Sunday, March 7, 2010


The student looked at me with a mixture of horror and awe. “But…you’re a teacher,” he said. “I’ve never heard a teacher say that before.”

What did I tell this student that scandalized him so deeply? Did I tell him that school is useless and he might as well drop out and get a job? Did I invite him to smoke marijuana in the parking lot? Did I admit to him that I think that guy in the back row—you know, the one who spends all of class text-messaging—is a total fucking asshole?

No, in fact, what I did was advise him to look up some information on Wikipedia.

But teachers hate Wikipedia, my students say to me whenever I suggest that they use the site.

My students are correct. Teachers discuss Wikipedia with that same edge of sickly distain they direct at all the institutions that are destroying American intellectual life: Reality television. Video games. Christianity. You can just see them shudder a little as they say it.

Just last week I was at a meeting about information competency—in other words, how to find, evaluate, and use information—and the other teachers and librarians there were predictably bashing the online encyclopedia.

“We want students to know where to find good information,” said one teacher.

Not Wikipedia,” said another. Everybody laughed.

“But there’s lots of good information on Wikipedia!” I said.

Everyone looked at me with patient tolerance, because they’re community college teachers and thus not allowed to show open scorn.

They explained grudgingly that Wikipedia is an okay place to start a research project but not good as a main source, a point that we could all easily agree with.

I know why teachers, and I suppose everyone else, makes fun of Wikipedia: because it’s unreliable. Of course it’s not a good source to cite for a research paper: the authors are anonymous and multiple so there is no accountability for the information in the articles, and incorrect information can be inserted accidentally or intentionally. But it’s a great starting place for all kinds of research projects.

It’s of course useful for finding the kinds of information that could also be found in a print encyclopedia:

I chose John Donne as the subject of my research paper because I really like one of his poems, but I don’t know anything about him—where do I start?

I’m supposed to write a paper on acupuncture, but I don’t even know what that is!

But Wikipedia’s extensiveness and inclusiveness also means it answers questions that would be difficult or impossible to find in a print reference source:

Our team is supposed to debate against Euthanasia, but all we can think of are religious arguments. Are there any other main arguments against assisted suicide?

Who were the pioneers of hardcore punk?

What kinds of awards are given for websites?

Wikipedia is great for finding out information such as this—information that is Internet or pop-culture related, that is very new or frequently changes, that depicts various conflicting viewpoints and thus might be seen as not objective enough for a traditional encyclopedia.

The ongoing ridicule of Wikipedia in American culture seems to me a deep form of self-hatred. I have to imagine that those mocking it still use it on a regular basis; even the librarians can’t be going to print encyclopedias or published articles every time they want to know a small piece of information like the capital of Mongolia or the year Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here came out. I’m an English teacher with the skills to find all kinds of “credible” information, and I use Wikipedia on a daily basis. I hear an interview with an actor or author on the radio; as I listen, I scan Wikipedia to discover what movies the actor was in or what books the author has written. I meet somebody from a country I don’t know much about; Wikipedia tells me a bit about the history and culture of that country. Of course, the information I find is not 100% reliable; but neither is the information in a print encyclopedia, which is certainly less up-to-date and is also prone to author-based error.

Critics of Wikipedia point to its democratic nature as evidence of its badness. They decry it as an affront to the idea of expertise, to the valuing of credible sources of information. But much, or hopefully all, of what can be found on Wikipedia is created by experts. My friend is a biologist with special expertise on a genetic cause of cystic fibrosis; she contributed heavily to the entry on this topic. Another friend used to be in a punk band; she contributed enough information about the band to turn its page from a minimal stub to a full-fledged article. Both of these friends are experts: one in biology, the other in the history of her own band. And in both cases, their respective entries would surely be far more informative, detailed, and factually correct than their counterparts in a traditional encyclopedia, if such articles even exist.

The first time I used Wikipedia was for my job. I was showing the movie Crash (disambiguation: the 2004 film about racial tension in Los Angeles, not the 1996 film about people who are sexually aroused by car accidents) in one of my classes. The class had a lot of students who were recent immigrants, and I anticipated that they would have difficulty following film’s heavy use of slang and American cultural references. I decided that handing out a packet including character descriptions and a scene-by-scene synopsis would help students understand the film; however, I did not want to write them myself. I looked all over the internet, but could only find brief overviews of the film’s plot.

Finally, about to give up, I clicked on that link at the top of my search results page, the link I had been ignoring not only during this search, but during the previous five years since it had first started appearing at the top of every search I did.

So this is the evil Wikipedia, I said to myself, as I scrolled down the page and found, to my delight, exactly what I had been looking for. I printed the page and copied it for my students, saving myself approximately two hours of scanning through the movie, writing down all the details of its plot and characters. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and I began touting the wonders of Wikipedia to my students the very next day, as I handed out photocopies to my students.

Even in this early encounter, rife as the page was with awkward sentence structure and typos, I was viewing the work of an expert: in this case, one or more people who saw the movie and had the patience to write down the plot, which was all the expertise I required.

I have loved Wikipedia ever since. What I love about it most is that it centralizes the knowledge of all of these different types of experts: the scientist, the band member, the movie fan. These experts are everywhere, laying low, not admitting or even knowing that they are experts. But if, ten minutes before class, I want a list of the characters in the movie we’re about to discuss, or if, at eleven at night, I get curious what spin-off bands were created by the members of Spitboy, they are the best experts I could ask for.


adam said...

One day only things that are on Wikipedia will be considered real.

Karin Spirn said...

Are you saying there are things that exist that aren't on wikipedia?

anita said...

This post is hilarious and spot-on, Karin. (This is Anita Mohan, somehow I stumbled upon your blog and was like hey, this voice is familiar-- seriously!) Hope all's well.

Karin Spirn said...

Hey, Anita, how are you? You were reading this blog not knowing it was mine? That's funny (and sort of hopeful). I was just reading yours now, enjoying it, looking forward to your book when it comes out!

Karin Spirn said...

Oh, wait, it IS out! Congratulations--I can't wait to read it!

anita said...

Doing ok- working on a children's book now. It was exciting to realize it was you and then see you also have a serialized fiction blog to read, also! Your insights are, as usual, really sharp and super-fun to read. Hope to get coffee at some point and catch up.

Brian said...

True dat....I use Wikipedia almost everyday to get my bearings, and I'm supposed to be a professional historian!

Karin Spirn said...

I told one of the librarians at my school about this post, and she said she uses Wikipedia every day, too! We ended up having a very nice conversation about its benefits and drawbacks.

Karin Spirn said...

Hey Anita, email me!

sondra said...

There's a certain character to Wikipedia entries--overly explicit, overly technical, firmly committed to citations--that I find charming. This McSweeney's satire captures it perfectly: "Missing Lunch at Wikipedia"