Tuesday, November 20, 2007


No doubt it was misguided of me to register at wikipedia and start editing and adding articles (as anyone with internet access can do). I've started doing it myself in the knowledge that there are some students you can't beat away from wikipedia with sticks, and in the hope that I can at least help ensure the quality of some of the information.

For non-essential information, such as people mentioned in passing in songs, news stories, comedy programs, and so on (like Joe DiMaggio, for instance) I use wikipedia a lot, mainly because if it's got a relevant article it comes up high on google searches, and Sloth is a besetting vice. And once you know that you can add or edit articles, and know how to (it really isn't hard), your fingers start to itch whenever you spot a typo, or a bit of non-standard syntax, or a false fact. And especially when you come across a "propose deletion as this subject lacks notability" tag, that the user-editors wouldn't dream of attaching to an article devoted to an article about a cartoon character, plastered across the top of an article on a well-regarded 20th-century German philosopher (at least it wasn't Heidegger; oh would that it were!).

The experience of a fortnight's midnight editing leads to two thoughts.

Firstly, I came across an exchange on one of the editorial "talk pages":
(student) editor1: "Wikipedia can be pretty useful when you're a student:)"
(once burnt but still student?) editor2: "But watch out with it, you may find a lot of information your professor doesn't agree with..."
Is this not a little like an apprentice joiner saying "I found a perfectly good flatpacked chest of drawers in IKEA, but my teacher wouldn't give me marks for it"? Or a trainee chef turning up to an exam with a readymeal?

Surely, since a professor should be judging whether the student has acquired the ability to establish findings (rather than simply find, learn and reproduce them), the question is not "disagreement" with "information", but a perception of the student's failure to grasp the nature of the process they are supposed to be undergoing? I've already said that I use wikipedia myself for some purposes, and I can add that my house is full of IKEA bookshelves, and my freezer half-full of readymeals (the other half is loaves of one-day-old bread bought at knock-down prices) - but I'd no more expect a student to think it was OK to use wikipedia in an essay than to think IKEA is joinery or a readymeal a proper dinner. If students don't even realize that this is where the issue lies, how can it be made more explicit to them?

Secondly, it's apparent that the majority of user-editors are American teenagers. Who else has the time and the internet access (and it must be said: the selfless urge to share facts and factoids) in such numbers? Not many adults will have the time, even if they have the access and the urge (it isn't as though I've finished all the work I should be doing in the "here and now" - which raises the question of what the hell I'm doing blogging, but we'll put that aside for the present). Of course, knowing how sharp you are, my reader, you must be thinking I'm a bit slow if I've only just realized that (about the teenagers, not about the blogging). But here comes the thought these students that I warn and warn not to use wikipedia as a source (and I've had an essay handed in that footnoted wikipedia on every page) - perhaps if I set them the task of adding or editing a wikipedia article, their reaction would be like mine on getting a driving license: "Oh no - this must mean there are drivers out there no better than I am!" Knowing their own ignorance, they would never trust it as a source again. Or would they lack the self-knowledge to reach that obvious conclusion?


janetktc said...

I'm not sure I should comment, since I'm not a complete stranger, but have I ever told you about the local university whose email suffix has been banned from Wikipedia? This was because the professors there were in the habit of planting false information for their students to find.

I didn't much trust Wikipedia before I learned that.


crossbowman said...

Well I didn't mean *only* strangers.