Something Wiki this way comes (NY Times article, February 21)

anne mcknight annekmcknight at
Mon Feb 26 15:25:24 EST 2007


I'm interested in ways that people have successfully managed to use
Wikipedia in the classroom. Japan studies--history, in specific--surfaced as
the most "concerned" party in an article in the NYT this week, that I
imagine many people saw. (The Guardian ran a piece on February 7:,,2006932,00.html)

The NYT story begins:

A History Department Bans Citing Wikipedia as a Research Source
Published: February 21, 2007
When half a dozen students in Neil Waters's Japanese history class at
> Middlebury College asserted on exams that the Jesuits supported the
> Shimabara Rebellion in 17th-century Japan, he knew something was wrong. The
> Jesuits were in "no position to aid a revolution," he said; the few of them
> in Japan were in hiding.

He figured out the problem soon enough. The obscure, though incorrect,
> information was from Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia, and
> the students had picked it up cramming for his exam....(

It's true that there is a lot of dud information on Wiki. Many of the Japan
entries in English are a shambles of contradiction, infinite loops of the
same cut-and-pastes, unattributed paraphrase of opinion presented as an
empirical claim, etc. And there are what one might consider to be
fundamental anachronisms, if not flaws, in the basic way of organising
information: the chronology, and nineteenth-century narrative. This consists
of: geohistory-->population history-->cultural history that organised
Hippolyte Taine's History of English Literature (among many other
historically oriented works), which in turn was institutionalised in Meiji
Japan, and also organises the CIA Fact Book, not necessarily the
user-friendly archive that most open source advocates would like to
affiliate with. Moreover, the nineteenth-century purist models of national
cinema and national language are amplified are reproduced yet again in this
21st medium, in the national "versioning" of Wiki oeuvres. Lately, I have
been following some very interesting discussions on how Dutch words have not
been allowed in "English-language" blog entries because of this "national
language" policy. (This policy seems, while well-intended for purposes of
inclusion, to actually have the effect of creating an English-only space
which to me resonates uncomfortably with certain immigration policies afoot
in the US, perhaps elsewhere in the English-speaking world.)

However, I have seen some very good articles by scientists on Wiki, that
manage to take on conceptual issues and paradigm shifts in knowledge by
using that very same format, the chronology. See "plate tectonics," for
example (
). The difference seems to be that the chronology was generated by a
controversy, or an awareness of a shift in how to explain how something
works. Thus a narrative is enabled, in a way that is rare to see, even in
writing about culture and humanities.

An example of the humanities/culture writing that crystallises the
anachronistic "chronology/destiny" school of writing is the entry on
Lafcadio Hearn (

In contrast, the entry on Uchida Kûichi is one example of the
"chronology/destiny" school that is extremely well-researched, contains
multiple sources from different fields (history of photography in books,
magazines and journals, books of photography, on-line sources, etc.). It is
something of a compromise position, in that it maintains the numbing
narrative structure that has long dogged literary studies, of the "what
color was Soseki's dog" variety. Here, it means a narrative organised
according to birthplace, apprenticeship, names and dates of Uchida's various
peripatetic movements, other media forms about him, and cause of death, etc..
It does, however, interpret what is significant about Uchida's work--he was
the only photographer allowed to capture the Meiji emperor.

These contexts of debate, precedent and pattern spurred me to ask if people
on the list might have suggestions for models of humanities/culture writing
on Wiki that actually takes advantage of the format/medium to assemble
entries that are rich in both "information" and argument, and link in
significant ways to on-line sources. How can creative writing and editing be
brought into line with, and on line with, responsible historiography? How
can the hybrid properties of Wiki be exploited to make it contemporary,
rather than an extension of the long 19th century?

I'd be interested in any links, strategies, models, contexts for other
debates and "national" Wikis, etc. And, of course, corrections, or
references to other stages of the process (editing, establishing styles,
etc) that I did not mention. Thanks for any leads!

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