Monday, July 27, 2009

One possible reason your college professor hates Wikipedia so much

A lot of college students are wondering why their professors are so damn uptight about Wikipedia. Those professors are being "pesky" or "uncool."

Those of you still in college, try this experiment: go up to your professor and say something along the lines of: "Professor, I was wondering what kinds of lies and misconceptions are out there about [topic you teach], so I went to Wikipedia." Watch him or her launch on a speech about how Wikipedia is unreliable, how it has no peer review, how no one is accountable for its content, how some schools (including perhaps yours) give failing grades to students who cite Wikipedia, etc. In fact that speech is the very same one they'd give if you had said you believed something you read on Wikipedia.

What is it about Wikipedia that sets professors off on such a paroxysm of hatred? When I was in college (don't ask how long ago, suffice it to say Wikipedia didn't even exist back then) I don't remember any professor getting in such an angry mood at the mere mention of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Don't use it as your only source," is the most strongly-worded advice on the matter I can remember.

The publically-stated principle of Wikipedia sounds very good on paper: instead of the encyclopedia seeking out experts (like a traditional encyclopedia does), Wikipedia lets the experts find the encyclopedia. Idealistically, this has the advantage of bringing up experts the traditional encyclopedia would have overlooked. In fact it's possible your college professor bought into this four or five years ago and enthusiastically started contributing to Wikipedia.

But soon he or she would have found out the reality of Wikipedia is very different from its purported ideals. His or her contributions were probably reverted immediately, despite his or her best efforts to comply with Wikipedia's shifting-sand standards. Professor can't cite himself in Wikipedia? Fine, he or she knows plenty other scholars to cite. If he or she was not discouraged at that first difficulty, he or she would eventually have been more thoroughly attacked, his credentials ridiculed and his views mocked. He or she was probably called every name in the Wikipedia book: vandal, sock, troll, pedant, wikiholic, inclusionist, deletionist, etc.

Your professor soon realized that the true purpose of Wikipedia is to provide an arena for self-important ignorant idiots to battle each other for the amusement of Jimbo Wales. Your professor realized that fighting ignorant idiots on Wikipedia is a waste of his time. At the same time, he or she saw, with increasing distress, how his students turn to Wikipedia for information on almost everything. But he or she's too proud to admit that his hatred of Wikipedia stems from the lousy treatment he received at the hands of Wikipedia's ruling idiots. An encyclopedia ruled by idiots is certain to have many other flaws, some of which the professor can use in his anti-Wikipedia speech without any personal embarrassment.

But I'm not letting professors off the hook completely. I say to them: Before launching into your anti-Wikipedia speech, take a second to assess whether you're really telling a misguided student something he or she hasn't heard before or you're actually preaching to the choir.

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