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.