Does The 'Neutral Point Of View' Make Wikipedia Boring?

from the bad-example dept

A couple of weeks ago, Mark Bauerlein wrote an interesting piece about Wikipedia’s stylistic mediocrity, and the way this mediocrity is bleeding into his students’ writing. Using the example of articles about Moby Dick, Bauerlein suggests that traditional professionally-authored encyclopedias tend to be written in a punchier, more engaging style. The JOHO blog responds with a couple of interesting points. It suggests that Wikipedia’s policy of describing things from a neutral point of view might wind up making them less compelling reading. Indeed, a crucial part of good writing is knowing what to leave out, and that’s hard to accomplish when you’re trying to present all sides of a subject in a neutral manner. Still, the JOHO blog points out that when you look at the Wikipedia article’s section on Captain Ahab — as opposed to the introductory passage — the difference with professionally-edited works isn’t as stark as Bauerlein suggests. It’s uneven and could certainly use some help from a professional editor, but it presents the essential information in a coherent and engaging fashion.

In any event, the fundamental lesson here is that teachers should be explicitly teaching their students how to use Wikipedia correctly. Wikipedia isn’t a role model for good writing, nor should it be cited as an authoritative source. But it’s an incredibly useful source if used correctly — as a starting point for learning about a new topic and finding pointers to more authoritative sources on that topic. The Wikipedia editing process is optimized for these purposes, focusing on breadth and timeliness more than perfect accuracy or style. I think one good way to help teach this point would be for professors to edit Wikipedia articles on overhead projectors in front of their classes. This would provide some real-world examples of mediocre style to critique and improve in an interactive fashion. It would also give students a clear sense of how Wikipedia works, which is the first step to understanding how to use it well. People are much less likely to take Wikipedia as gospel after seeing their professors change it. And of course, it would help improve Wikipedia for everyone else; if the idea caught on, it might be only a few years before professors started having problems finding articles that still needed improving.

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Comments on “Does The 'Neutral Point Of View' Make Wikipedia Boring?”

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11 Comments
Prof. Matt says:

Not unique to Wikipedia

I am shocked, shocked to learn of allegations of stylistic mediocrity in academic writing.

Bauerlein’s pinning this on Wikipedia ignores the fact that the ‘neutral point of view as a value’ comes from academia originally. Students may rely on Wikipedia as a source, but they are far more influenced by the perception that taking a stand or having a distinctive style will only lead to pain and humiliation. That idea is reinforced throughout society, in educational contexts and elsewhere. What sort of writing do you think succeeds best on the writing portion of the SAT? Original, risk-taking, improvisational writing? Perhaps you also believe the ‘5 paragraph’ format makes for scintillating reading? In my opinion, a great educator asks ‘how can I give my students more, teach better, be better’ — he or she does not spend a lot of time pointing fingers at and bemoaning the state of the world. Writing for television is often bad. Commercial writing is often bad. We influence this one student at a time, not by blaming Wikipedia.

Good for you for noting that the difference between Wikipedia and other cyclopedic references is less distinct that many pundits and professors would have us believe. The notion that professors should actually teach students to do what they hope they do, should demonstrate, is also an inspired one. There are people doing these things right now. Wikipedia is a must-discuss subject for all first year college students.

Anonymous Coward says:

Is Wikipedia (or any other information source for that matter) supposed to be punchy and engaging? What happened to direct, factual and informative? It’s not a novel or even commentary (although many of the articles veer into commentary). I don’t really need compelling writing about the Battle of Jutland; I need a concise and accurate details with links/references to further sources.

JoeTrumpet says:

Punchier...?

First of all, I don’t know why anyone would want an encyclopedia to be “punchier”: I’m not reading an academic essay, a fiction novel, or some other work of literature. I’m reading an encyclopedia: I want the facts presented directly. After I absorb the facts, I’ll go ahead and write my own “punchy” position paper. This is really a silly suggestion. The beauty of literature and opinion is that many people all use the same facts to arrive at different conclusions. We don’t need the bare facts, which is what an encyclopedia should present (we have quite a few other formats to present it otherwise), to be preconstrued into opinion for us.

Second of all, how in the world would a democratic non-neutral website ever work out? That’s ridiculous. There really isn’t much more to it than that. It’s fundamentally flawed.

I think someone needs to step back from the adrenaline-pumped, high stress mainstream world and realize that academia and knowledge should be approached differently. Not everything needs to be exciting and action-packed. If the content can’t hold your attention on its own merits that doesn’t mean you need to go out and try to make it “more interesting.” It’s just not interesting to you, though it may be to someone else. Let it be.

Abdul Koroma says:

"The Truthiness About Wikipeia!!!

It’s true that most students don’t know how wikipedia works and as such are treating it with undiue reverence. It’s time to tell students on how wikipedia works so that they will know to what limit they can go in using it. Wikipedia is certainly here to stay and i don’t see it’s changing its present operational mode and as such users should be adequately equip on how to use it as Andrew Keen pointed out in this blog post: The Truthiness About Wikipedia (http://www.internetevolution.com/author.asp?section_id=556&doc_id=154805&F_src=flftwo)

Charming Charlie says:

I think one good way to help teach this point would be for professors to edit Wikipedia articles on overhead projectors in front of their classes. It would give students a clear sense of how Wikipedia works, which is the first step to understanding how to use it well. People are much less likely to take Wikipedia as gospel after seeing their professors change it. And of course, it would help improve Wikipedia for everyone else; if the idea caught on, it might be only a few years before professors started having problems finding articles that still needed improving.

This is a fantastic idea, though I suspect the majority of professors are so bitter about Wikipedia they would rather help sink the ship than sail it.

Melted Metal Web Radio (user link) says:

Students: Learn Wikipedia Before Learning Anything Else!

This is the dumbest concept of an Internet property yet. Essentially, this is a ‘search engine’ that is edited and moderated by a bunch of single-minded academic numbskulls. This is not the place to speak about breaking ground, or building real life learning tools for your children.

Imagine that: Being forced to learn the narrow-minded perspectives of the internal Wikipedia culture and policies, before you can effectively use the engine!

Bill Wilkins, CEO
Melted Metal Web Radio
http://www.meltedmetal.com/

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