Blog Post

An Open Letter to the President of Middlebury College: Please Don't Ban Wikipedia!

This is an open letter to President Ronald D. Liebowitz of Middlebury College, suggesting that he use the spotlight of this moment, as an opportunity to look at the possibilities for digital learning. I am calling upon him to rethink the History Department's decision and use it as an opportunity to engage in thoughtful intellectual debate. A teachable moment, in Gerald Graff's phrase.

 

Dear President Liebowitz,

I am quite dismayed that the History Department at Middlebury has banned the citation of Wikipedia in papers written by its students and am writing to find out more about this. In the accounts I have read, Wikipedia has been separated from other encyclopedias such as Britannica or others, as if there is something inherently inferior about it. Rather than banning it, why not make studying what Wikipedia does and does not do part of the research and methods portion of every course? In other words, instead of resorting to the "No" button for internet possibilities, why not make the practice of research in the digital age the object of study?

Your entering students were born around 1988. They have grown up with new technology skills, new ways of finding information, new modes of informal learning that are also intimately connected to their social life. I recently spent time with a five-year-old who is obsessed with Pokemon. His parents were alarmed by his obsession, although his father reluctantly admitted that, at the same age, he knew every dinosaur and could recite them all with the same passion that his son now uses for the 430-plus Pokemon characters. I also was able to assure them that, to master the game at the level he had, he was actually mastering a nine-year-old's reading vocabulary. He was also customizing his games with editing tools that I can only begin to manipulate, and doing so with creativity and remarkable manual dexterity. Your students at Middlebury have all of those skills. Don't we want to improve education to take advantage of those skills? And also don't we, as intellectuals, want to both understand the potential of such tools and teach our students to think critically about them? That is so much more productive than the knee-jerk "no."

I must admit I have an investment in this issue. A passionate one. I am on the advisory board of the MacArthur Foundation's new Digital Meaning and Learning initiative that is concerned with all the forms of learning in the digital age, including ways that schools can be as lively and inspiring intellectually as are the internet lives of our children. I am also co-founder of a voluntary coalition of academics called HASTAC ("haystack": an unwieldy acronym that stands for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory---everyone just says "haystack"). With my co-founder, David Theo Goldberg, I have recently posted the first draft of a collaborative paper on "The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age." It is on a collaborative website that allows anyone to edit it and make comments, hosted by the Institute for the Future of the Book.
http://www.futureofthebook.org/HASTAC/learningreport/about/ We are holding a series of public forums on this and, in the end, will synthesize responses and also include examples of the most innovative learning in the country, collaborative and forward-looking. We will also include a "Hall of Shame" for retrograde and unthinking reactions to new technologies. We don't want Middlebury to be a trend-setter in the wrong direction. It is such a wonderful college (I have a number of friends who are alums) that I would hope you would be leading the way, not the rear-guard, in the future education of our kids.

As a cultural historian and historian of technology, I find that I often go to Wikipedia first, and, I must admit, I am astonished at how sound and good a first source it is. As you probably know, the mistake that was pointed out by members of your history department has already been corrected. What a wonderful resource! One that is responsive. And what a miraculous phenomenon, a world of knowledge contributed for no remuneration by scholars (amateur and professional) around the world. Isn't that a fantasy of what the educated life is like? Why do we want to cast opprobrium on something that should exemplify what we do as educators?

Speaking personally, I find that my book purchasing has probably increased threefold because of Wikipedia. I often find myself engaged by an entry and then I find myself going to the discussion pages and then I find myself caught up in the debate, and pretty soon I am lost in scholarly articles and I'm buying books with One-Click on Amazon. Why not teach that way of using the resource to our kids? Why rush to ban the single most impressive global, collaborative intellectual tool produced at least since the OED?

I urge you to take this wonderful opportunity to engage Middlebury students--and the country--in a real discussion of how and what we learn now. How is it the same, how different from the past? What are the advantages and the shortcomings? And how can we all be enriched by new tools if we learn to use them (like all tools) well? And, most of all, how can we learn from Web 2.0 to all be intellectuals contributing together to more and better knowledge? I hope Middlebury will use the spotlight cast by the recent media attention to turn this into a college-wide forum on New and Old Ways of Knowing. It could turn this into a most fruitful and engaged moment for your faculty and your students, and for all of us who care about education and who are watching you and hoping you can retrieve this moment and make it better.

I should mention that I will be posting this letter on my blog on the HASTAC website. I will, however, observe privacy protocols and will not post any response from you or your faculty without permission. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Cathy N. Davidson
Co-Founder and Interim Director, John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute
Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English
Duke University

Co-Founder, HASTAC (www.hastac.org)

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