Wikipedia in the History Classroom

By Charles West, Lecturer of History and Wikipedia Advocate at the University of Sheffield

Wikipedia is the largest encyclopedia in the world, and as the digital revolution continues to unfold, its dominance seems unlikely to be challenged in the near future. The rate at which new pages are created has slowed, but the website itself continues to grow, as existing pages are constantly edited, improved and elaborated.

Growth in size of Wikipedia content (all categories). Source: Wikipedia

Not all of its content is historical, but a great deal is, and these pages are popular. For instance, Wikipedia’s pages relating to the early medieval Carolingian rulers of Francia – a relatively specialised historical topic – have been consulted over the past year by over 50,000 people a day. (1)

But Wikipedia is not only getting bigger, it is also becoming ever more authoritative. Long promoted by the extraordinarily powerful Google search engine, Wikipedia is now the go-to for Amazon’s Alexa smart speaker, and may soon play a role in Facebook’s fact-checking. Its pages increasingly appear high up even in university library catalogue (or ‘library portal’) searches.

However, historians working in universities usually act in their research and above all in their teaching as if Wikipedia didn’t exist – although nearly every academic and certainly every student uses it on a routine basis to inform or remind themselves of basic information.

That contrast between official and private practice is partly rooted in a general disconnect between how historical research is done these days (increasingly online) and how it’s officially presented – for instance, the way that modern historians cite newspapers as if they’d read them on paper or microfilm, when in fact they’ve often consulted an electronic database. (2) In a hybrid digital/paper research context, academic referencing practices are strangely conservative, with potentially serious methodological consequences.

It’s partly also down to lecturers’ suspicion about Wikipedia’s content – after all, as everyone knows, anyone can edit Wikipedia, and edits are usually done by pseudonymous users. That doesn’t seem to affect its overall reliability, but it does affect its reputation in an environment where individual academic prestige carries lots of weight, more or less justifiably.

Moreover, getting students out of the habit of assuming that the answer to any question is just one Google search away is an increasingly important aspect of first-year university courses, and Wikipedia certainly doesn’t help in that respect. As ‘educators’ we need actively to counter digital lock-out: i.e., the systematic exclusion of print-only texts from consideration.

But when it comes to teaching, the core problem is that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, whereas – and contrary to what is sometimes assumed by people who surely ought to know better – we historians teach our students that History is about critical argument from evidence, not the discovery and declaration of supposedly neutral facts. I think everyone in principle would like to see more integration of Wikipedia and university History, as a way of bringing academic research out of the ivory tower and into public attention (as Wiki editathons can do), and equipping our students for the digital world. But given the gap between the nature of argument-based academic history and ostensibly neutral encyclopedia writing, achieving that integration isn’t as straightforward as one might expect.

Squaring this circle was however precisely the aim of the course that I’ve just finished teaching. The course – a short 20-credit module taught to a small cohort of six MA students studying for an MA in Medieval History here in Sheffield, UK – had a theme that relates to my current research. It focused on the question of clerical exemption, that’s to say the way in which clerics and priests in early medieval Europe were treated differently because of their special legal status. For instance, if a priest committed a murder, he might expect to be tried by a church court, not the king’s court like everyone else.

So, in class we discussed articles and sources that related to the question of the church’s relationship to ‘secular’ forms of authority in the early Middle Ages. But I also asked the students to apply the expertise they’d gained in this field to improving one or two Wikipedia pages on relevant topics, broadly defined – church councils, medieval chroniclers, bishops, etc. This could be just a matter of adding extra references; but it could be rewriting poor-quality entries, or even creating brand-new pages. Wikimedia UK very kindly provided a short but useful and free training session to show the students (and a few other interested attendees) the ropes.

As this graphic suggests, Wikipedia’s coverage of the early Middle Ages, and of pre-modern history altogether, currently leaves lots to be desired. And many of the pages that do exist are based on out of copyright, and therefore very old, printed encyclopedias. So, to have improved eight pages is a step in the right direction. (3)

A representation of Wikipedia’s coverage of human history. Source: http://histography.io/

However, the module’s assessment itself rested on a third step. Having learned about a medieval topic, and having applied that knowledge to Wikipedia, the students on the course then had to write a essay reflecting on the changes they had made. In other words, the students’ grades weren’t based on the editing, but on their reflections on the editing process, drawing upon their hands-on experience as well as their wider reading on early medieval history and ‘Wikipedia studies’. (4)

This assessment structure was partly born of prudence – after all, Wikipedia is a public website, so changes could easily be reversed or vandalised through no fault of the student. Given that one student actually saw all her changes systematically reverted by another editor, this precaution proved wise. Rather than demolishing her assessment portfolio, the reversions actually gave the student more material to discuss in the essay. In pragmatic terms, it’s also easier for historians to grade essays, for which there are established marking criteria, rather than devise new criteria for marking Wikipedia entries (though I know of several historians who have done this successfully, and it’s common in the sciences too).

But the decision to assess the reflection rather than the editing direct also reflected a pedagogical imperative. It seems to me that what’s urgently needed is critical reflection on the role of technology in mediating and creating historical knowledge, born out of first-hand experience, rather than simply unguarded embracing of its undoubted possibilities – or for that matter armchair condemnation of its dangers. And to my great satisfaction, critical reflection is indeed what the students produced.

One student pointed to how an erroneous date for a church council, based on an uncritical reading of a primary text, had spread from Wikipedia across the internet, and potentially from there into print (a phenomenon that’s been observed in other contexts). Another student discussed the instant transformation of his own informed opinion, based on secondary reading, into international historical fact. As all historians know, encyclopedias necessarily present interpretation as historical truth, if only through implicit judgements about relative importance, and despite its technology Wikipedia is no different in this regard. A third student emphasised how the old Wikipedia page before her editing had promoted a now outdated interpretation of a key early medieval figure, in an unholy alliance of new technology with nineteenth-century ideology. In fact, all the students made useful and perceptive comments on the implications of Wikipedia for public and scholarly knowledges about the past.

So as a consequence of this course, and thanks to Wikimedia’s support, Wikipedia’s coverage of the early Middle Ages has been incrementally improved and updated, and six new experts have joined the ranks of Wikipedia’s editors. But maybe more important, six students have learned how to be critical users of this technology – not just how to engage and manipulate it, but to reflect on its epistemological limitations as well as its democratic advantages. And I think that’s the most important course outcome of all.

  1. Wikipedia page view statistics, Category: Carolingian period, 29.04.17-19.05.18: linked here.
  2. See for instance T. Hitchcock, ‘Confronting the Digital – or how academic history writing lost the plot’, Cultural and Social History 10 (2013), pp. 9-23, which I read via a free Dropbox link provided by the author. Cf https://mistakinghistories.wordpress.com/2018/04/28/the-internet-for-historians/ by Helen King (@fluff55).
  3. These pages are the entries for the First Council of Orléans, the Council of Hertford, Regino of Prüm, Louis the Pious, Hincmar of Laon, Victor Vitensis, the Vandal Kingdom and Praetextatus of Rouen.
  4. A good starter Wikipedia reading list is available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Alarichall

 

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