Maehre, J. (2009). What It Means to Ban Wikipedia. College Teaching, 57(4), 229-236. doi:10.3200/CTCH.57.4.229-236
In “What It Means to Ban Wikipedia: An Exploration of the Pedagogical Principles at Stake,” Maehre builds a case against restricting the use of Wikipedia or any other source while rallying for a shift to teaching students how to critically evaluate information and how to effectively read content and choose information from a variety of courses. Obviously, this is familiar territory for us all and I didn’t choose this article because it persuaded me to believe something I didn’t already believe. Instead, I chose this article because as a librarian (who also taught Composition in the past) publishing in a non-library venue, Maehre is arguing for a change from the same vantage point as us and I think he did an effective job of building an argument using a strategy that may be useful for us to adopt in our conversations with faculty when preparing for library sessions.
Maehre begins by discussing the qualities of general encyclopedias vs subject encyclopedias vs Wikipedia, citing the research that finds inaccuracies across all venues, but aligning Wikipedia with the more rigorous subject treatments founds in subject encyclopedias. Maehre looks at how students use research and how writing a research paper can be like directing and editing a film, with the student in the role of both editor and director of cinematography. When they encounter encyclopedia articles in their research, they’re provided with a broad, sweeping shot of their topic that makes sense and doesn’t require a lot of examination or guessing to decipher its meaning. When they’re restricted to using peer-reviewed information, they encounter many distinct close-up shots that may not provide much meaning without those broader shots. When these pieces of information from peer-reviewed sources are woven together into a research paper by the student, they don’t paint the complete picture that they’re often being asked to provide of a topic in four to five pages. The author comments, “Instructors haven’t written these four-to-five page papers in years and I perceive that they often devise their research requirements without careful consideration of what the students experiences as they search” (230). Students need permission to consider information across a variety of sources to create a product that adheres to the instructor’s expectations. Too often, they don’t have that permission and their final film edit is incomprehensible to both the student and the audience as a result.
With all of the emphasis on the source rather than the information itself, students are viewed as producers rather than learners. If we want them using the “best sources” and credit isn’t given for engaging in the evaluation process itself, then the student is providing the author with a product rather than demonstrating learning. The research paper should be structured in a way that helps students learn how to determine the best source. The natural solution for this shift is a holistic approach to incorporating information literacy into the classroom, with instructors sharing the responsibility with librarians for introducing these skills. Maehre advocates for “an open-door policy for a wide range of sources, with students being responsible for finding the best content within them, but that this approach, by removing barriers separating ‘good’ from ‘bad’ sources, is a particularly valuable tool for teaching the information literacy skills of evaluation and critical thinking, which are, of course, at the core of higher learning” (231). (I think I might needlepoint this statement and hang it in my office.)
Maehre continues by discussing all the challenges encountered by librarians when they’re working with instructors and urging them towards these approaches. His concerns mirror those we discuss regularly: “It seems to occupy the space for something that is too complicated to really teach, something a student either intuits or doesn’t, something someone else ‘should’ have already taught, or, probably most often, something for which no time remains after meeting the other curricular demands” (231). He describes the experience students have of being brought into the library to find x number of sources, with the direction to evaluate the articles when they read them later, but with no guidance provided for that evaluation. Research appears to be a finite action, not a process, when this is the extent of guidance provided, and more time is spent telling the students what not to do rather than explaining how not to or why not to or providing criteria for decision-making. Instead, “rules-based pedagogy” leads to a checklist approach to evaluation with students never taught how to read in across a wide range of sources to choose relevant and credible content (232).
Close reading strategies are discussed and then applied to an evaluation of information found on Wikipedia, with emphasis on having students engage with the discussion page to determine the credibility of information. As Maehre notes, “While we don’t have any author’s name for a web search, Wikiepdia itself gives us, not an archive of mere mentions of the author of the work, but a vibrant and dynamic discussion of particular points in the entry” (234). The discussion page highlights weaknesses and strengths of the entry, allowing students to understand how the information was created and whether or not it might be persuasive evidence to incorporate into their own. Maehre then provides several classroom exercise examples that attempt to demystify Wikipedia rather than banning it.
With so much negativity around Wikipedia (and other encyclopedias) as sources and so much value placed on peer-reviewed sources filled with close-up shots of the topic that do not provide the same evidence of collaborative knowledge building, it’s easy to see how students continue to find themselves struggling to make sense of the rules and edicts put forth in assignment prompts and how that frustration often fails to foster learning. And as students move beyond their college experience, they’re likely to find themselves participating in the process of collaborative information creation that is the backbone of Wikipedia. By banning its use and not engaging students in critical evaluation of a variety of sources, old pedagogical models persist and students continue to be expected to produce research papers for an audience of 1 (their instructor). Without shifting to a model where the process of learning is valued in the assignment, students do not develop into independent learners capable of closely reading and evaluating information.
While reading this article, I thought of how many times I’ve had instructors pipe up during a class when we’re talking about background information and encyclopedias to issue rules about not using Wikipedia. When I hear this, I always hope that I’m hearing the conclusion reached in some previous conversation that dissected Wikipedia beyond “good” and “bad,” but I know I shouldn’t expect that.
So, some possible questions for discussion:
-I’ve appreciated those few times where I’ve felt like I’ve had enough time to talk about the Wikipedia Discussion and History pages in instruction sessions, but those opportunities have been rare. Has anyone done anything substantial in a class where these features were used in an evaluation of an entry? How did it go?
-What strategies can we use when consulting with faculty about assignments to encourage them to recognize the introductory level of students and their need to engage and evaluate information at the overview level? What strategies have worked for moving faculty away from unnecessary or inappropriate requirements for the use of peer-reviewed journal articles in introductory classes?
-In 50 or 75 minute sessions, how can we move faculty away from a “results-oriented agenda” for the time spent in the library (find 2 or 3 sources, etc) and toward using the time to allow students to explore their topics? When I observed Cindy recently, I thought it was great that she emphasized at the beginning of the session that they might not find anything in the brief time of the library session, but that they would have a strategy for continuing to find sources later when they had more time to engage in the process, highlighting that research isn’t about quickly harvesting sources. I wonder how we might also emphasize evaluation in establishing realistic process-oriented goals for a session, knowing this is a shared responsibility with faculty.