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Teaching Thursday: Wikipedia the New History Textbook

I am well on my way of preparing my Western Civilization 101 class for online delivery.  As the semester looms, the calls from the bookstore become more strident that I decide on a textbook for my class.  I have dragged my feet on picking a textbook for my online class largely because it seems funny to have a paper textbook for a class delivered entirely over the interwebs.  Moreover, I spent a huge amount of time (think: Chinese Democracy) preparing 16 hour long podcasts that served as the basic interpretive and “factual” framework for the class.  This was, in effect, an audio textbook.

The only problem was that it did not have all the features of a textbook.  It didn’t have an index, nice maps and timelines, pictures, or a way for a student to navigate a topic (say Athenian democracy) without listening to the podcast on Archaic and Classical Greece and mentally noting the various points where the discussion touches on the particular topic.  There was, as far as I could figure out, no way to hypertext a podcast.  It remains linear and true to its textbook roots, but unlike a textbook it didn’t even have an index or comparable way to allow a student to move through it in a non-linear way.

On top of that, there was a practical issue that the evaluation in my class is written. The class will require a weekly-ish multiple guess quiz and discussion board, and at least three short (3-5 page) papers.  Moving from the oral environment of the podcast to the written environment of quizes, discussion boards, and papers poses a whole set of challenges — not the least of which is spelling all the funny names that students come across in my podcasts or the more vexing issue of navigating the podcasts to get bits of information (what we historians quaintly refer to as “facts”).  And I did not want to assign a paper textbook. 

The solution is Wikipedia.  Over the last week, I’ve produced massive indexes to all my podcasts and have hyperlinked the various terms in the index to corresponding Wikipedia entries. 

I was tentative at first; after all, I have read the neo-luddite ranting  against the evils of Wikipedia, the unreliability of its wiki-based method of gathering knowledge, and its corrupting influence on the research habits of impressionable students.  I have also troubled myself over the decline in scholarly and expert authority and the rise of a naive homogenized “group-think” of the wiki writing masses.  But then it dawned on me.  History textbooks — particularly for entry level history courses — are crap. 

Like Wikipedia, they are constantly being updated and modified.  Like Wikipedia, they are assembled by a mass of scholars who write and review the text professionally, but bring to bear a wide ranging abilities, intellectual perspectives, and degrees of commitment to the over all goal.  The result is a watery broth of interpretation, overcooked (and not infrequently inaccurate facts), and intellectual bubblegum pop.  (Even iconic textbooks go through so many revisions and tweaks these days that their core message is substantially diluted).  In any event, the quality of the various textbooks that I’ve used over the last few years is such that I tell my students to treat them with a careful and critical eye.  Don’t trust the textbook any more than you trust my lecture.  Be critical.  Question it.

All this and textbooks are incredibly expensive!  Wikipedia is free.  And in a critical environment forms a neat, non-linear foil to the lecture of the podcast.  It also lays bare the editorial process in a way that textbooks hide (in fact, the present discourse about Wikipedia explicitly problematizes the means by which knowledge is produced).  I put up my master index and the links to the podcasts as soon as they are done.  Stay tuned for more.

Categories: Teaching
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