Wikipedia Assignment Provocation

In its “Orientation for New Instructors,” Wikipedia claims that it strives to present its articles from a “neutral point of view,” which is defined as “representing significant views fairly, proportionately and without bias.” From a pedagogical perspective, the guide adds that “Wikipedia’s neutral point of view policy is a great way to cultivate critical reading and evaluation skills… Instructors often find it helpful to encourage students to analyze the choices they make about weight, reliability, and their own ideas of neutrality.”

By contrast, the Orientation for New Instructors discusses the “[Be] Bold, Revert, Discuss cycle” as “one good way to think about the consensus editing process.” Specifically, before reaching a consensus through negotiation, the Wikipedian is advised to be bold; specifically, “if you think you can make an article better, but you aren’t sure whether others will disagree with the changes you want to make, you should start by boldly editing as you think best.” Here I would like to briefly explore some effects of this (perhaps paradoxical, at the very least not self-obvious) claim to ‘neutral boldness’ in terms of the missions of Wikipedia to expand access to knowledge.

First, to what degree does the ethos of the “bold, revert, discuss cycle” mirror the tech startup development mantra of lean/agile development and ‘fail fast’? It reminds me of Sheryl Sandberg’s ideas in Lean In, cited by David Brooks in his article “The Practical University” (which outlines ‘soft skills’ such as “the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t”). What social and moral values does this process itself encode? As the Wikipedia training puts it, this seems like a permutation of the idea of talk and political action in the ancient Greek model of the democratic polis: citizens engage in debate, and in so doing ascend to a higher plane of personal and collective good by putting their personal needs to one side; as Ryan McGrady writes in the pamphlet on “Wikipedia and the Production of Knowledge,” “editors receive credit and recognition not for new scholarly ideas, but for their procedural expertise, discursive skills which propel collaboration, and their efforts working toward a common good.”

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One thought on “Wikipedia Assignment Provocation

  1. A provocative post, Anders. To add one further detail to the topic of exploitation of free labor: there is a current debate as to whether it is ethical to have classes develop Wikipedia articles for a grade; thus, several of us have specific guidelines to allow our students choose their level of participation in terms of publishing. The issue stands, nevertheless.

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