It's a Wiki-world: Wikileaks, Wikipedia, Wiki-students


RussellBy Rich Russell
A few weeks ago, I posted the following assignment for my two sections of online Composition II students:

Discussion: Wikipedia and the Iraq War. In light of recently released documents from Wikileaks and the August publication of James Bridle’s The Iraq War: A Historiography of Wikipedia Changelogs (and so you further understand why Wikipedia is not a reliable source to use for college papers), I’ve compiled the following links for your perusal and discussion.

Warning: Given the open source nature of Wikipedia, some of these user comments contain explicit language.
1st.         Skim over parts of the Wikipedia page for the “Iraq War.”
2nd.        Skim over parts of the current Discussion for the “Iraq War” Wikipedia page. Note that this page is listed as a “good article nominee, but did not meet the good article criteria” (emphasis mine).

1.     Review what Wikipedia considers to be a “good article.”

2.     Review “Reviewing good articles.”

3rd.         Read the excerpts from Bridle’s The Iraq War: A Historiography of Wikipedia Changelogs published in this month’s Harper’s Magazine.

The resulting discussion stirred a chorus of cognitive dissonance (wiki-thought?). For while all students expressed discomfort with (if not decided condemnation of) the manner in which information was administered on the “Iraq War” page, most students went on to defend Wikipedia itself.
For the record, I am not a Wikipedia hater. Countless hours have I spent skipping from one Wikipedia entry to the next, wondering where the wiki-time went. As students themselves recognize, it’s often a convenient place to get a quick, initial basis on a particular subject: much like asking an elderly relative about some arcane piece of family history (even with Aunt Susan cautioning you, “Don’t believe everything Great Uncle Joe says”). But the fact that some of my colleagues allow students to cite Wikipedia in their papers (or at least that these professors don’t admonish their students when Wikipedia shows up as a “credible” source), and that some students champion its credibility –– this I find unnerving.
Unnerved, I wonder if anyone cares about accuracy or standards anymore: when our wiki-journalism is ruled by pundits and news “personalities,” manufacturing facts to fill the airtime; when my more libertarian friends are forever reminding me of our (fiat) wiki-currency; when even higher education sometimes seems a wiki-enterprise. Is there any truth left in this reality of fiction –– or is it indeed just a Wikiality now?
One of my students, one who did not defend Wikipedia, posted this comment:

“Wikipedia, just like everything else that is formed out of the collective public consciousness, mirrors the dysfunctional state of the modern mind.”

When I asked him if he thought we were living in a “wiki-world” now, he said no, but warned that we might be constructing a wiki-civilization.
About the Teacher in Pajamas: Rich Russell received a B.A. in English from New York University, an M.S. in Teaching from The New School, and an M.A. in English from University College London. He currently teaches composition, literature, and creative writing classes (both online and in person) at Atlantic Cape Community College and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. He received the Adjunct Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence from Atlantic Cape in 2010.

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