Updated: Aug 29
When I taught high school a little less than a decade ago, we teachers generally regarded Wikipedia as a kind of academic quackery. The site supposedly lured our stressed, overscheduled prep students by allowing them to tap an up-to-date—but intellectually suspect— knowledge base with just a few keystrokes. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched the open-source encyclopedia project in 2001, and its rapidly evolving entries vexed research teachers. We were still teaching the Robert Caro Writing Process, notecards and all.
Caro with his master outline for “The Years of Lyndon Johnson” (Martine Fougeron/Getty for The New York Times)
But Wikipedia, as it turned out, developed its own orthodoxy; its accuracy now rivals traditional online encyclopedias like Britannica. Even so, the site has faced objections regarding its hostility to academic specialists and primary sources, and the apparent bias arising from its masculine editorial culture. Yet the critical response from academia has softened from one of rejection—a tough stance to maintain when a site gets some 500 million visitors a month—to reform. Feminist edit-a-thons, class projects to improve wiki entries, and Harvard’s recent job advertisement for a Wikipedian-in-residence all indicate that scholars have decided to take responsibility for shaping content on the widely read site.
We could take the same initiative with drug and alcohol history resources. And we try: Points compiles a list of approved online resources, and a good amount of our daily traffic is driven by historically motivated Google queries.
If we look at one paradigm for online engagement (interpreted by Bryan Vartabedian of 33 Charts, below), it’s evident that historians are well prepared to sift through large amounts of qualitative material (curate) and produce our own original content (create). But I think we’re less often trained to collaborate, especially in anonymous, participatory, apparently egalitarian contexts like Wikipedia.
“The Ladder of Social Engagement” Most online activity is Observation (Reading/Viewing) and Conversation (Discussions on Twitter, Facebook, etc). Fewer people engage in the Creation or mindful Curation of web original content– even though that content provides most of the fodder for conversation and observation. (via 33charts.com)
Which brings me to Vincent Dole’s Wikipedia page. Dole and his second wife, Marie Nyswander, pioneered methadone maintenance treatment for heroin addiction. The treatment was a breakthrough in national drug policy and is widely credited as a successful public health response to the heroin epidemic of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But it was (and in some places still is) contested and controversial.
Vincent Dole (Lancet obituary, September 16, 2006)
One of those places was Vincent Dole’s Wikipedia page—or the minds of its opinionated primary authors. A friend brought the page to my attention a few months ago; he noticed that every section of the entry had been flagged by Wikipedia’s editors for lacking citations.
An excerpt from Dole’s Wikipedia page, circa last week
The diction was also a bit heated for reference material: the Harrison Narcotics Act ushered in “the saddest chapter of America’s longest war,” according to an earlier version of the entry. “Politicians in the United States have threatened to curtail the measly budget appropriated for addiction treatment as a total percentage of the U.S. yearly budget for the so-called War on Drugs,” concluded the section on Dole’s legacy.
Now that my graduate school angst has lifted, leaving room for a new hobby or two, I decided to experiment with Wikipedia editing. I started small by adding references that supported the section on heroin treatment, and by revising the section on Dole’s legacy with new content and sources. (As of April 24th, 2014, I’d say the page still needs work: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vincent_Dole. Any takers?)
As for me, my relationship to Wikipedia as a teaching resource has continued to evolve since the mid-aughts. Early on, I honestly hoped to steer students away from it. Before long, I changed tactics and concentrated on teaching students to evaluate the entries and verify their footnotes. In the future, I want to place as much emphasis on dissemination, collaboration, and public engagement as I do on the historical research process itself. The students I teach next will go on to be physicians, not PhD historians. But vocal members of the AAMC and AHA now seem to agree: for both types of future doctors, the quackery won’t lie with wiki platforms or the interwebs, but with the educated audiences who allow questionable online information to stand uncorrected.