The Great Wikipedia Debate, or Beowulf goes fishing

November 18, 2006 at 5:17 pm (beowulf, teaching)

Every semester one of my students ask me if they are allowed to use Wikipedia as a source for their final research papers. Every semester I say no, and every semester a comment about my unfairness for not allowing internet sources comes up on ratemyprofessor.com. (It is not true that I don’t allow them, but I require that they be thoroughly evaluated by use of a worksheet, and I limit the number of online-only sources.)

I give them several reasons, deliberately ignoring the ongoing debate about Wikipedia’s role in academia, among them:

Citations are not really about covering your ass for plagiarism, even though we talk about that a lot in freshman comp. They’re really about pointing readers to sources. The dynamic nature of Wikipedia means your source could change drastically, or even disappear, overnight.

Wikipedia is essentially an encyclopedia, and you are in college. Your research needs to extend beyond dictionary and encyclopedia entries when you’re in college.

I had a moment of clarity in class the other day, a moment when I found a better way to say something, when we were talking about evaluation of sources and I asked why a sample essay had cited a rather surprising and biased source of information. One of my students said, “But every source has an angle or a bias or a slant or at *least* a focus.”

Indeed. And picking out what that focus is is one of the essential tasks we’ve been working on all semester, and maybe I could have just come out and said that before now, though I’m ecstatic that some of them are thinking that way. Anyway, I think he just gave me a new way to talk about research and argumentation and warrants. The participant in the conversation — what’s at stake for that participant? Some of them are writing about gun control. What’s at stake in the conversation for the NRA? What about Concerned Mothers for Gun Control? What about the Associated Press? What I won’t say in class, but what I’m thinking, is that this might be one reason why it’s so difficult for some academics, myself included, to wholeheartedly accept Wikipedia as a reliable source. Doubtless there are some very knowledgable contributors on Wikipedia, and the potential for this “new” medium is kind of exciting. But we can’t really answer the “what’s at stake” question when we go to evaluate the reliability of this source. As a wiki contributor, I can personally vouch for the fact that sometimes — not always — “what’s at stake” is an ego or points in a flame war.

I have a thesis chapter to write, so I’ll shut up now and leave you with a recent “find” that I used to illustrate the importance of evaluating internet sources in class the other day.

from the page entitled “Norse Mythology,” available at
http://library.thinkquest.org/25535/Norse.htm

“However, Grendel’s mother heard of her son’s death, and was ready to seek revenge upon his killer. Beowulf agreed to fight her, and he was pulled into her underwater lair one day while he was fishing. He defeated her with the sword of the Giants, and returned again to find rejoicing among the citizens. … Eventually a giant rose against his people, so Beowulf agreed to defeat him. As they fought, Beowulf’s weapons were melted by the creature’s fire…”

Now where can I get an avatar of Beowulf fishing?

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