Issue date: 2/28/07
Members of the College faculty joined students in an open forum held on Feb. 26 as part of a larger effort to discuss the role of Wikipedia in higher education. Two presentations sponsored by Ross Commons offered differing treatments of the online encyclopedia and debated the value of open-source technology in academic study. The conference represents the latest step in a campus-wide discussion ignited by the Department of History's recent ban on Wikipedia citations in essays and exams.
Assistant Professor of History Amy Morsman sought to address popular concerns that the ban was tantamount to an outright condemnation of the research tool while simultaneously defending the History Department's formal position. She suggested that though justified for broad background research, the citation of a tertiary source such as Wikipedia on major assignments was inappropriate given professors' expectations of their students' work.
"I actually think that Middlebury College students, especially History majors who are taking 300- or 400-level courses, are beyond making Wikipedia the starting point of their research," said Morsman.
Morsman went on to explain that many Wikipedia articles, or "wikis," are biased or inaccurate because of the Web site's fluidity and apparent lack of oversight. In certain cases, competing Wikipedia contributors have edited and re-edited the same document countless times in an effort to have the final say over a wiki's content.
To prove her point, Morsman introduced a video clip of the popular late-night comedy, "The Colbert Report," in which satirical television news anchor Stephen Colbert coined the term "wikilobbying." Colbert described wikilobbying as a war of information between two parties, each trying through open-source Web sites to convince the public of the truth of their particular versions of reality-regardless of their accuracy.
"[This is] more proof of what happens when you bring democracy to information," said Colbert, during the clip. "Open-source software is like free trade, and the invisible hand of the market has the mouse now."
Jason Mittell, assistant professor of American Studies and Film and Media Culture, disagreed about the nature of open-source software, arguing in his own presentation that coordinated contributors can in fact produce a product as good as, or in some cases better than, the traditional bound encyclopedia.
"It's only as good as its users," said Mittell, "but there are enough users that will take what they read [from more formal sources] and put it on. If you are an invested volunteer, of which there are thousands, you will provide immediate oversight and review."
According to Mittell, who has helped to write entries for print encyclopedias in the past, the editing process for such articles often consists of one expert author and an editor who may only be somewhat knowledgeable about the topic in question. By contrast, he said, Wikipedia provides "transparent and explicit" information about standards for research-gathering and the subsequent processes of writing and editing wikis.
In addition to his defense of Wikipedia, Mittell also asked for clarification from the History Department regarding its policy. He suggested that it was unclear as to whether the ban on Wikipedia citations was prompted by the way in which information was compiled on the site, or whether it was merely a reaction to the tool's nature as a tertiary source.
"When you have any critical dialogue about the site," said Mittell, "you have to understand whether your attitude is formed by the 'wiki-' part, or by the '-pedia' part."
A number of faculty members present at the forum responded to both speakers. Many of those who contributed to the discussion were largely supportive of the History Department's new policy, and advocated the use of discretion when conducting online research.
"The mantra is, 'be critical of what you use, validate it, and know what the context is," said Louisa Burnham, assistant professor of History at the College.
Some suggested that middle- and high-school teachers may be routinely directing their students to Wikipedia for projects and essays, thereby sending the message that such resources are acceptable academic research tools. Now, however, it seems as though some members of the College faculty hope to raise awareness about the potential pitfalls of Wikipedia as news of the History Department's resolution spreads to the national level with high-profile coverage on blogs and in the New York Times.