"The Curmudgeon's Corner"
by Gretchen Walsh


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Wikipedia: Can We Beat It? Should We Join It? Is It the End of the World as We Know It?

In March 2006, Peter Limb sent out a query to the ALC list with some observations about Wikipedia and its coverage of Africa. In a February 13, 2006, article in the Boston Globe, a senior at Lexington High School gushed to the reporter that she uses Wikipedia in place of Google, since she had learned that Googling doesn’t net one a basic explanation. Another interviewee (adult) reported that Wikipedia articles are better than most online references he’s seen, noting that Google searches return Wikipedia articles near the top of the list.

Recently, my soon-to-be-eleven year old grandson gave me an insight into one variety of Wikipedia contributor. He showed me his “space notebook”, a compilation of personal research on such topics as black holes, the cause of ocean currents, the sun, stars, and planets. Some of it, he told me, “is theory”. He and some friends had formed a Space Club, where they report on what they read and try to make sense of the universe. Give them ten more years of education and an Internet connection to replace the notebook, and these boys may be like a Boston-based Wikipedia administrator who told the Globe, “My view of a socially efficient and well-connected world is that everyone who learns something new and interesting instantly shares it with people around them.”

This ideal world is marred by “vandals”, such as the biographical entry for John Siegenthaler, Sr., claiming that he had had an hand in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and the biography of the Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales, claiming that Wales had been assassinated by Siegenthaler’s wife (Village Voice, January 17, 2006) It is also rendered irrelevant by projects like one (described in the same Village Voice article) encouraged by an English professor at the University of South Florida to submit imaginary definitions for made-up words such as “numpty” (“tea from the land of nump”). The professor claimed that his class had a fundamental right to change reality.

Spare me.

Actually, when I checked Wikipedia, the entry for “numpty’ had been deleted, with the note that it “should not be re-created without a good reason”. There is another note referring readers to the Wiktionary, where numpty is defined as: “a person that embarrasses themselves by making a mistake based on ignorance. (Usually used in Scotland)” The OED definition is close enough to verify this. But why not go first to the OED?

Wikipedia declares itself to be anti-elite, anti-credentialist. The whole phenomenon strikes me as an example of anti-intellectualism which Richard Hofstadter describes so well in his book Anti-Intellectualism and American Life. Far too many students, even while they are pursuing a college degree, seem to distrust specialists and experts, preferring to put their trust in anonymous writers who may know little about a topic, or have a nefarious private agenda. Do those of us who want to teach students to research responsibly and successfully have any recourse?

A discussion on H-Africa ranging from October 2005 through the early months of 2006 provides some optimism. In a short exchange in October 2005 on the origin of the term “Africa”, several list-members quoted the Wikipedia article on the etymology of Africa, saying that they found the Wikipedia in general to be “fairly reliable”. In December there was a call to arms for Africanists to edit, correct and add to the coverage of African topics. A lively discussion ensued for a while, with members noting that they encouraged their students to get involved. Some give assignments to write Wikipedia articles, which the teacher and class review before they are posted. John Thornton and his wife Linda Heywood, both historians at Boston University and specialists on Angola, reported to H-Africa in February 2006 that they had posted an article on Matamba, the 16th century Angolan kingdom, on Wikipedia. The article is tagged with the request to “wikify” (format) the article according to the Wikipedia manual of style. Some may be surprised that there is a manual of style, but it refers to marking up for hyperlinks, etc., not writing.

If one clicks on “discussion” on some articles (not the Matamba article, but go into “Africa” to see what I’m talking about), one discovers some of the behind-the-scenes thinking and editing that goes on. There is an Africa-related regional notice board, with the notice: “Current editors feel that Wikipedia is sorely lacking in Africa-related content. And where it exists, a lot of it is not wikified, needs editing, lacks content, or is just a re-hash of the same old encyclopedias that didn't do a good job anyway. This board looks to remedy that.” The notice and discussion board indicates that “wikipedians” are looking at many of the issues that we’d want them to. But some of the issues they are addressing – for example “Cote d’Ivoire” vs “Ivory Coast”, standardization of the names of African languages – don’t have to be debated yet again, if only they were plugged into standard academic and library networks.

My assessment is:

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