Professors Split on Wiki Debate

Despite questions about its accuracy and criticism on other college campuses, some Harvard professors and teaching fellows have incorporated Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia, into their syllabi.

“I believe Wikipedia is an excellent resource because of how low-cost it makes the process of looking for information,” wrote economics graduate student Reinier A. Schliesser in an e-mail. “When I was looking for readily available materials for our discussion-focused class, I found some of the articles in Wikipedia quite useful.”

Schliesser, who teaches the sophomore economics tutorial, “Economic Development: Theory and Empirics from a Macro Perspective,” includes a Wikipedia article on his syllabus, and last semester, students in Psychology 1, “Introduction to Psychology,” were given the task of creating Wikipedia entries.

Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy Shaye J.D. Cohen requires his students to read nine Wikipedia entries for his Literature and Arts C-70, “From the Hebrew Bible to Judaism, From the Old Testament to Christianity,” class.

“Students know Wikipedia, and know where and how to find it,” Cohen, who is also the director of the Center for Jewish Studies, wrote in an e-mail. “Therefore I hope there is a high likelihood that they will actually do the assignment.”

Emily C. Milam ’10, a student in Cohen’s class, said the idea of incorporating Wikipedia entries sounded appealing.

“I think it’s helpful,” she said, “I’m totally okay with Wikipedia.”

But not everyone is singing Wikipedia’s praises.

Earlier this month, Middlebury College’s history department banned the use of Wikipedia as a source for papers and exams after a number of students referenced the same inaccurate Wikipedia article in an exam.

“Wikipedia is good for providing overviews of noncontroversial and broad topics, but not good for news, commentary, or anything with polarized opinions,” wrote Harvard teaching fellow Abdur-Rahim Syed in an e-mail. Syed, who teaches the sophomore tutorial, “Economics of Hegemony: Rome, Britain, and America,” also includes Wikipedia articles in his syllabus.

Cohen said that he reviewed Wikipedia articles before assigning them.

“The articles in question seem fine,” he said, although he admitted that he “did not realize that Wikipedia entries are ‘unstable,’ and perhaps I should re-look at the entries from time to time.”

While Cohen said he was unsure whether Harvard should copy Middlebury’s ban on Wikipedia, he acknowledged that it was important to treat Wikipedia skeptically.

“Wikipedia represents all that is great and all that is dangerous about the Internet,” Cohen said, “It is incredibly powerful and readily available, and yet can mislead the unwary and spread disinformation. One hopes that a good undergraduate education will enable students to assess what they are reading.”