Monday, March 22, 2010

Making sure they know from Wikipedia

This teaching tip is a writing assignment that should first be considered in the context in which it is given: we are an academic program, teaching argument essays among other things; we value accuracy in sources and proper citation, reference, etc. , but basically teach essay construction, thesis statement, topic sentences, use of source material, etc. The reference to “CAR” is counter-argument/refutation (paragraph), known by other names elsewhere, but basically a standard writing technique in argument essays. The assignment can be adjusted to different specifications or needs; in my class it was a practice final, but essays were published and can be seen at one of the url’s below.

The value of the assignment to me is that it kills two birds with one stone: it puts students in the middle of a genuine and important controversy, which they need to analyze and think carefully about; at the same time, it takes the problem of unreliability of source material and puts it at the center of their conscious awareness. The problem of teaching students to be critical about what they find on the web has become increasingly acute, and we often find ourselves in the position of explaining why a Wikipedia entry, or an article they have found with no date, may be accurate, but still may not really be desirable for our assignments or others. Keep in mind that unlike the older generation, many in the young generation have nothing to compare Wikipedia with: it has always been there, and has always been the most reliable source they know of.

Wikipedia presents the classic paradox for the ESL teacher: on one hand, it is the opposite of what academics consider received, acceptable wisdom; its sources could be anybody, and in many cases are anonymous. On the other, it is unquestionably one of the best sources for all kinds of information: it documents its changes; it includes both sides in most disputes; it allows information from so many sources that it rarely leaves out anyone’s perspective. It links to all manner of appropriate and useful other sources. In short, my response to the assignment is to teach them as much as possible about it, and teach why people react so virulently to it (and who is most likely to object most). I absolutely want them to know as much about Wikipedia as possible. I also want them to be very shrewd about evaluating the sources they use in their papers, and valuing the authenticity and quality of any given source; this is not only a History department value, but also one that should be instilled throughout an esl/efl curriculum.

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