use one might put to a traditional encyclopedia. Following the links takes the interested reader into greater and greater depth, probably further than any traditional encyclopedia…”(Scott Denning, Monfort Professor of Atomespheric Science).

I confess I have no prejudice against Wikipedia as I often find myself using it for general information and if I tell my students no to use it, it is simply because I don’t want them relying on either encyclopedias or textbooks to write their essays. But maybe we need to discuss more the reasons behind that.

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