Reading Response 4/9

The Wikipedia question. Definitely one I, as an English Composition teacher, encounter on a frequent basis. For me it represents key questions that are a basis for the classes that I teach, specifically. I teach research, critical thinking, citation practice, subjectivity versus objectivity, logical fallacies, and so much more that goes right into this discussion. No matter how many times I tell students not to cite Wikipedia, I still get ones that do, almost every semester, in at least one of their papers. We have discussions on what Wikipedia can and should be used for and watch the humorous CollegeHumor Video that makes the point about Wikipedia’s potential for inaccuracy incredibly blatant, and I still have students ignore my advice (and thus lose A LOT of points on their paper). I’m now thinking reading articles on Wikipedia may be an excellent way to broach this subject further and get into some of the deeper topics that I cover, listed above. I tell them it is a good first step, a good place to go to get a broad sense of a topic, and to find other potential sources from among their own citations. In reality though, this may be only useful for students that are naturally suspect or have developed critical thinking skills already and question truth from the get-go. Maybe its use should be discouraged for freshmen until they have proved that they can handle it.

The gender question referred to in the “Talk of the Nation” and our articles is a particularly disturbing one that you probably have to have a basis for understanding injustice and gender dynamics before you can understand and think intelligently about. That discussion on NPR was interesting as a whole in that they never fully addressed the woman caller’s issue, just saying “yes, that is how it’s supposed to be” and moving on, talking over her response of “well, then why did this not happen in this instance?” (I’m being petty here, but it stood out.) The idea she was suggesting was that the debate over the topic be part of the article, which makes complete sense as a way to address some of these issues and keep scholars who use Wikipedia up-to-date on current discussions in a field. The comparison she made with Wikipedia was to an academic conference, and this made a lot of sense to me. This is how I have kind of told my students to approach Ted Talks, which does seem maybe a little more apt, though. Wikipedia is not about making arguments, but putting out mass-agreed upon information out into the world, as the segment discusses. Wikipedia relies on secondary sources over primary sources, they said, and I guess as a general model, that makes sense.

I found Schiff’s article in The New Yorker fascinating and there was a lot I did not know about the development of Wikipedia and the behind the scenes part of it. I did not realize it is such a culture in and of itself. I do wonder how this article would differ if written today. How has Wikipedia grown up? She mentions the fact that Wikipedia runs almost completely on donations, what would she say about the constant begging for those donations that Wikipedia does today, that has been criticized by frequent users? Also, in an America where “fake news” is thrown around with great frequency, how does that change what we, as a society need or should expect from a site like Wikipedia? She says, “When confronted with evidence of errors or bias, Wikipedians invoke a favorite excuse: look how often the mainstream media, and the traditional encyclopedia, are wrong!” Which is fine and true that errors occur everywhere, but isn’t the sheer capacity for containing knowledge, space-wise, and the ability to stay completely current (the two biggest pros of Wikipedia), enough to at least inspire hope for accuracy within this platform? I guess I had more trust in the gatekeepers before reading these articles and listening to the NPR segment. I’m definitely left questioning a lot.

If you have not seen this, watch it: Also this is an interesting “how-to” guide for using Wikipedia within academia and includes other resource lists with more reading:


In writing history in the Digital age, it delves into the realm of public history. As a preservation major I think that public history should not be a separate track. With the digital age steadily progressing and advancements continuing to be made, instead of having to go through a large database and scoured through hundreds of broad topics to hopefully land on something worth while; there is an emergence of databases that are geared towards whatever topic you may be looking for. People from all different walks of life can create their own website, wiki, or blog; those with no interest in creating these spaces for themselves can still be apart of these communities however.  These new digital spaces expand and blur the spectrum of what counts as an historical practice. The informality of a blog can be used/seen as an advantage; academic publishers bring with it traditions of peer review and public commentary, but the informal presentation of blogs/wiki/ etc have a lack of filters, of a polished look that make it more appealing. Blogs and wikis can be useful, but unlike other sources it is nothing without an audience. For those who may be looking into a certain subject, but not engaged in an academic reasons, the author has to change the lingo to appeal to a broader audience rather than using scholastic terms. Using blogs allows for the author to show that academics are approachable people, and using a simple dialogue allows for a wider net.

In this article they use as an example. The researchers and historians for this site, by analyzing different government records at varying origin and credibility. In Truth and the World of Wikipedia Gatekeepers; this article discusses how Wikipedia has become to the go-to-source for information on almost every topic imaginable. For years Wikipedia was a shunned site, due to the historians and researchers being volunteers and anyone can edit the page. According to this article you can see that due to Wikipedia having a shift to a primary place that researchers, students go to for information, the volunteers job has become a much larger task than once thought. With their new user agreement Wiki wants to use information from mainly secondary sources instead of primary sources to create a broader definition on the topic. From these two articles you can see that digital interfaces are now becoming the primary source for not only historians and researchers, but for history buffs who may have some fleeting interests in one topic or another.

Gatekeeping the Gatekeepers

When I was a teenager, I contributed to Wikipedia by correcting an article’s grammar. However, that joy was short lived, when I was told of how many additional hurdles I would need to face, as well as the time I needed to contribute to the website, before I could edit another article. In a way I felt that it was unfair, but I also felt (to an extent) that the website was trying to protect itself from being “vandalized”.

There’s an issue in who gets to gatekeep information, and it can affect anyone. For example, a professor who’s an expert on Chicago’s Haymarket Riot tried repeatedly to correct information on the Wikipedia article on it. However, his changes were repeatedly denied, because Wikipedia’s policies stated that published sources needed to be used, as opposed to using coroner’s reports. This was because published views “represented a majority view”; not only would the professor’s work need to be published, but because it was proposing a different view of the event, more literature would have to be published to counteract his work before it could be on Wikipedia. There is also a discussion on the NPR broadcast on the growing divide between the academic world and Wikipedia culture; while there is gatekeeping in the academic world, Wikipedia culture means that getting facts right gets in the way of having these facts changed when new literature on the subject is published.

Since its founding in 2001, Wikipedia has been on a mission to deliver as much free information as possible to the masses. Because the website can be as large as it wants, it can have as many detailed articles it likes. As the New Yorker article describes, the creation of the website also led to a creation of a community; users from around the world use the website to not only edit entries, but to create a culture on the site dedicated to information and education. However, it has had its share of issues. In addition to the idea of gatekeeping, there have been issues of vulgarity and pettiness, as well as issues where people (mainly politicians) have tried to edit entries on themselves.

My article this week discusses the rise of conspiracy videos and fake news on YouTube, and a proposed plan on how to curb these videos. Susan Wojcicki, the chief executive of YouTube, has proposed adding Wikipedia links to each video, thereby debunking “crisis actor” conspiracies and memes from spreading. However, with the issues that Wikipedia has had in the past with gatekeeping information, it may not be long before controversy strikes again.

Publishing History in the 21st Century

The work of constructing a history has always been open to the contribution of everyone. There is no education requirement. No license or credentialing. No certification exam. No formal process of prerequisites to “do” history. For this reason and in some small but significant way everyone is in this sense is a historian of sorts. Some spend their time reconstructing family histories. Others will find a niche history to specialize in such as the history of barbeque or barber shops, stock cars or tractors. More popular fields of inquiry include the history of firearms or the American Civil War. Then there are the collectors that specialize in the artifacts of the past. Many of these people simply love their area of interest. What the articles this week make clear is that this group is gaining influence in the 21st century. Historians trained in the academy may have some claim over the title of professional but in many ways a simple love for the field is all one needs these days.

In Rosenzweig’s Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past the idea that a historical narrative can be easily updated, revised, or edited gives contributors a new power in the field. No longer do amateur historians seem relegated to the niche histories of biographies, family histories, and firearms. They can now add to and create narratives on the Wikipedia page and in fact Rosenzweig explains that most of the articles published in Wikipedia were related to the subject of history. Some of the articles have errors but a vast majority of them seem to be fairly accurate. He seems to be frustrated that some important figures in history feature shorter articles than other seemingly meaningless articles about fictional characters, however, overall his reaction appears to be one of surprise that so much of what Wikipedia publishes is on target with historically correct details. Meanwhile Schiff maintains in Know it All that Wikipedia appears to be a subversive force that plans on stopping at nothing. Its contributors are regularly working to secure a strong product, fully capable of bucking peer review and government scrutiny.

In light of these articles, both published in 2006, the Wiki community is viewed as a very influential group. Interestingly while many of them seem to contribute to history articles they are clearly people that may or may not be professional historians given the diversity of writers and editors. Likely many of them are not. What is most notable from these articles is that publishing history in the 21st century appears to be turning into a joint effort between professional and amateur historians for better or for worst. This fact does not seem to be all bad. People with a genuine interest in history have and continue to be dedicated to some level of accuracy. However, as has already been a problem before the advent of the internet historians among the public do not always follow the same conversations as do academic historians and more importantly they frequently disagree with academic historians on key issues. The greatest challenge in this new century will likely be mending and closing the narrative gap between amateur historians and professional historians. How to do this is a very good question. This at least means that professional historians may have to join some of the conversations they have refused to be involved with in the past regardless of how insignificant or frustrating they may are. Obviously the internet continues to elude observers everywhere and many things have changed since these articles were written over 10 years ago, but these authors make clear that a fundamental change has occurred and the age of the amateur historian is upon us.

This article is about quality control

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Book

By Steven R. Garcia

I want to start with an anecdote. When I’m not reading, studying, or writing, I play around with little toy soldiers (of course, us hobbyists try to justify it as ‘miniature modeling’ or ‘tabletop wargaming’). Of my many interests in the hobby, I began with ‘historicals,’ or games focused on specific time periods or events. There have been few periods I dare not touch, namely modern warfare (i.e. Iraq, Afghanistan) and, most pertinent to today’s discussion, the American Civil War. Being a Puerto Rican migrant, I didn’t understand the divisiveness of the conflict as it stands today nor why some in the South were so fanatically entranced by the concept of ‘good ol’ Dixie.’ I was an outsider looking in. So, when a friend invited me to play at one of their battles, I decided to give it a shot. Most of my fellow hobbyists are history buffs anyway, so I thought I could learn a thing or two.

There’s a reason why I don’t play American Civil War games.


A great table, beautiful miniatures, and a large turnout. There was only one problem . . .

“The war was fought for states’ rights,” said one player. “Slaves were not treated as harshly as some Northerners would make it out to be,” said another. I kept my lips sealed. My friend, who organized the game, dreaded this from happening. He and I are both academically-trained historians, and we both knew we needed to deescalate this quickly. Thankfully, he did a superb job in politely keeping controversy off the table and the preserving the spirit of the game. However, that memory stuck with me. Most of those players were locals who didn’t have professional training or education as historians and instead depended on online resources, maybe a few books, and personal heritage to color their opinions. I felt out of place and, moreover, increasingly agitated. I wanted to jump in there and tell them otherwise. “You’re misinterpreting source materials and letting your own biases influence your attempts at making a historical argument,” I would’ve said.

But I didn’t. One, because I used to work for the store that hosted that game. And two, because I felt like maybe that wasn’t the best approach to arguing against popular or, for lack of a better word, bad history.

When I read Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ article on black Confederates, I empathized with the examples provided in the piece. I’d been in the shoes of those historians and editors before, struggling to find an appropriate way to argue against poorly-sources or misinformed historical arguments. The power of the Internet is both a blessing and a curse, and its duality in being able to greatly inform or lead astray the curious public is astonishing. Throughout the semester, we’ve gone back and forth on what role do historians play in the digital sphere. The conclusion to Madsen-Brook’s article encapsulates my opinion on that debate the best: “that said, our best role is perhaps not that of an authoritative figure or the “sage on the stage”; the “guide on the side” role makes more sense in the digital space” (Madsen-Brooks 2012). Considering the virtual audience we as historians face, it’d be in our best interest to not alienate the populace at large. I argue it’s a matter of picking your battles, knowing when to intervene, and doing so with tact that I think not many of us are trained to consider.

Case in point, Talk of the Nation’s Truth And The World Of Wikipedia Gatekeepers. Now, to be fair, I have nothing against Dr. Messer-Kruse’s opinion on Wikipedia. Being rejected on a revision and knowing you’re the expert in your field would be frustrating for anyone, but I think his opinion does reveal a little something about his approach. Dr. Messer-Kruse even said it himself, stating that in “academic culture, we have very specific gate keeping” that is “admittedly exclusive” by nature (Talk of the Nation 2012). I would wager Dr. Messer-Kruse played the “I’m a professional” card more than once in his arguments with the Wikipedia editors, thus leading me to believe that he may be somewhat misinformed as to the purpose of Wikipedia’s existence in the first place. A story that another guest in the segment, Andrew Lih, was well aware of. Wikipedia was founded as a public encyclopedia, driven by community engagement and a desire to catalog. I believe Dr. Messer-Kruse saw himself less as a part of that public, but rather as a ‘sage on the stage’ attempting to bestow his wisdom upon the crowd.

Suffice to say, most academic historians don’t receive training or guidelines on how interact with the public (except public historians, but even they may suffer from elitist perceptions from internet communities large). Even if someone, a lover of history albeit untrained in reading source material or conducting research, goes out and posts an article or makes a site grossly misinterpreting sources, scholarly works, or historical events, I think we need to take a step back and consider our approach. It’s not so much a question of ‘is this argument worth getting into?,’ but rather how. I argue that presenting an academic viewpoint, sourced and well-researched, in an enticing way through a blog, podcast, or a Wikipedia article will undoubtedly get more traction and validity in online communities than rants, arguments, or even apathy and lack of care. In short, it’s a matter of instilling a sort of ‘web-etiquette’ in academic training and, above all, an understanding in all academics that the web is quickly becoming the primary vehicle for the dissemination of scholarly ideas. To ignore it is folly and, in turn, allow for misinformation to spread. So, let’s try to walk softly more often and carry our big books when pertinent.

I’d like to try and have less tense wargames on the American Civil War in the future, if nothing else.

On that note, here’s an interesting article from 2017 on how academics are maneuvering through the minefield that is maintaining or, in some cases, regaining the public trust: