Civil War 150, History Class, Public History, Undergraduate Education, Wikipedia

Wikipedia in the Classroom

As a graduate assistant ( I am rounding out my 7th full year taking university classes, wooh!) I have heard nearly all my professors deride wikipedia. Usually on the first day of classes professors remind students to read their books and articles and ignore wikipedia, to use real primary sources and secondary sources from university publishers, never should a student cite the foul-most wikipedia.

But many professors (mine included) take the “sex-ed” approach to wikipedia. This mean recognizing the accessibility and attractiveness of wikipedia and working to make the inevitable safer. This semester, as i have mentioned in a past post, I assisted my prof. and his undergrad public history students put together a Civil War Sesquicentennial (150 yr anniversary) wikipedia entry. The students were responsible for researching, defining and cataloguing what the Sesquicentennial is, why it is celebrated and how.

The process was some what confusing for the students. They were unable to lean on an easy set of academic choirs. Rather than being assigned a topic or historical concept they had previous understandings of, they were given a large and on-going public-historical experience and told to research it, find out about it and see what it says. Essential we asked them to experiment.

In an academic culture that focuses on completing standards, this project was difficult for many students to understand. I do not believe their struggles were due to their lack of creativity, they have good creative minds. Their struggles comes from the system that prizes gradable uniformity over an experimental process. And as much as professors and other teachers (myself included, if I give students a reading i expect them to read it not look at wikipedia) decry wikipedia in the name of academic integrity, when they bring this foe into the classroom they are (or in my personal experience are) challenging the more destructive parts of today’s educational systems. Which is great!

I tried to find some Civil War photos from my own collection. Here is the burial spot of "Stonewall" Jackson's Arm.
I tried to find some Civil War photos from my own collection. Here is the burial spot of “Stonewall” Jackson’s Arm.

Bringing wikipedia into the classroom does three more things, that I like to note;

First, it gives the students a real assignment. Instead of creating papers for the teacher who reads them, grades them and places them in the recycle bin, writing a wikipedia entry makes students responsible for their work in the larger internet-world. I strongly believe that students need a reason to take their liberal educations more seriously,(because just being educated is not attractive to them) and working with well-visited internet sites helps to infuse their assignments with a sense of responsibility. (Wikipedia is no where near as obscure as www. Universitiy Class Projectwebsite that only my Grandma will see…if she gets to my dad’s house because she does not own a

Second, by making wikipedia a classroom project, wikipedia becomes a classroom tool. (see the “sex-ed” model)

Third, working with wikipedia gives students hands-on public history experience. Though, writing a wikipedia page is not an exhibit, a web-archive, or a tour, it makes students flex their writing muscles. The combined demands of wikipedia and academia forces the students to write clearly and accessibly, while acknowledging the need to support their work with sources. Which, again is great.

How did our page go? 

OH it was like digging a hole with large metal sporks. The tools worked, they were sturdy enough to dig, but they were sporks, so people got confused and there were some set backs. But, in the end we had a nice hole.

I am really fond of this spork right now, so imagine this one in my metaphor

(If my metaphor lost you) The page did go up. First we tried to post it as its own page called American Civil War Sesquicentennial.  Our impatience made it impossible for us to wait the months for Wikipedians to approve the page, so we also stuck it in the American Civil War page. (A page, as you can imagine, that is home to some highly political [read: racists] talk and is closely watched by passionate Civil War buffs)

We were unsure if our information would stay on the Civil War page, but we posted it anyway and ended class. The next morning I found that the Civil War page had removed our information…[bum bumbummmm]..and gave us an entire page, dedicated to Civil War commemoration!

See it here


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