What's the first website you visit when you want to look up a fact? When you have to write an essay that you didn't do any reading for? At least for me, the answer is obvious: Wikipedia.
And I'm pretty happy with that—proud, in fact, of using the tool that is Wikipedia: a marvelous (albeit sometimes unbalanced) co-creation of a lot of caring and interested individuals.
But some people don't seem to love it as much. Last week, I was listening to a professor speak on a panel about liberalism in America, and was surprised to hear her speak disparagingly of Wikipedia's page on liberalism. While describing the difficulties of defining liberalism, she somewhat snidely referred to the diversity of definitions on the Wikipedia page, and how either that diversity could indicate a difficulty in understanding the larger idea of what makes a liberal—or "could just be a reflection of Wikipedia." Her comment was pretty innocuous in its context, but seemed to reflect a larger animosity towards Wikipedia and its content.
And it certainly made me think. Why, when she was frustrated with the description of liberalism on Wikipedia, hadn't she just edited the page herself? As an expert on liberalism in America, she is exactly the type of person who could contribute immense value to such a page—value that could be shared with many more people than would ever attend one of her lectures.
The fact that she didn't seem even to consider editing the page as an option struck me as incredibly problematic. Sure, there is a debate about whether Wikipedia is "reliable." Wikipedia's own page on the "Reliability of Wikipedia" links to various studies across disciplines comparing Wikipedia to professional and peer-reviewed sources, with some finding Wikipedia to be of a high standard and others—particularly those in a very specific field—finding Wikipedia to not be reliable enough for use.
But the thing is, according to Alexa.com, a metrics site for tracking website use, Wikipedia is the world's sixth most popular website—people are reading it, regardless of the reliability issue. So rather than condescend to it, we must make it more reliable.
The mission statement of Columbia includes the pronouncement that the University "expects all areas of the university to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world." And some organizations within Columbia are fighting for this admirably well: The Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University Libraries/Information Services, and the Mailman School of Public Health have embraced open-access policies calling for faculty members and officers of administration to make their research articles freely available online, rather than just locked up in paid journals and books.
But if the University—and more importantly, the individuals within it—truly wants to "convey the products" of its learning to the world, then not only should more departments adopt such policies, but it will also be necessary to share this immense knowledge in a format that is truly accessible to the rest of the world. Although many people exist outside of the disciplinary communities that define much of the conversation within scholarly work, they can still learn from what those works discover and analyze. After all, Wikipedia articles reference scholarly papers for a reason.
It's not just professors who could be contributing to Wikipedia en masse—we as students can, and should, be contributing too. We know a lot of things about a lot of things, and many people could profit from that knowledge.
Students already spend a lot of time summarizing famous texts and media—currently we do it under the guise of writing a "reading response" or a "discussion post." And often, students write about what they find on Wikipedia. So what if, instead of writing "reading responses" for four years, students had to engage with text on Wikipedia and contribute to it?
A few great events would occur, besides the wonderful knowledge that we would be creating. Firstly, those of us who rely on Wikipedia constantly would be encouraged to think beyond what Wikipedia already tells us—to participate in the collective process of summarizing, editing, and synthesizing, rather than just consuming.
All students, regardless of their dependence relationship with Wikipedia, would experience what it is like to have people besides our professors actually reading what we write—and the intense feedback (Wikipedia editors can be swift and harsh!) and gratification that comes with leaving the void. Rather than writing some permutation of the same summary as our peers—within and outside of the university—we would be forced to collaborate to try and create a more robust narrative.
Students would also learn how to edit markup, which is a very basic, but very useful, tech skill, which would certainly prove useful if students want to learn some other skills down the line—such as how to write HTML. In short, we'd get many benefits out of our work, too.
Barnard professor Kim Hall actually did something along these lines last year; she required her students to edit Wikipedia pages as part of a class centered on Ntozake Shange. And she won an award for it! Professors at Berkeley and Georgetown have tried similar projects in their courses, with great student feedback about the widening scope of their writing. And so, this is more than possible?—?it is happening.
Granted, Wikipedia does not fit every type of knowledge we create here. "Good articles" on Wikipedia are "written very well, contain factually accurate and verifiable information, are broad in coverage, neutral in point of view, [and] stable;" they are not the deeply analytical pieces we write in many classes. However, a lot of the content we create here does fit that bill, and could—and should—be integrated. I'm not advocating for any type of blanket University-wide, or department-wide policy, but rather an openness to the idea that Wikipedia does create value, and that we have value to add to it.
Professors should contribute to Wikipedia, and should encourage students to do the same. We as students should contribute to Wikipedia, and encourage our professors to do the same. We can sit in our libraries reading Wikipedia, pretending that people don't use Wikipedia, or we can work with it—and for it.
Dina Lamdany is a School of Engineering and Applied Science senior majoring in computer science. She is on the executive board of The Application Development Initiative. Floppy Disk runs alternate Mondays.
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