Tuesday, March 27, 2007

We Can't Ignore the Influence of Digital Technologies

Cathy N. Davidson, interim director of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute and a professor of interdisciplinary studies and English at Duke University, wrote about Wikipedia recently for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is entitled, "We Can't Ignore the Influence of Digital Technologies":
When I read the other day that the history department at Middlebury College had "banned Wikipedia," I immediately wrote to the college's president, Ronald D. Liebowitz, to express my concern that such a decision would lead to a national trend, one that would not be good for higher education. "Banning" has connotations of evil or heresy. Is Wikipedia really that bad?

I learned from Mr. Liebowitz that the news media had exaggerated the real story. The history department's policy that students not cite Wikipedia in papers or examinations is consistent with an existing policy on not citing sources such as Encyclopaedia Britannica. It is hardly a "ban." It is a definition of what constitutes credible scholarly or archival sources.

Even granting that the news media exaggerated, it is useful to think about why this was a story at all — and what we can learn from it. The coverage echoed the most Luddite reactions to Wikipedia and other ventures in creating knowledge in a collaborative, digital environment. In fact, soon after the Middlebury story was reported, one of my colleagues harrumphed, "Thank goodness someone is maintaining standards!" I asked what he meant, and he said that Wikipedia was prone to error. So are encyclopedias, I countered. So are refereed scholarly books. (Gasp!) He was surprised when I noted that several comparative studies have shown that errors in Wikipedia are not more frequent than in comparable print sources. More to the point, in Wikipedia, errors can be corrected. The specific one cited by the Middlebury history department — an erroneous statement that Jesuits had supported a rebellion in 17th-century Japan — was amended in a matter of hours. Read more of the article.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 29, Page B20
From the issue dated March 23, 2007

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