Unlike the students in my class, I remember the birth and growth of Wikipedia. I remember when many articles were mere stubs, imploring the reader to fill them with information. I remember spending free periods at school poring over limited pages on poets and novelists, gay rights activists and forgotten pop stars. My Sixth Form had recently given away all of its books, replacing the library with a glossy computer suite. At home, my access to novels was based on the C.S. Lewis collection my grandparents had left behind, the J.R.R. Tolkien my Dad bought in preparation for the Lord of the Rings films and whatever I asked my Mum for. I am constantly grateful for the latter of these, as well as having parents that supported my avid reading. Nonetheless, at sixteen, my knowledge of authors extended little further than the writers I was taught about in class, making it difficult to choose books that would challenge and interest me. In this regard, Wikipedia was an open door. The site provided lists and lists of novelists to choose from, descriptions of the Bloomsbury Group and the Beat Generation, pictures of places I thought it impossible I would ever see. It was on Wikipedia that I first stumbled across the poet Hilda Doolittle, who I am now writing about within my PhD. It was through Wikipedia that I first read about Yale, an institution I visited over the summer, conducting research at the Beinecke Library.
Today, I still use Wikipedia in my research. As a doctoral candidate in English Literature, it is an endlessly beneficial tool for scoping out new authors, getting to grips with biography and discovering the circles these writers moved in. On Twitter, many other educators expressed the same fondness for Jimmy Wales’ brainchild. Yet this admission often feels like a dirty secret. There remains a resolute snobbery about Wikipedia in many academic circles, a sniffiness about the quality of its references. We are meant to have read scores and scores of material, to have pulled from the books that line the shelves of our office, to make witty asides to writers, musicians and artists, to flex our intellectual muscle by referencing obscurisms. Wikipedia is seen as the path of least resistance, the antithesis of cultural and intellectual merit, a mark of shoddy scholarship that should be resolutely avoided.
This attitude amounts to little more than naked prejudice, a fact I was sharply reminded of when teaching recently. As my class analysed some difficult poetry, a student admitted that they felt out of their depth as they did not understand the references. I asked if they had checked on Wikipedia, and they confessed to not using the digital encyclopaedia anymore, having been told not to. At university, it is so often the ‘highbrow’ that matters. An extensive comprehension of Coronation Street or the Kardashians is nothing in comparison to an understanding of classical music or contemporary art. Working class students are often barred from conversations and left feeling embarrassed by their perceived lack of knowledge. This is rendered with lurid alacrity within the classroom setting, where those with a private school education benefit not just from broader cultural reference points, but a strengthened self-confidence. Watching a student shrink into themselves is never a nice experience, and chippiness regarding public access sites such as Wikipedia is only serving to entrench the issue. A poem that references Walt Whitman and Federico García Lorca is one that requires a specific kind of knowledge. It trades off of a literary currency that many working-class students just do not have access to at home. Wikipedia is an opening salvo to remedying this, a means of becoming au fait with cultural references usually garnered from holidays abroad, reading materials handed down from grandparents and conversations over dinner.
Without doubt, Wikipedia’s greatest strength lies in its freedom. As academia moves towards an ever more open-access format, Wikipedia has led the charge. Many of the best articles on the site balance considered academic thought with newspaper articles, third-party websites, links to interviews and further learning resources. In many ways, the encyclopaedia has created a digitally utopic view of knowledge sharing, a bank of information available globally, created by the reader and refined by experts. As sites such as YouTube and Instagram become ever more monetized, the simple ad-free interface of Wikipedia is a refreshing sight. It also serves to level the playing field. Those of us who cannot simply pluck a book from our bare shelves have the opportunity to find points of reference previously out of reach, a few clicks are all we require.
Yes, we must acknowledge the faults with this process and understand that Wikipedia is just a starting point. But for many, it is a gateway to knowledge that is otherwise firmly shut. Examples of this are myriad: exchange students are able to get to grips with cultural specificities, educators are able to find a quick answer to a class question, pupils are able to bolster their reading of a text. Wikipedia affords us the opportunity to venture outwards, to discover key search terms, to educate ourselves in the broadest sense. Wikipedia is a launch pad, a welcome into the fold, a support system that should lead to deeper, well-rounded research through monographs, journals, collections and other sources. Wikipedia is the best place to start and the worst place to stop. A resource, not a source. It sheds light on where to look, then allows us to set off, critical toolkit in hand, for close examination.
Indeed, swift dismissal of Wikipedia is not simply snobbish, it is pedogeological laziness. As educators working within the Arts and Humanities, our job is not to fill our students with information, nor to propagate a system predicated on glorified memory tests. Our role is to provoke critical suspicion, to push our students to ask questions, to never settle for an easy answer, to query, question and quandary. In the digital age, learning tools such as Wikipedia are vital to enhancing this critical thinking. We should not bar students access to knowledge, but ask them to evaluate sources, be careful about the references they use and remain cogent of sloppy scholarship. Appraising the citations that Wikipedia uses provides the perfect training ground for this. As many academics on Twitter suggest, this source evaluation can even be embedded into assessments. Having students refine Wikipedia references not only improves the services, it sharpens students’ skills and expands their digital toolkit. A rejection of Wikipedia abandons the critical conversation, whereas a thoughtful use of its service requires us to be considerate of how careful research should be conducted.
As fake news becomes an expression embedded more deeply within our everyday lives, this kind of critical sleuthing holds an even greater weight. A healthy dose of scepticism is rapidly becoming mundanely vital as literacy expands beyond the written word to include the technical and the digital. Understanding and evaluating media sources and online claims is as important as being able to navigate a shopping centre, read a manual or fill in a crossword. The iGeneration do not remember a time before the internet, and academics need to up their game, to attune themselves to these modern pressures and expansive learning techniques, if they want to keep in step. Our classroom should be enriched by online sources, not terrified of them. Our teaching practies should respond to innovation, not ignore it. Our students should find themselves empowered by ever bolder resources, not brushing them off.
So let go of your gripes. Rid yourself of your anger. And put your expertise to good use. Log on, take a read, edit, tweak and refine. Add to the discussion, rather than close it down. Abandon your prejudices and support your students in pedagogically interesting manners. After all, we have to begin somewhere.