Topic 6: Isle of Wikipedia

Sooner or later, as a modern-day student you have to figure out where you stand on Wikipedia.  It’s either something you depend on, something you avoid, or something you use but try not to acknowledge.  Where do you stand?  More important if you are a first-year undergraduate, where will you stand once it comes to paper-writing time?

The answers don’t come easy anymore.  For years, humanities professors warned students away from Wikipedia.  But now some are welcoming it.  William Cronon, a distinguished historian, used his term as president of the American Historical Association (AHA) (a position once held by Henry Adams himself) to advocate for making Wikipedia better.  Check out Cronon’s 2012 editorial on the subject.  He makes some powerful points, but historian Timothy Messer-Kruse’s dismal experience with trying to improve a mediocre Wikipedia entry highlights some of the inherent problems with this crowd-sourced and surprisingly rigid online encyclopedia.  More recently, historian Stephen Campbell reports to the AHA about his challenges in trying to live up to Cronon’s call to action.

One way for our seminar to weigh Cronon’s enthusiasm against Messer-Kruse’s complaints would be to explore how Wikipedia handles Henry Adams, his various major works (especially The Education), and other subjects relevant to his life and times (such as the Adams Memorial, Charles Francis Adams, Sr.,  and the American Civil War). Here is also where the Wikipedia entry writing assignment comes into play.  In this case, we will be testing whether we can make Wikipedia a better place for readers to discover more about the people who affected Henry Adams’s education.  By crafting engaging profiles on our course website about figures such as Louisa Catherine Adams, Charles Sumner or William Henry Seward, we will hopefully create a platform that will feed better, richer (and more Henry Adams-centric) information into the world’s largest encyclopedia.

By doing so, perhaps we will prove that the Isle of Wikipedia is not just a place where lazy students get stranded, but rather that it can be fertile ground for serious students who to make real contributions.  Or not.  We’ll soon see…