Sep 16

Eye Rolls, Corporatization, and Wikipedia

I’m once again teaching my first-year composition course about Wikipedia, and so on the lookout for when the “free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” makes the news. Notable stories in the past couple years include the lamentable scarcity of female editors (and the abuse those few female editors face), manipulation by marketing firms, and grudge-holders seeking revenge. Last week Wikipedia featured, briefly, in the ongoing debate about the corporatization of American universities. The example touches on two lessons I hope my first-year students take away from their composition courses — evaluating sources and the importance of knowing one’s audience — and reveals what I take to be a major disconnect between a corporate ethos and an academic one.

The University of Iowa recently announced that its 21st president will be Bruce Harreld, a former executive at IBM, Kraft, and Boston Market. The choice has been, to put it mildly, unpopular. Inside Higher Ed‘s Kellie Woodhouse notes that fewer than 5% of faculty and students approve Harreld’s appointment, primarily because of his lack of experience in higher education administration, and even Business Insider picked up the story. Cathy Davidson, among others, sees the announcement as further evidence of the corporatization of the public university, a trend has become all to common and was exemplified this summer by Scott Walker’s gutting of the University of Wisconsin system. (As Caroline Levine cogently explains, Walker’s move was political and ideological rather than budgetary).

So how does this connect to Wikipedia? Harreld’s critics point out his performance in a public forum, which began with a presentation that Kembrew McLeod of Slate calls “rambling,” then continued with a Q&A. Here is a video of the forum, queued to the moment that most upset his detractors:

Sara Riley, who identifies herself as an attorney and a second-generation Iowa grad with kids recently graduated and currently enrolled, calls out Harreld for his comment that Iowa should aim to become a “public Ivy”. Riley asserts that Iowa is a public Ivy, and has been since the 1980s, to which Harreld snidely responds, “I’ve seen the website, too.” In answer to Riley’s, “which website?” he replies “Wikipedia.” When Riley says, “I don’t go to Wikipedia, I’m an attorney,” Harreld rolls his eyes, unable to hide his derision. He doubles down on his source a minute later, assuring Riley that he does remember what Wikipedia says about Iowa’s status as a public Ivy. (For the record, Riley cites a better source.)

The exchange, and particularly the eye roll, reveals a lot. The truth is not measured in mass appeal #quote #quality #innovation #inspiration #CSISpadina #torontoThe educational model that colleges and universities promote distinguishes authoritative, trustworthy sources from biased, unrepresentative, or ill-informed ones. (So does Wikipedia, for that matter: and it doesn’t even consider itself reliable). Harreld’s implication that such distinctions are silly, that it doesn’t matter where he gets his information, reveals a fundamental disconnect with the faculty, staff, and students he will lead as president of the university.

But that’s not the biggest issue. If I’m being honest, I use Wikipedia just about every day (Riley probably does to). Not for nothing is it the seventh most visited site: it’s an efficient, accessible resource, and it’s mostly right most of the time. There’s even a case to be made that Wikipedia can help us rethink liberal education in the twenty-first century. Rather, the issue is one of audience. I don’t cite Wikipedia in my scholarship, I don’t prep class based on Wikipedia, and I would certainly never bring it up in a job interview as evidence that I’d researched my prospective employer.

At least in the clip, Harreld seems not to understand why academics might object to such a source, and that misunderstanding, to my mind, gets at one of the fundamental disconnects between the corporate ethos and the academic ethos. For speed and efficiency, Wikipedia is just fine. But for accuracy and rigor, a better source is necessary. Stakeholders in an institution whose mission is to “advance scholarly and creative endeavor through leading-edge research and artistic production” have a right to expect more from their leaders.

Oct 22

Wikipedia Assignments: some thoughts from mid-semester

Right now I’m teaching a first-year composition class, themed around Wikipedia. This is the third iteration, redesigned with the support of a Faculty Instructional Technology Integration grant, and mid-semester seems like an appropriate moment to share some thoughts about the course. The first section explains the background, but if you just want some tips for designing a Wikipedia assignment, you can jump straight there.

How My Course is Set Up

If you’re interested, the syllabus for this class is available online. This being a first-year writing class, I want students to be able to consider their reader as they write; to evaluate the evidence they use to support their arguments; and to engage with other writers, thinking of writing as civil conversation. My own training is in the Little Red Schoolhouse method, and for this class I’m using several modules from the Grounds for Argument website (which, full disclosure, I worked on when I was a graduate student).

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This student asks, “Is Wikipedia a reliable source?”

The first half of the course introduces students to Wikipedia. Ultimately, I want them to contribute to the site. To do so, they first become familiar with some of the myriad policies and guidelines and then they choose a Wikipedia entry that needs updating, and write a proposal (taking the form of a 3-4 page argument) about what needs to be changed and why. As they research their sources, I have them evaluate each one, using Wikipedia’s own guidelines for reliable sources. Finally, they contribute to the site, making whatever changes they had said needed to be made. This is a major payoff for the course, as students produce knowledge that others outside the class might read. I let students choose their own topic, and they vary widely: some write about their own schools or their hometowns, some write about sports, some find topics from other classes that aren’t covered on Wikipedia, and develop pages for those. The contributions are typically not major — they range from adding sources to writing a few sentences, to creating a page from scratch. I grade students on the detail of the proposal, the quality of the evidence they use, and their own self-evaluation. (I don’t grade them based on whether their change stays on Wikipedia).

This week students are starting the second part of the course, looking at some academic studies of Wikipedia in preparation for their upcoming research paper. At this point my course differs little from other themed composition courses: it borders on cultural studies, with a focus on collectivism, Internet culture, and knowledge-production. I select a handful of articles based on what students seem to be interested in: this semester, it’s history, political activism, global economics, and the gender gap. These articles expose students to ways in which Wikipedia connects to various academic fields. As they start their research papers, they will select a few articles from a list of popular press articles about Wikipedia, which we’ll discuss in class. Then their research papers will develop their own interest. In past semesters the best papers connect Wikipedia to an academic field in which the student is interested — law, biology, computer science, etc.

Tips for Designing a Wikipedia Assignment

Having students write an article for Wikipedia can be a great assignment. In my experience — and many other scholars have done this, too — students are more motivated when they write for an audience that isn’t just their classmates. But there are risks involved. In addition to the first two iterations of this course, I’ve included Wikipedia assignments in a couple literature seminars, in various ways, and I’ve written several posts them. Based on my own successes and failures, here are some things to keep in mind if you decide to have your students create Wikipedia assignments (and how I addressed these issues in my own course):

  1. Familiarize yourself with the site, and build in ways to get your students familiar with the guidelines. Wikipedia’s policies are dizzying and byzantine. There’s no way you could learn all of them in a semester, or expect your students to learn them. But you should know at least the five pillars, and how the talk and history pages work. Students should create accounts, so you can track their edits.
    • In class I had groups of students summarize and present Wikipedia’s core policies (verifiability, notability, and neutrality/due weight). The talk and history pages are fascinating in themselves, and good sources for short writing assignments describing evidence. Aaron Swartz builds his argument about “Who Writes Wikipedia?” on evidence from the history pages, and Dan O’Sullivan’s chapter on “Wikipedia: Structure” covers the talk pages in detail.
  2. Decide on the scope of the assignment. If it’s not too obvious to state, this assignment should be linked to your own goals, not Wikipedia’s. The point is not to make Wikipedia better (though see #4) — it’s to make students better writers/researchers/public contributors. The Wikipedia Education Program (see #5) seems to encourage building new articles or making major, substantial contributions. That’s great, if it aligns with your course goals, but more modest changes can be just as useful. Many articles on Wikipedia lack sources: you could even have students browse a list, and beef up the bibliographies with relevant readings from class.
    • Since this was a writing class (the content is secondary), my students first made very minor changes (like fixing punctuation or spelling) to get used to the format, and to get them auto-confirmed. And even the full-scale “add to Wikipedia” assignment was more about finding sources and recognizing the limitations of certain pages.
  3. Decide how you’ll grade. You’re asking for trouble if you grade students based on whether or not their contribution stays on Wikipedia. You’ll know better what your priorities are — maybe it’s researching a topic or writing grammatically correct sentences. But students will naturally worry about their grades, and will worry even more if they feel their grades are subject to the whims of anonymous Wikipedians.
    • I grade students on the quality of their proposals (an argument about what improvements their chosen page needed); the quality of their evidence; and their self-evaluations (an argument whether they’d made the improvements they stated in their proposal). I read their contributions to the site only to confirm the last part.
  4. Act in good faith. Wikipedia is a community, and like most communities, has lots of helpful people, and some jerks. The benefit of adding to Wikipedia is that it puts students in contact with a public outside the college, but that public can be disruptive and mean (Meghan Duffy’s experience is not unusual). You minimize your chances of encountering this kind of disruption if you follow tips 1 and 2, and make sure you are genuinely trying to improve Wikipedia (within the context of your goals for students).
    • The first time I taught this course, I had all my students (three sections) lie to Wikipedia. Don’t do that. The result was pedagogically useful: most of the lies were immediately caught, and within a couple hours the college’s IP address was temporarily blocked from anonymous editing. So students learned that Wikipedia does have some oversight. And one student’s edit remained on the page for over a month, until I deleted it myself. So they also learned that the oversight doesn’t always work. I still don’t recommend this exercise, though: for one thing, it disrupts other users from the same IP address (I inadvertently derailed another professor’s exercise). And I think it sends the wrong message to students — better to integrate them into the Wikipedia community, rather than start by setting them against it.
  5. Consider making your course official. The Wikipedia Education Program, launched in 2010, works with teachers and students to facilitate academic assignments. You can create an official course page (like the one for my course), and you’ll be assigned a mentor/adviser.
    • To be honest, I was initially skeptical of this program, because of #2, above. I wasn’t sure my goals would match up with Wikipedia’s self-interests. Only in the most recent version of the course did I link up with the WEP: I consulted with my assigned adviser as I put together the course, and she was helpful in answering some questions and pointing to some resources (all of which are available through the site). The biggest benefit was a practical and procedural one: using a course page allowed me to keep track of my students contributions.

Have you, or are you considering, developed an assignment for students to add to Wikipedia? How did it go, or what questions do you have?

Oct 23

Wikipedia, Open Access, and the Sciences

This week (October 21-27) is Open Access Week, when universities, colleges, libraries, funding agencies, and other interested parties come together to ask questions about who owns the research they produce and/or pay for. If you’re reading this blog, you probably already know theOpen Access PLoS importance of these debates: the dominance of companies like Elsevier, which make enormous profits by keeping research behind a paywall, or the well-publicized trial and suicide of Aaron Swartz.

I have a passing interest in these topics, and a general belief in Open Access, so I’ve been following OA week — mostly be reading tweets with the hashtag #oaweek, and nodding in agreement. Yesterday, though, Amanda French’s live tweets of a presentation at George Mason’s Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media caught my attention. I’ve written a bit about Wikipedia on this blog, and Jake Orlowitz was talking about the Wikipedia Library project. As Amanda points out, Wikipedia is the most-visited non-profit website in the world, making it a kind of poster-child for Open Access. And as students in my “Writing about Wikipedia” class will tell you, everything on Wikipedia should be verifiable; in other words, it has to be sourced. The Wikipedia Library defines itself as “a place for active Wikipedia editors to gain access to the vital reliable sources that they need to do their work,” connecting Wikipedians to “libraries, open access resources, paywalled databases, and research experts.” When access to information is limited, the Wikipedia Library opens the door.

These tweets reminded me of two articles I’d come across recently, both relating Wikipedia to the sciences. The first is about UC San Francisco’s medical school, which is offering course credit for participating in WikiProject Medicine, one of the online encyclopedia’s many topic-focused collaborative endeavors. Julie Beck, covering the UCSF program in The Atlantic, quotes the course’s instructor Dr. Amin Azzam, who notes that people turn to Wikipedia for health advice “more than any other website. More than the National Institutes of Health, more than WebMD, more than Mayo Clinic. It’s more than many of those combined.” This is troubling, given that “the fraction of high-quality information on Wikipedia in the medicine-related topics is significantly lower than other domains of Wikipedia.” The motivation behind Azzam’s course is the feeling that this deficiency results from the medical community’s unwillingness to participate. Ideally, Azzam’s course and the resulting media coverage (Noam Cohen wrote about in the New York Times as well) will increase participation.

These medical students will turn to peer-reviewed science journals, the kind of thing the Wikipedia Library provides access to. That’s the good news. But can we trust the information from those journals?

Writing for Science Magazine, John Bohannon describes sending an obviously terrible paper to hundreds of (purportedly) peer-reviewed science journals. The results were shocking (or exactly what you’d expect, depending on your feelings about such things):

Any reviewer with more than a high-school knowledge of chemistry and the ability to understand a basic data plot should have spotted the paper’s short-comings immediately. Its experiments are so hopelessly flawed that the results are meaningless … More than half of the journals accepted the paper, failing to notice its fatal flaws.

Humanists who remember the Sokal hoax might feel vindicated: the sciences can’t spot a fake paper, either. But that’s not Bohannon’s takeaway. There are very real problems in delete, accept, and deny cookiesscientific publishing, and only some of them are related to open access (as a side note, the fact that Bohannon targeted OA journals seems ancillary to me; would he have gotten the same results with paywalled journals? Maybe. And lots of the journals are provided by services like Elsevier.) Professional pressures to publish drive scientists to extremes, with journals’ rejection rates sometimes in the 90% range or higher. Fake scientific journals see this as a market: many charge the author for publication, and one of the invoices Bohannon received with his acceptance letter was for a whopping $3100.

Bohannon’s article is well worth reading for its own sake, but when I read it I thought immediately of Wikipedia, especially when he gets to the reactions from the journal editors. I wrote a few weeks ago about a short assignment in which my students messed with Wikipedia. Responses ranged from supportive to downright threatening. Bohannon, in a much more serious context and with a much more serious subject, got similar feedback. Some journals appreciated his test (especially those that rightly rejected the paper). Others didn’t. Here is how Malcolm Lader, editor-in-chief of one of the journals, responded to Bohannon: “An element of trust must necessarily exist in research … Your activities here detract from that trust.”

Bohannon’s whole point, of course, is that readers also trust the journals to submit the articles to peer review, and his activities revealed a good reason to detract from that trust.

Science journals obviously matter: peer review is the best system we have and we should be worried that it doesn’t work. But Wikipedia, the sixth most-visited website in the world, matters too. Endeavors like WikiProject Medicine and TooFEW hope to increase participation among groups who don’t historically contribute to the encyclopedia. But one thing Bohannon’s article emphasizes is that Wikipedia is in the real world: it’s only as good as the sources on which it’s based.

Of course, right now Wikipedia is worse than the sources on which it’s based: hence the need for more diverse editors, whether in terms of gender, nationality, or expertise. Unfortunately the trend seems to be the other way: Wikipedia is getting more and more popular, but the number of editors is getting smaller and more insulated. Might the poster child for Open Access might actually reveal its limitations, rather than highlight its strengths?