Wikipedia & History Teaching

(By Michael)


I want to talk about teaching history using Wikipedia, but not in the way I believe the average person would expect (and worry about). First I should explain the context in which I developed this new project, this new pedagogical exercise.

My professional career teaching outside of my graduate institution only began in the spring of 2016. Since then I have taught a handful of courses (at Albion College and Roanoke College) while finishing my dissertation.

I do not yet have a permanent position. There are many names for this kind of position and its problems have been more closely discussed in other places, but I should recognize upfront that these are the musings of an adjunct professor, a member of the so-called contingent faculty. This group of people represent a large and growing percentage of educators at institutions of higher learning in the United States. One of the strengths of the contingent faculty is the focus on novel and energy-saving teaching techniques, particularly in those situations where one professor is lecturing at multiple institutions (as I will be, starting this autumn).

With that disclaimer in mind, I would like to share a teaching exercise that I have found great success with in several courses so far in my early career. In a nutshell, I introduce students to the nuts-and-bolts of history research, particularly in using terms like “primary” versus “secondary” source. In my course, I try to explain to them how the same source can be considered primary, secondary, or even tertiary — all depending on the kind of work we expect that source to do for us. By work, I mean, what kinds of questions are we hoping this source will answer for us.

Past Experiences

I have been able to use this Wikipedia class project in several different settings, including its maiden voyage in a “standard” undergraduate Russian History course (Peter I to Putin), its second turnout in a Freshman-oriented History of Travel (Marco Polo’s Description of the World¬†and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley), its third run in a Freshman-oriental History of Pirates and Bandits, and most recently in an intensive eight-week History of Kazakhstan at Nazarbayev University in Astana. The focal point of this project seems as fungible as one needs it to be, considering that the medium of instruction boasts so many millions of articles in so many of the world’s written languages.

In its first case, I divided my students into groups, having each of them read a section from the Wikipedia article on the Crimean War. The twist here was that each group read the article as written in a different language, though each was provided in English translation. Perhaps the benefit of a graduate career in graduate studies, I am not afraid to make use of the 1-year courses I took in “Reading German,” for example, knowing that with a dictionary, good-will, and a dose of machine translation (always from multiple sources), I produce adequately accurate renditions of the article from German, French, Russian, Turkish, Spanish, Serbian, etc. These articles discuss roughly the same terms in relatively dry, scientific language. I would not do this same assignment to have students compare different translations of a work of prose, each somehow rendered into English by me.

In their groups, I have the students individually boil down their selection into a single sentence, ideally fewer than seventy words. This sentence should include the definite ‘facts’ most relevant to the article, the where, when, how, who, and why of the topic. In their groups they hammer these out together, comparing their individual sentences to determine the meat of the reading.

The fun begins when I then have each group pronounce the facts of the matter to the class, writing each for everyone to see. “Huh, why don’t they agree on when the war started? Or what it should be called? Or what caused it? Or where the most important battles were fought?”

When possible, we dive deeper into the works of Wikipedia, discussing how much of the content is actually not anonymous and how many of the “Wikipedians” maintain and update author “about” pages. We consider edit histories, the longevity of different controversial sections of the page, and the heated discussions on certain contentious “talk” pages.

In the history of travel, we compared articles about Marco Polo in English, Spanish, German, and Russian. In the history of piracy, we considered the intimate connections and interesting discrepancies among the articles (particularly across English, Spanish, German, and French) on “piracy,” “buccaneers,” and “filibusters.”

What I Want To Do

I seem to harbor limitless curiosity in the study of nationalism, national identity, and the myths surrounding imagined communities. For me, Wikipedia offers an immense corpus of material written “internationally,” at least at first blush. The articles are linked together, suggesting parity and perfect agreement. Many students (and I assume most people) do not give a second glance to the list of languages that appears in the left sidebar. Surely they are simple translations of this same material?

Then I ask them the question: if you wanted to write a Wikipedia article on the French Revolution, would you think it sufficient to read the French language article and simply translate it, word-for-word? There are thousands of books available in English on this topic — can we not make use of some of them? Can this explain why we tend to see completely different sources listed at the bottoms of different language renditions of the (nearly) same content?

The specter of nationalism is difficult to pin down, no doubt. Is nationalism always a bad word? Should we prefer to same something more vague, like patriotism? In the case of the English language, one struggles to pin down which articles are ‘owned’ by which language, though there seem to be some clear winners. Articles on the American Civil War, for example, are unlikely to draw spirited editors from New Zealand. Similarly, I doubt to find many Wikipedians from Virginia actively involved in the discussion of Maori political units. The Crimean War article I assigned to my students, for example, maintained the occasional British turn-of-phrase. How could it not, sitting so closely to the Charge of the Light Brigade?

Importance for the field?

I am not certain that this is an assignment that any teacher should attempt without first doing it themselves. In all seriousness, knowing the ins-and-outs of Wikipedia, the coding, the esprit de corps of Wikipedians — these might very well be prerequisites to attempting this in class. However, I do think that a solid weekend or week of preparation would be enough time to ready a trial run.

Each time this assignment has come around in the semester, I have been even more excited than the previous time. Each time it has been “my own” class, doing something new and unique — it is a thrilling feeling to realize that your students are completely out of their element, being asked to do something they have never been asked to do before. It feels so wrong to many of them — the most common comment went something like, “but we’re told to never use Wikipedia!?”

And that was the best moment for me.

Wikipedia is a tertiary source for the study of history — but it is a primary source for the study of identity, nationalism, historiography, and many other topics. I can only articulate my excitement here in terms of my own discipline, my own field, but I wonder aloud just how far this might stretch.

I will continue to articulate this idea into teaching practice. I think this coming semester I will present at my college’s “faculty development” conferences — and I do believe that there is something here to meaningfully share with the American Historical Association. I am writing on this blog to gather these thoughts — but also to date for myself that I began this practice in the spring of 2016. Already I have learned so much from these assignments. Could I design an entire course around using Wikipedia to study identity and historiography? I think so.

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