“Impact of Digital History on Historians and on the Practice of History” Articles

The first article I chose to read was “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience (2012 revision)” by Martha Saxton. I went into the article expecting Saxton to cite a lack of articles on women’s history; the field is still in its beginning stages of overcoming the “great man” narrative. But I was still shocked by just how extreme the lack was, and remains to be.

This shock, however, didn’t compare to what I felt while Saxton described the resistance students felt when trying to rectify Wikipedia’s male-dominated narratives. As Wikipedia continues to plead its allegiance to accurate, real information, how could its editors justify leaving out the contributions of an entire group of people? One example Saxton used mentioned an editor not wanting to include the role of women in the history of eugenics, as it revealed a relationship with the “dark pseudoscience.” The popularity of eugenics is a shameful chapter in the world’s history. Its narrative is male dominated as the sciences were, and still are. But ignoring the reality that some eugenicists were females does no service to the gender. Only painting women as victims doesn’t help either.

As the role of females throughout history is significant and often overlooked, I do recognize the importance of separating some articles on women’s history. But that does not excuse leaving facts out of a comprehensive narrative where they belong.

After reading an article on a specific part of Wikipedia, I chose to next read a more macro overview of the encyclopedia’s relevancy to the discipline. For this, I chose Christopher Miller’s “Strange Facts in the History Classroom: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Wiki(pedia).”

Miller’s piece is based around getting his students to analyze the merits of Wikipedia as a case study of the creation of history. His description of the birth and death of his plan is engaging, but hindered by age.

One of the main issues with Miller’s lesson plan was that, in 2006, few of his students even knew about Wikipedia. In 2015, this sounds unbelievable. While Miller also pointed out that many of his first year students couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of history extending beyond facts, I think that the biggest problem was this initial lack of context for the assignment. Today, with most college students acutely aware of Wikipedia’s existence and how it functions, Miller’s class would run quite differently. Still, Miller’s piece had one key point of relevance: a critique of encyclopedias.

Prior to reading this, I had never thought about why I don’t use encyclopedias as sources in my academic writing. I have never been told not to use one, I’ve just never tried; consistently I’ve had enough additional primary and secondary sources available to avoid turning to encyclopedias. Now that I think about it, I understand why, as a researcher, using an encyclopedia is a bit lazy. I wasn’t aware of the fact that encyclopedias as a whole, not just Wikipedia, have a reputation for inaccuracy. I would think that a crowd-sourced encyclopedia would be more accurate. But as evidenced by the previous article, that isn’t necessarily the case. To what extent can crowds neutralize the prejudices, biases, and opinions that everyone has? Does this make Wikipedia potentially more accurate or just more contentious? This is something that I’ll think about more.

 

 

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