Blog Post

Wikipedia, the Missing Manual

(Wikipedia Photo courtesy of Flickr photographer Johann Dreo; the woman whose pregnant belly is serving as the human Wikipedia is not identified but the caption on the photo is sweet:  "I love Wikipedia, because it is devoted to the future." )


There's an excellent Nicholson Baker piece on "The Charms of Wikipedia" in the NYRB: I'm definitely charmed. In fact, when I return to teaching next year, I will be teaching my first bona-fide English class in almost a decade. In addition to my eight years as Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, I've taught classes in the history of technology, on photographic inventions (from daguerreotype to digital), on interdisciplinarity, and other subjects, but literature: not so much. I'll also be teaching a "ways of knowing" class next year that puts together (that's the book I've written about often in this blog) cognitive neuroscience, culture, cognition, and educational theory. But the literature class is back to my old speciality but with a twist. In my "Early American Novels and Other Fictions" course, we'll be looking at mass printing, mass literacy, mass education, all coming together in the late eighteenth century at the same time that the US is creating its new constitituion. But we'll be doing it in a way that uses new technology. Students will be required to look at all of the relevant Wikipedia entries for the period and to each be responsible for editing at least one, first bringing the edits into the class to talk about them, the why and the wherefore. What better way to be responsive to a field and responsible than public editing of the world's greatest collective encyclopedia. The entries for the period are pretty accurate right now, but don't have very robost theoretical frameworks. But the act of translation will, in and of itself, be a subject of our study in the course.


Wikipedia is like that. It inspires one to think about how knowledge can be shared. I can't wait. I heart Wikipedia, even when I am sometimes frustrated by ditherings and side-tracks. I almost always learn more from a Wikipedia entry than from any other quick source----and I continue to be astonished by the collective human intelligence and the ability to create such a resource, even when flawed. Check out Nicholson Baker's tribute . . . and smile!



The New York Review of Books
March 20, 2008

The Charms of Wikipedia
By Nicholson Baker

Wikipedia is just an incredible thing. It's fact-encirclingly huge,
and it's idiosyncratic, careful, messy, funny, shocking, and full of
simmering controversies--and it's free, and it's fast. In a few
seconds you can look up, for instance, 'Diogenes of Sinope,' or
'turnip,' or 'Crazy Eddie,' or 'Bagoas,' or 'quadratic formula,' or
'Bristol Beaufighter,' or 'squeegee,' or 'Sanford B. Dole,' and you'll
have knowledge you didn't have before. It's like some vast aerial city
with people walking briskly to and fro on catwalks, carrying picnic
baskets full of nutritious snacks.


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