Strange Facts in the History Classroom: Or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wiki(pedia)

Christopher Miller, May 2007

LogoThe summer of 2006 saw Wikipedia emerge on the historical scene as a full-blown phenomenon. Roy Rosenzweig's article in the Journal of American History combined with an engrossing expose in the Atlantic to push the online encyclopedia to the fore of academic discussion.1 We've all also worried about students who use internet sources and especially about the reliability of a open-source source such as Wikipedia. The combination of the reading, the worry, and the incessant damning of Wikipedia by colleagues led me to (re)consider my pedagogical policy towards Wikipedia.

AHR Wiki

Many history professors ban vaguely defined "internet sources" as if the means of acquisition determines a source's reliability. This distinction has increasingly lost its meaning as many of us (and most of our students) would rather access even the American Historical Review in its digital format than its bound volumes in the stacks. I decided that in light of this transformation, I would embrace Wikipedia instead of banning it, and use the experience as an educational experience for my students—a way to expose them to the idea that history is "created" rather than "discovered."

I have a confession to make—I am a "Wiki-victim." In the course of researching for a biweekly local history column that I write, I turned to Wikipedia for a quick answer to a question I had. As it turned out, the information was incorrect, and that error made its way into print—much to my embarrassment. The error was a simple transposition of one word, but in the specific context I was writing, that small error took on a completely different significance. I had as much reason as any one of my students to doubt the validity of Wikipedia as a source.

What is most troubling about the "anti-Wiki" movement is that it tends to single out Wikipedia for being an online source rather than for being an encyclopedia. It had been my policy in the past simply to assume that encyclopedias were out of bounds in college-level work no matter what their origin. But noting the uproar about Wiki's reliability made me rethink that attitude. In June 2006, T. Mills Kelly of the blog Edwired asked, apropos of the growing controversy about (and usage of) Wikipedia: "So, what's a history teacher to do? The same things we've always done with new resources. We have to design learning opportunities for our students that help them to see the strengths and weaknesses of any resource." 2

In the context of the swirling debate over Wikipedia, I resolved to take Kelly's injunction seriously, and create such a learning activity for use in my U.S. history survey courses at Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The assignment that I designed required students to read Wikipedia. I wanted to bring the new encyclopedia into the classroom so that we could subject it to intensive examination, compare it to other sources, and have a semester-long discussion about different ways that history can be studied, and different ways that it can be made. I believed that this assignment would leverage already existing student skills and provide a good jumping-off point to a discussion of the "underside" of history.

My main goal was to expose students to the idea that historical knowledge is created. The whole Wikipedia controversy seemed to me to be a dispute over legitimate means by which knowledge is created and verified. On one side, we had academic historians claiming that their expertise gave their interpretations weight. On the other, we had the Wikipedia advocates who claimed that the "wisdom of the crowds" would ensure the accuracy and veracity of Wikipedia's information. A study of Wikipedia would allow my class to explore the ways in which history is "created," and to practice the skills of deciding between different sources of information. Armed with these goals, I headed to the classroom convinced that I'd created a winner. We'd discuss the philosophy of history in terms that the students would understand. I was certain that I'd stumbled across a Great Idea that would transform my classroom.

The Assignment

The assignment as I designed it contained three assessed elements.

Part I of the assignment was to consist of in-class student presentations. Students would choose topics that related to historical material we'd be discussing in class so that the content of their presentations would not be isolated. They would be required to compare the Wikipedia article on the assigned topic to entries in other encyclopedias. They were to then present that comparison to fellow students, describing how the different encyclopedias presented their topics in different ways. With regard to Wikipedia, they were to investigate the entry, looking in particular at the discussions/histories of the articles.

Part II in the process would be a written paper. In this paper, students were to reprise their findings from the oral presentation, and add a comparison between the encyclopedia articles and some academic literature. Each of these papers would then be posted to the course web site so they could be read by the entire class. The online papers were to constitute the source material for Part III of the semester-long process.

Part III was a final paper, designed to be a capstone for the course work. For this final paper, the students would use the papers already presented during the semester as their sources as they developed an explanation of how process (wiki or expertise) interacts with information to produce knowledge.

I not only had a great idea, I thought, but also the perfect teaching and evaluation plan to implement it. What could be better?

The Idea in the Classroom

Like many "great" ideas, however, this one too fell apart immediately upon contact with the real world. I had naively assumed that my students would be aware of Wikipedia's existence, if not well-informed about its pitfalls. But a survey of the class at our first meeting revealed that only 7 of the 28 students present knew what Wikipedia was, and even these seven offered varied responses to my questions (one student memorably called it a "liberal informative encyclopedia on the internet"; another opined that it was "not fully true"). Faced with this shocking lack of exposure, I knew I had to modify my brilliant assignment plan.

I had already decided—as part of my teaching plan—to spend some time at the beginning of the course to introduce the students to basic questions through discussions about the nature of historical knowledge and background reading about Wikipedia (mainly in the form of the already cited articles, Roy Rosenzweig's discussion of "open source" history, and Marshal Poe's investigation of "wiki-culture" that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly). I now realized that the introductory discussion had to be more elaborate. Our extended discussion of these two articles exposed the students taking the course to different perspectives on the relative importance of the Wiki-controversy and did appear to open their eyes to the important issues of trust involved in selecting any source. Many students fumbled towards a "how can we know that what Wikipedia says is true?" line of questioning, and their more advanced (or more cynical?) peers took the next step and began to raise—perhaps unwittingly—fundamental epistemological questions—"How do we know anything is true?"

It was at this point that I introduced the notion of expertise. Historians, I told them, spend their lives learning how to evaluate documents and communicate their findings. They develop great skill to balance differing ideas. Many students were not ready to engage with this concept; what was, they seemed to wonder, so hard about finding the truth? Expertise did not count for much, it seemed, in the face of the collective wisdom of the "open source" model of Wikipedia. Facts were facts, the students appeared to be saying. How could boring old historians compare with the knowledge possessed by every person on the planet? Each week, as students made presentations about their assigned Wikipedia articles, we heard that the Wiki-articles were longer, more informative, more detailed, and, interestingly, better illustrated. They even included lists of sources and outside reading. The students were thus participating in the creation of source material, and were also engaging in an analysis of that source material to come to some conclusions about how historical knowledge is made.

But not everyone was happy. A few students noticed that the articles they had examined were poorly written, had been subject to repeated vandalism, or contained dubious claims. Out of these rumblings, a small cadre of students emerged that challenged the early class consensus that appeared to be in favor of Wikipedia. This challenge reoriented class presentations from being overwhelmingly positive to being at least partly critical towards Wikipedia and its method. Those who had found nothing out-of-the ordinary about Wikipedia began to see what the "doubters" were talking about. A small group of students thus brought the ideals of the assignment to life. A fellow student raising an epistemological issue on her own initiative is a powerful engine for classroom discussion and student reflection. This sea-change in classroom attitude was reflected in the final papers, which had a distinctly different tone than many of the first round of papers

The final papers—based on a critical analysis of the papers presented and posted earlier—revealed that the assignment had changed their minds about Wikipedia. Most students explained that they thought the Wikipedia articles were the best available, but were clearly not sufficient as a single-source. However, most of them also concluded that this was due to the encyclopedia orientation. They found, just as Rosenzweig had, that Wikipedia accuracy was more or less the same as regular encyclopedias. However, many students also concluded that they had nagging doubts about trusting the content of a Wikipedia article. Interestingly, the reason for their doubt was their sense that they lacked enough knowledge to be able to challenge or verify the information themselves. After a semester of discussion, the result was a sincere, self-conscious awareness of the limitations on certainty in human (and historical) knowledge.

Conclusions

The assignment scheme was successful in its primary aim—getting students to understand and internalize the idea that history wasn't absolutely "true." Almost all students demonstrated awareness of this idea to some degree. Philosophically, a great deal was achieved. Many students reported that the assignment made them think in ways they never had. These outcomes are desirable, and can likely be repeated.

Problems were clear in some of the specifics of the assignment. The biggest weakness came in the form of the class presentations. Week after week, we heard the same phrases, the same analysis, and the same concepts repeated. Since presentation and paper due dates were staggered, student progress was not uniform. The groups that presented early showed marked development across the course of the semester; those that presented later did not appear to learn from the reports they heard before it was their turn to present.

Another difficulty arose from my use of the question "Who makes history?" Some students grasped that this question referred to the history that we were reading. But some never got past the concept that "people" make history by their actions. As a result, they were not able to engage the concept of historical knowledge being created. This divide suggested that I may have been too ambitious in expecting such a complicated concept to fit into a first-year-level survey course.

These caveats aside, student comments were largely favorable. I am heading back to the drawing board to create more defined assignments that are less ambitious and more "progressive" across the semester. Another issue for a course of this size is the time/schedule nexus. In my case, I was teaching one night a week for 3.5 hours. In a three meetings/week situation, I believe that the presentations would be less intrusive to overall class time, since they could be presented one or two at a time, instead of three to four each week. By allowing the presentations to be ever present, yet in the background, the philosophical concepts at stake could be subject to more repetition and still seem less repetitious.

In reporting about this teaching plan, I am reminded that the same issues always apply to good teaching, no matter how high-tech the topic might seem. The Wikipedia controversy isn't (or shouldn't be) about technology or internet sources. Rather, it should be grounded in skills that historians have been teaching for years: critical thinking, source analysis, and comparative approaches. The students were quick to realize this; we should be, too.

—Christopher Miller recently defended his dissertation on 19th-century suburbanization in Milwaukee. He has been teaching as an adjunct for the past three years at several area colleges, including Carroll College, where this assignment was used. His major interests include urban and suburban history, and the emerging scholarship of pedagogy.

Notes

1. Roy Rosenzweig, "Can History Be Open Source?" Journal of American History 93:1 (June 2006): 117–146 and Marshall Poe, "The Hive" The Atlantic Monthly (Sept 2006).

2. Edwired blog, http://edwired.org, June 14, 2006, by Mills [Kelly].