Tuesday, April 29, 2008

more on wikipedia

The Wikipedia essays have come and gone (now I'm mired in research papers) and many if not most have been published. The essays were based on this assignment, which in turn sprung from a couple of interesting developments: 1) students used and cited Wikipedia frequently; 2) students didn't really understand why academics would have a problem with it; 3) I had trouble explaining it; 4) I thought this would be a good thing for them to know, on their way up into academic class, which is the next step for most of them. On top of that, it's an interesting topic, one I don't mind reading 30+ essays on.

Their essays, those that have been published, can be viewed in their weblogs, which come off of the template of the class blog, where they complain about overload and talk about technology in general. Their opinions range from Wikipedia is useless (Aziz) to Wikipedia is useful (Jun Dong), but, in all honesty, it is hard to know whether students actually believe what they wrote, since the point of the exercise is to use the quotes effectively, and one has to organize according to what one can find to say. Several have admitted that they didn't know much about Wikipedia before the exercise, but lots of other interesting anecdotes have come out. For example, one student mentioned that the Korean Wikipedia has lots of important popular Korean singers and stars who would otherwise never be covered by standard encyclopedias. Another told a story of using an online dictionary and paying heavily for it in a high school class.

I've also mulled over the primary sources, some of which were anti, and some pro. In addition a comment on the Parry article by Paul Hamann sums up what is perhaps most democratic about Wikipedia: that it can overthrow an entrenched lock on received academic knowledge, when the academy has in fact strayed from a realistic view of what happens. My field, linguistics, has perhaps more than any suffered from this problem, so I find Wikipedia very attractive for that reason alone.

On the other hand, it clearly can suffer from both purposeful "vandalism" and just general incompetence. The best example of purposeful vandalism would be the Seigenthaler controversy, well documented, which misrepresented a poor guy for months. But my son, in high school, reports another: students there have found out that they can plant little crusty comments on obscure articles, which will last at least until someone finds them and eliminates them. His example was someone putting "eat my shorts" on an article about Bastille Day. This is akin to writing on the high school wall- thoroughly expected, in any case in which it would actually be possible.

The other kind is best represented by something I noticed a while back: that on the SIUC page, Wikipedia had claimed that SIUC had the best CESL in the nation. I didn't want to complain about this of course, and didn't, but, having pointed it out in my blog, can only wonder now if that was the reason it was removed...lo and behold, it has, now, been removed: the present entry is much more careful.

I actually consider this to be a kind of well-intentioned incompetence, because, while it's well known that we have a good reputation here at CESL, such a statement is unprovable, thus inappropriate for any formal encyclopedia. Though it has now been removed from Wikipedia, ironically, the claim survives in dozens of copy sites and mirror sites, for example this one; apparently lots of sites are on the Wikipedia bandwagon.

When I tried to find evidence of what had happened within Wikipedia, in the inner workings of Wikipedia itself, I found that someone had submitted an innocuous entry on Faner Hall (it includes the Philosophy and Anthropology departments, etc.) which had been rejected as unverifiable. Getting sensitive, Wikipedia? I have no idea. I can say that Wikipedia is itself apparently more careful than it used to be, more on top of its own information, if nothing else.

As for me, I'm keeping my eyes open, and the coffee brewing. The Old Man and the Stack...I'm about four papers into it.



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