Thursday, January 17, 2008

Wikipedia regnant?

I'm always happy to receive my latest copy of Studies in the Age of Chaucer. I had been anticipating volume 29 ever since the NCS in NYC of 2006. I've wanted to spend some time with the written version of two lectures, David Wallace's Presidential Address ("New Chaucer Topographies") and Susan Crane's Biennial Chaucer Lecture ("For the Birds"). The thick volume arrived yesterday and I immediately flipped to Wallace's essay. Let me share with you today my surprise about its footnotes.

They are copious and authoritative, just as SAC demands. But these are not the footnotes of a SAC article c.2005, or 1995, or 1985: Wallace's footnotes ought to be hyperlinked. They contain what might be the first citation of a blog in the journal (footnote 5 reads simply "http://houseoffame.blogspot.com") -- though, I hasten to add, only as a way of not speaking about blogs. The footnoted sentence in the main text reads "In speaking of new Chaucer topographies, I bypass the Chaucer blogger (whoever you are: some say a Langlandian ABD)." This just after an observation about how the World Wide Web keeps us "continually connected." Alas, poor Chaucer blog [and your nonLanglandian nonABD author], you are discarded for a starting point at Peter Ackroyd.

The footnotes demonstrate just how plugged in David Wallace is ... not surprising, since David Wallace has impressed me since I met him as a graduate student in 1990 as someone who simply knows everything about everything and can express it in an inimitable fashion. The Guardian is cited by its URL, not via its print version (footnote 14). A definition of Gotham City is pulled from the Superman Homepage (footnote 12). The essay's first footnote even references the officially published responses to the NCS conference at which the lecture was delivered. The Canterbury Tales "Medieval Misadventures" attraction gets a literary nod via a Sylvia Plath reference ("feauturing grotesquely animated puppets, [it] opens (to amend Sylvia Plath) with horsepiss in darkness," 7) and a footnote sending readers to the attraction's webpage. Baba Brinkman's Rap Canterbury Tales likewise sees its website published in the footnotes, and even Jody Foster rapping Eminem at U Penn's commencement receives a dutiful link (footnote 22).

To which I say: yahoo. And also, bravo. Scholarly publishing ought to be forthright in acknowledging that information arrives from many venues, and that the internet has altered how we conduct much of our research. I am very happy to see those URLs proliferate, even as they make me wonder about the future of publishing hard copy journals.

What surprised me, though, was the presence of an entity which has until now been one I warn my students in dire terms to flee: Wikipedia. Wallace defines vogueing by quoting the Wikipedia entry in footnote 9. Wikipedia being Wikipedia, someone has already changed the entry, so it no longer quite coincides with his quotation (the substance remains the same, but the Madonna element has been downplayed by an anonymous redactor with some small animus against her). Wikipedia resurfaces in footnote 24, to source a biography of Darcus Howe given in the main text (footnote 24 is in fact the last reference to internet materials; footnotes 25-45 often invoke conferences and performances, however, stressing the vitality of the essay's subject).

Part of what spurred this post is that more scholarly, less ephemeral references -- e.g. to voguing -- can be found elsewhere. But am I simply worried about the erosion of my own scholarly authority? Is it possible that I need to rethink the Wikipedia warning I put on my research paper instructions? Is Wikipedia still what I thought it was: a plethora of vanity pages, lightly researched facts, and eccentric information sprinkled with some good entries that are nonetheless susceptible to constant mischief, all of it frosted with a deceptively bright layer of supposed fact checking, group correction, and peer review? How did Wikipedia bust into SAC? Or am I waaaay behind the times here? I am curious to hear from ITM readers: where do you stand on Wikipedia?


15 comments:

Liza said...

I'm a fan of Wikipedia, but usually for the very first stages of research. I'd probably not cite it (and haven't yet) for the same reason I wouldn't cite the Encyclopedia Brittanica: it often helps lay the groundwork for new projects, after which I hunt down books referenced etc. Wikipedia has a couple added advantages to your average encyclopedia, too: for some of my quirkier projects it was incredibly informative (JJC, you may have an idea of which ones I mean), and the hyperlinking and random page generator are wonderful for producing the randomness of research (in the same way as looking up a book in a library then, while you're at it, looking to see which book your book spends all day staring at in the shelf across as well). The early Warburg library also operated by a system of controlled randomness, if I remember correctly ...

In terms of citing, though, I'd be wary to cite for facts, for the reason you give: the mutability of the pages gives ample opportunity for up-to-the-minute additions, etc, but also makes a stable text to cite problematic. Makes a neat little parallel to medieval and Renaissance textual citation, doesn't it? I don't know if medievalists have uneditors, but Random Cloud could probably have a field day over Wikipedia (at least the texts he insists on preserving in all their individual quirkinesses are in hard copy ...).

David Gerard said...

To cite a particular revision of a Wikipedia page, link to the permanent page address - e.g. to get the current version of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Chaucer , go to the 'Permanent link' link in the sidebar and you'll see it's http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Geoffrey_Chaucer&oldid=184555117 as I write this.

Karl Steel said...

Well....I tell my students that any generalist encyclopedia is not a bad place to start, that I've edited certain articles (last sentence), but that no article from a generalist encylopedia 'counts' for their research papers (where I demand that they, for example, engage with at least one source, and cite 3 more). Why? Because ultimately I think I'm trying less to teach them about a particular subject and more about an approach to a particular subject or discipline. Writing in the humanities means learning to use resources UNIQUE to the humanities that they would not have known about had they not taken my class.

Citing the Wikipedia, the Britannica, Encarta (note that I make no distinction between them) is a sign of a lazy student, a sign that the student hasn't tried to learn to do research in the way I want it to be done. A typical example here is the student who, in writing about Gowther relied heavily on the article on Cambions. This led inevitably to all kinds of embarrassing, grade-killing readings that the student could have avoided had s/he followed my instructions and, you know, read the text carefully.

I don't think this is just tautological; I think that their chances of learning deeply about a subject, of getting more than a superficial sense of controversies, is not going to be satisfied by reading the several hundred words that Wikipedia has on each subject (e.g., a student using only the Wikip for the documentary hypothesis is simply going to read much less than a student who uses this page to start moving towards reading detailed, up-to-date specialist sources).

Does this mean that Wallace is a lazy student in re: Voguing? Maybe....

Eileen Joy said...

"susceptible to constant mischief" is the key phrase in Jeffrey's post, in my mind. I do not allow my students to use Wikipedia as a reference source in a research paper, but I'm happy for them to consult particular entries [to which I sometimes steer them] for some basic information that *might* be accurate, but only with the caveat that everything on Wikipedia *has* to be fact-checked through other means for the simple reason that it's completely open to intervention by anybody at any time. [More useful, I tell my students, are the citations to scholarly sources that the Wikipedia reference lists often provide.] Quite obviously, there are some very good Wikipedia entries written by serious scholars or persons with reliable knowledge, but their entries can be altered and changed at a moment's notice. I *have* heard through the grapevine that the powers-that-be at Wikipedia are considering the establishment of some editorial boards for this very reason, and there are avenues available at present for addressing issues of, say, defamation of character.

There's a great (and kind of scary) series of advertisements that Cisco has been running tag-lined "Welcome to the Human Network." One of their more recent magazine ads shows a ten- or eleven-year-old girl wearing a backpack and waiting for a subway train and the text says something to the effect of, "you can't tell by looking, but she's a 'scholar,' thanks to the power of the human network." [And I don't think this ad is a little scary because I am worried about ten-year-olds taking my job--haha--but because companies like Cisco don't care at all about "human connection," or even "truth," only human money and controlling the flow of most of the information, again, for money].

When the Internet first came on the scene, it was widely hailed as a harbinger of the "democratization" of information and as an "engine" for new types of grass-roots/global organizing that could lead to powerful coalitions of persons committed to progressive political change. MoveOn.org, for all of its technological and political savvy, could not stop Bush from being re-elected, and part of the force behind his re-election was all of the DIS-information against his opponents and on the important issues that spread like wildfire through cable tv channels, the internet, etc. More media = more ways to disseminate anything you want, coupled with almost insurmountable obstacles as regards the oversight and fact-checking of such dissemination of information. [The hugely popular gossip websites Defamer and Gawker are great examples of this, and there's a great essay on this very subject related to Gawker in the current issue of n+1].

I don't think we should kid ourselves, though, about the end of hard-copy and traditional scholarly publishing. That is just a matter of time, and I actually embrace the panglossic immediacy of scholarly debate and discussion that weblogs afford, which at least, through archiving, specific author names, posts with citations, etc., can be in some cases considered scholarly or "serious." It is my own personal goal to have a new online journal [in premodern studies] up and running by next year, but just because a scholarly journal is available online does not diminish the serious professional and academic ethics with which it should be written and published, but it *does* mean that that journal can go more places to more people and in more flexible, multimedia formats that allow for authors and readers to virtually engage "in the moment" of publication. That is a good thing, I think: academics definitely need to "go online" if they want to have any hope of having an audience in the future, but Wikipedia is a different matter altogether. At the same time, let's not kid ourselves that everything that calls itself a scholarly article or scholarly monograph, etc. is always of high quality, but there *are* more hurdles to go through than with a site like Wikipedia. But I think this is a good moment, too, to reflect on the fact that there might be TOO much gate-keeping in academic publishing, to the ultimate detriment of all sorts of interesting work that just never gets its "day" in print. I see online publishing as a great, wild hope for the future of what I would call "outside the box" and "off the [traditional] walls" academic publishing.

Brandon H. said...

I generally agree with the arguments already stated in the comments about Wikipedia. As Liza said, and as Karl termed it, the site is a good place for starting points, quick reference, and handy material in a "generalist encyclopedia" manner. Yet there are also the problems that make us all wary about, best summed up by Eileen.

Whenever I ponder Wikipedia and other "democratizations" of information, I can't help but think of the books The World Is Flat by Thomas Friedman and The Moment of Complexity by Mark Taylor (of which I've only read bits of each). As Eileen points out, there is a very interesting movement of network culture in bringing so much information ("intelligence"?) together to people who couldn't get to it before--but also the compounding problems.

Wikipedia? In my mind, t's a Janus figure, really: two-faced, holding both benefits and problems that need to be seriously considered before taking it too lightly.

Anonymous said...

A year ago I would have been as surprized as JJC by this. But reading South Atlantic Quarterly's special issue on "Late Derrida" last summer I came across an article by no less eminent a figure and no less brilliant a reader as J.Hillis Miller (yes Hillis Miller) relying (yes relying) on Wikipedia for an argument about Butler, performance, and performativity.

MOR.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

SAC is the only journal I receive that is clothbound with a stitched binding, a book that will probably last centuries. There is something that is sweetly old fashioned about such a thing, and it reminds me that I am bibliophile as well as a textophile -- that is, it reminds me of the sensuous experience of reading and the pleasures a beautiful book brings.

Wikipedia is just the opposite: it's an expedient way to get some quick information, but it is also forgettable and nonenduring. It also contains some fairly reprehensible stuff. And let's not forget that for all the talk of an editorial board and vetting, it is also an entity that had one of its expert university professors revealed to be an non-degree holding impostor (Ryan Jordan). Of course, that revelation doesn't alter the fact that much of what Jordan wrote was apparently quite smart, despite his not possessing a PhD in theology and canon law as he claimed.

The comments on this post capture well the ambivalence we feel towards the big W ... an ambivalence that arises in part because we know that scholarly nostalgia isn't going to keep SAC alive in a clothbound deluxe presentation for all that much longer. Publication has moved on.

Karl Steel said...

Don't we look odd, however, for complaining that the big W is too fluid, not sufficiently deep, too rhizomatic, and, well, you can see where I'm going with this question.

That's why I don't count ANY generalist encyclopedia in my calculations on student papers. It keeps me from having to distinguish the W from Encarta, Britannica, or...well, whatever.

Maybe I'll do it this way: just require students to provide, at least in the initial stages, sources discovered through the MLA/Jstor/etc. or through keyword searches in our library catalog, with proof that this is how they found them...at least this approach brings me closest to what I'm claiming to do (disciplinary training)...

Jonathan Hsy said...

I have been eagerly awaiting this edition of SAC since the 2006 conference as well--not only to really "sit down" with and absorb Crane's thoughtful presentation in printed form, but also to follow up on Wallace's lively and admittedly rhizomatic trajectories. I agree with the general sentiment here re: Wikipedia and Liza makes a great point about the fluidity of texts in cyberspace and premodern citation practices. I'm actually inclined to see the proliferation of URLs in the Wallace footnotes very much in the spirit of Chaucer's own work: the potential mutability of citations and moments of apparent randomness here seem to befit a curious medieval writer whose own production was so often experimental and provisional.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

Thanks, Jonathan, for that.

I wouldn't want the big discussion of Wikipedia to obscure the fact that Wallace's essay was innovative. I know I obsessed on the footnotes, but that is because they are very different from anything that has appeared in SAC previously. I liked as well that he felt free to cite talks, lectures and conference papers: performances that are time- and space-bound, ephemeral, and yet that have left an obvious imprint on his work. It was inspirational to see him bringing in some of the influences that typically remain invisible in a SAC essay because unacknowledged.

Liza said...

JJC: perhaps with the loss of the mass distribution of the cloth-bound SAC you can persuade them to carve an issue on stone tablets for you?

I've just read a sci-fi novel called *Bellwether* by Connie Willis (author of the medieval-philic *Doomesday Book* I was telling you about, JJC), which is all about chaos theory and the randomness and chance inherent in scientific discoveries. Ever since I've been optimizing chances for chance to play a role in my research, with some really productive and interesting results!

This relates, vaguely, I think, to Karl's provocative question, but I haven't worked out, yet, how I think randomness relates to rhizomes. Give me about a week to read a few more books on Lucretius and I might have the answer.

Geoffrey Chaucer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Geoffrey Chaucer said...

I kan assure yow that I nam nat rhyzomatic. My physiciens haue examined myn uryne wyth gret care, and they doon assure me that yt is just a normal rash.

Le Vostre
GC

Eileen Joy said...

But dear Geoffrey, I am sorry to report to you that you have officially been diagnosed as "rhizomatic"--at least, in your writing habits--by Lillian Bisson in her book "Chaucer and the Late Medieval World." I hope you will not be offended if I tell you that when I last taught your "Canterbury Tales," my students and I read them as a rhizome-labyrinth. We did not get sick, nor experience vertigo. You will not die from this.

Karl Steel said...

Surely you'd accept 'horizontal affinity groups'? Well, it's a short step, or an imperceptible slide, from there to rhizomatic...