Intersections: History and New Media

Wiki in the History Classroom

Kevin B. Sheets, May 2009

In their book, Telling the Truth about History, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob point toward a future of history as a democratic practice. Eschewing the intellectual cul-de-sac of postmodernism which threatened to erode confidence in truth, they argue that truth-telling requires “collective effort.” They speak of history’s future as secure so long as it functions within a “revitalized public” acting within a “pluralistic democracy with protected dissent.” Essentially, the “new republic of learning” they envision models a marketplace where ideas are contested, scrutinized, evaluated, ultimately challenged, and modified. This civic conversation about the past, they suggest, inches us closer to the truth of history, a truth that satisfies until the next source emerges, a new question gets asked and a new debate engages our attention. Their pragmatic approach to history’s truth privileges debate, among equals in a free and open forum, as the centerpiece of our professional lives.1

New Republic for History

This same forum for exchange should be at the center of our student’s work in history too. Too many of our students continue to come to us having been taught that history requires memorizing some single narrative of our past experiences. Even many history majors plead for “the answer” knowing that an examination looms in the not too distant future. Too few of our students appreciate the contested nature of historians’ work. Partly we are to blame. Each time we “profess” from the lectern without inviting our students into our own struggles to make sense of conflicting evidence and contrary interpretations, we perpetuate a myth that history is a single narrative that we know, and they must learn.

I teach a major-required course in historical methods and have struggled to find ways to cast history as a conversation among scholars arguing about evidence. Recently, I have thought about the wiki as a potential opportunity. Like many of my history colleagues, I avoided the only wiki I knew. The litany of Wikipedia’s deficiencies is enough to scare away most historians. We rebel at the idea that any one with a computer and a link to the web can edit (and vandalize) entries, rewriting the American Revolution so that the British win for instance. Historians like sources but the anonymity of authors, indeed Wikipedia’s eschewing of expertise, rubs us wrong.

Nevertheless, the late Roy Rosenzweig’s helpful Journal of American History article analyzing Wikipedia began to melt my resistance. In his analysis, Rosenzweig discovered that Wikipedia’s accuracy in the history-related articles he studied compared favorably with many of the standard print references to which historians contribute and use. That said, he offers an important point that we should emphasize with our students as we caution them in their use of Wikipedia: the historian’s perspective, gained from years of study, helps us appreciate the significance of events, personalities, and ideas because those scholars understand context.2

The CortlandWiki

Rosenzweig’s article encouraged me to consider the teaching possibilities of wiki technology. In a recent semester, I created a project for my historical methods students that aimed to help them sharpen primary source research skills and engage in a broader discussion of history-making. I called the project “CortlandWiki” after the community in upstate New York where we live and teach. Students were assigned to one of three groups based on different time periods in Cortland’s history: The Gilded Age, Great Depression, and World War II. Within these groups, each student researched and wrote a conventional eight- to ten-page paper on one of a variety of topics: the role of women, histories of leisure activities, studies of the college and other community institutions, business history, and analyses of agriculture and economics to name a few. Students canvassed the local archives, including the Cortland County Historical Society, the 1890 House (a Victorian-era historic house museum) and public records in the county clerk’s office. Students gained experience working with census materials, tax lists, deeds, photograph collections, artifacts, and the vast newspaper clipping files at the historical society.

Creating a Wiki for the History Class

The next step in the assignment was to invite students to share their work as part of a group-authored history of Cortland. To accomplish this, I created a wiki using one of the many free wiki sites available on the web. The one I used is wikispaces.3 This site allows users to create public (free), protected (free), or private (fee) sites and gives a level of control over the use of the wiki that I like. I wanted a site that only my students would be using, so I created a protected wiki and invited my students to join. This was accomplished easily by sending each of them an e-mail from the wikispaces site.

There is some behind-the-scenes work an instructor must do to get the wiki ready for students to use. Depending on how complex you want to the project to be, you could spend many hours, or a few minutes, creating your site. I was modest. I merely wrote a few words of welcome and instruction on the Cortlandwiki homepage. Then I created three additional pages, one for each of the three groups of students who were researching and writing about different periods in our community’s history. Students were permitted to edit the text on these pages. On a final page, I included instructions for the final writing assignment, an analysis of the wiki project. I turned off editing privileges on this page so that students were not tempted to “edit” the due date and give themselves additional time.

The CortlandWiki at Work

Once the structure of the site was in place, I asked one student from each of the three groups to get us going. I began each entry in a similar way: “Cortland during the Gilded Age was….” My student volunteer finished the paragraph using what she knew from her own research. If she had researched one of the prominent families from Cortland’s industrial past, her sentence might have emphasized the positive aspects of life during the Gilded Age. Other students, whose research investigated different aspects of the period, responded by adding, modifying, or deleting elements of her initial post.

This joint-authoring went on for a period of two weeks. Students added facts and interpretations from their own research. They deleted or modified statements with which they disagreed. In one instance, an enterprising student completely restructured the entry by adding subheadings, changing paragraphs and reorganizing the body of text. In some cases, the final articles only dimly resembled those initial paragraphs. In other instances, that first student’s work set the tone and structure of the article and her voice and narrative survived and gave shape to others’ contributions.

Making the Wiki Work

An oft-heard objection to the wiki concerns vandalism. Because of the open nature of the technology, a person has the ability to delete or otherwise corrupt passages. However, the protected site I created meant that only my students were members. Each change is also linked to a user so the instructor can easily identify the person making changes. Moreover, the creator of the site always has the ability to restore the wiki to any point in its history. If for example, someone deleted an entire entry, the creator of the site could easily restore the wiki to the moment before the vandal tampered with the content. Historians will like this feature: the wiki keeps a history of every change made to the site. The user can go back in history and see at every step how the site changed.

I wanted to ensure that all students participated in the creation of this joint-authored history. Wikispaces enables instructors to evaluate the participation of individual students by keeping usage data on all members. Using the Manage Wiki link, an instructor can see how many times an individual student has edited a page. From any page, an instructor can click on the “history” link and see which students made which edits. One can also compare entries before and after an edit to see specific changes in the entry.

Another feature, which I did not use with this group of students, is the discussion link. This feature enables students to carry on a conversation about a particular page without cluttering the page itself. A student might, for instance, make a series of changes to a page, then describe why she made those changes on its related discussion page. I came to appreciate the value of this feature too late in the assignment but next time I will use it. I will also set a word limit to each entry. This will prevent students from simply adding to the entry. If an entry is limited to 500 words, for instance, students must make careful decisions about what they should eliminate to make room for their particular contribution.

Assessing the Wiki

Students did not agree on the merits of the wiki. Some were deeply offended when other students eliminated or modified their contributions. Others found the chance to pick apart other’s words and conclusions exhilarating. Regardless, most students seemed to grasp the important lesson I hoped to share: that history is the conversation we have about the past. History is about the authorial choices scholars make. History is about the evidence included and the evidence excluded. By asking students to participate in a joint-writing exercise, they were compelled to pay attention to the language others used, the phrasings and structure employed, the anecdotes emphasized, the facts obscured. I told them the story of an undergraduate English professor I had who spent an entire class session discussing why Shakespeare began Macbeth with the word “when”. Words matter. Words shape arguments. They determine meaning, and they form our view of the world around us, including our view of the history of the world around us. Students also came to appreciate that history was not a bag of facts we historians force them to memorize. Instead, as Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob suggest, history is the product of that collective effort of truth seeking.

I still caution students about using Wikipedia. But I think the wiki can help our students see themselves as part of that democratic conversation so important to our profession. Throwing their ideas into the ring for others to challenge forces students to defend their ideas, modify their conclusions, and reconsider their assumptions. The wiki, while not perfect, may help us change the way our students think about history. It may help them be more attentive to language and argument. Importantly, it may help them value civil discourse as a civic virtue. These are good lessons for history students and for their professors.

—Kevin B. Sheets is associate professor of history at the State University of New York, College at Cortland and project director of the “American Dream Project,” a Teaching American History grant-based project in upstate New York. He regularly teaches courses in historical methods and American intellectual and cultural history.

Notes

1. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth about History (New York: Norton, 1994), 309, chapter 8 passim.

2. Roy Rosenzweig, “Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Journal of American History 93 (June 2006), 117–146.

3. Go to www.wikispaces.com. To create a wiki, simply enter in a username and password of your choosing and your e-mail address and click “Get Started”. There are a number of tutorials available on the site to help you take advantage of its many features.