(via The Daily Dot - The rise of Wikipedia, the decline of student writing)
I recently had the pleasure of helping a colleague teach her high school students how to do research - I love doing research and I have a special knack for it, one which came partly from growing up as a digital native, unsupervised and feral in the early internet, and partly from years working at Goucher’s Writing Center, helping people with their research.
I now have a somewhat unique perspective, being an educator as well as a recent student who has never known research without the internet. I strongly believe that educators need to embrace digital technology in their teaching - not in the form of classroom iPad apps, but in the awareness that our job is to prepare students to be productive and functional citizens of the world, and that world currently includes a vast territory called The Internet. I think we need to teach students how to navigate this world in a healthy and helpful way - everything from how to write an email subject line, to managing relationships in the age of texting and Snapchat, to using the internet for scholarly research.
Much of the complaints this article makes don’t actually condemn the internet, or Wikipedia - they critique an education system that has left students unprepared to understand what Wikipedia is and how it can be appropriately used. There are tools available to our students, and our job is to teach them how to use those tools - not to bemoan the fact that the tools are new, or capable of being misused, or just not the tools we’re used to.
Take, for example, this paragraph about the “down side” of internet scholarship:
The Internet blends fact with fiction, the crazy with the conventional, and all too often the result looks like an endless—and tasteless—mass of information. When students, especially, turn to the Web, they have no way of sifting through the cascade of opinions to find the ones that matter…The Web tempts us to shift rapidly from one source to another, and so we don’t stay with any single perspective long enough to really evaluate it. The arbitrary abundance of the online world urges us too toward arbitrariness in our choice of what sources to trust.
The author seems to take for granted that students are simply lacking in important skills: the ability to distinguish fact from fiction and crazy from conventional, the ability to resist the temptation to bounce between perspectives without evaluating. But if the problem is that students have “no way” to engage with the massive amount of online information one receives when tossing in a single key word, isn’t it our job to give them “a way” to do that?
When I visited my colleague’s class to talk about research, I attempted to do just that. We don’t just throw students into a sea of information - we talk about evaluating sources, we go over the difference between primary and secondary sources, we explain what peer-reviewed means. We encourage them to balance what they read against what they know, to adjust their thesis to follow the research, and to not feel compelled to present “all sides” if one is clearly stronger. When we teach research, these are the skills we teach - and this has not changed since the days of text sources in brick-and-mortar libraries (which, by the way, are not immune to any of the problems Mikics blames on the Internet: an overwhelming and distracting abundance of potentially-relevant information and a susceptibility to bias and crackpots.)
Another major complaint the author makes is even more easily solved: that students simply don’t know how to use and navigate tools for online scholarly research. He condemns Google Books for its buckshot approach to returning relevant results as well as its short preview sections - but it is the role of the educator to introduce students to the challenges and quirks of Google Books, just as we taught previous generations how to use the Dewey Decimal system and indexes. I teach students how to narrow down keyword searches, how to use ctrl+f to tell if an excerpt is relevant, and how to use WorldCat and ILL to locate full copies of books that they found through Google Books. If students are misusing or misunderstanding tools, we don’t get rid of the tools, we show students how to use them.
Finally, the author claims that Wikipedia’s crowdsourced style is teaching students that scholarly language must sound bland and impersonal, and is destroying individual voice and style. Part of this claim is blatantly false - Orwell wrote an essay complaining about this exact phenomenon in 1946. Scholarly language had its current trademark sterile density far before Wikipedia, and writers have been trying to emulate this style with disastrous results for as long. The burden of teaching style and voice has always fallen on the shoulders of the educator. It is true that students read the work of others in part to see examples of successful styles and voices, but expecting Wikipedia to raise the next generation of writers is like outsourcing arts education to Instagram filters. It’s our job to step into the gap between text and new reader and help that reader understand why that text sounds the way it does, what the purpose of that style is, and when and why to use it (and not use it).
Wikipedia certainly presents a new set of challenges to those of us to teach research and writing, but in the end, it’s only as destructive as we allow it to be. We still teach students to close-read texts, to make their own connections, to synthesize their own analysis out of their research - these skills, despite what Miciks thinks, are not going anywhere. But now we have a new set of tools to work with - and they open up some fascinating possibilities. For example, a Wikipedia talk page on a famous text shows students interesting points of scholarly debate and the different conclusions gleaned from close-reading. By way of blog posts, comments, and digital image archives, students now have a massively rich source of primary sources for every kind of anthropological and sociological investigation.
The tools are changing, but the needs of students are not. Teachers who guide their students through this new online world will be serving their students much better than those who simply say, “go to the library instead” and leave their students with no way of navigating the online world that they will stumble into no matter how many times we warn them against it.