I had the pleasure this quarter of working with Professor Mark Moritz and his Anthropology 620 class. Dr. Moritz centered his class writing assignments on producing a wiki on the topic of the class, which was hunter-gatherer societies. I came into the class twice, and I’ll divide my comments for each session into two posts. The first session addressed how wikis might fit into disciplinary attitudes toward writing and knowledge production.
I began by having students read Roy Rosenzweig’s essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past” (sadly, I later learned Dr. Rosenzweig had passed away that morning). In this essay, Rosenzweig argues that professional historians should consider contributing to Wikipedia to make its historical resources stronger; in the process, he recognizes the significantly different attitudes historians and Wikipedians have toward writing and research, and suggests how historians would need to adjust their thinking about their work to participate in the world’s largest encyclopedia.
I asked students to examine the article as an artifact of a meeting between two different cultures (what Mary Louise Pratt calls a “contact zone”). In particular, I asked them to look at the different attitudes toward writing, authorship, and knowledge that Rosenzweig describes between academic historians and Wikipedians. We generated the following list, and then talked about the points of conflict and potential convergence.
The conflicts between these two lists are pretty clear: original research vs. encyclopedic consensus, strong POV vs. neutral POV, attributive vs. non-attributive scholarship. As central as these conflicts are, there are some points of convergence: comprehensiveness (though of a rather different kind), accuracy of facts (some may scoff at Wikipedia for this, but, as Rosenzweig points out, the Wikipedian community has a pretty good track record for correcting mistakes–they can, after all, be immediately be corrected). Historians looking to contribute to Wikipedia would have to think very carefully about how some of their values about authorship and knowledge might have to be negotiated, or they might consider setting up another wiki or wiki-like system that reflects their values better than Wikipedia (they might, for example, take interest in Wikipedia founder–and OSU Ph.D. grad–Larry Sanger’s current project, Citizendium).
From here, I asked the students to identify the attitudes that anthropologists hold toward writing, authorship, and knowledge, leading to a discussion about how their wiki would manifest those values.
Anthropologists are perhaps more open to collaborative authorship than historians, though there are additional issues in tension with Wikipedia that historians don’t often have to consider, such as how research represents its living human subjects.
This discussion laid out important issues that Dr. Moritz’s students needed to consider as they prepared to contribute articles to their wiki. The values that they considered important to anthropological writing and research help them make their wiki as useful and reliable as possible for their audience; at the same time, the particular affordances and constraints of wikis would require them to negotiate some of these values in particular ways.
This discussion came into play in fascinating ways during our next session, where the class began to lay out the style manual for their wiki. Stay tuned for a summary of this discussion in the next post!