Wikipedia and the psychologists

Bob Kraut, Rosta Farzan, and Piotr Koniecnzy working the Wikipedia booth

I spent the last several days in D.C. at the annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), along with Wikipedian Piotrus and Wikipedia researchers Rosta Farzan and Bob Kraut, talking to psychology researchers about Wikipedia. We probably talked with 200 people, and almost everyone we talked with was supportive of–if not downright enthusiastic about–trying to improve Wikipedia’s psychology coverage.

Several months ago, with the vocal support of APS President Mahzarin Banaji, the APS launched their “Wikipedia Initiative” to get psychologists into editing Wikipedia. So far, the main thrust has been their APS-WI portal, which aims to give newcomers a clear way into Wikipedia and point them toward articles in their area of interest that need work–and at the same time, systematically test different approaches to getting people involved.

Before the convention, the APS Wikipedia Initiative had recruited 263 psychologists.  68 of them had started editing, with over 400 different articles edited among them. (Now 13 more have signed up, and 10 more have started editing.)

I had the opportunity to give a short presentation to the APS board before their convention started, in which I shared a bit of what we know about the barriers to expert participation in Wikipedia more broadly and then gave an overview of the Wikipedia Ambassador Program for helping professors run Wikipedia editing assignments in their classes.  The reaction among board members was really encouraging… and that evening, Professor Banaji spent a few minutes at the beginning of the official opening of the convention exhorting APS members to get involved with Wikipedia. (She even mentioned me!)

Banaji’s enthusiasm for Wikipedia comes across clearly in a recent podcast about the APS Wikipedia Initiative. For the two main days of the convention, that enthusiasm seemed to carry over to the many psychologists who stopped by the lavish Wikipedia booth APS had set up.  We also did five Wikipedia demos–often with conversations about Wikipedia going on at the same time with whoever stayed behind at the booth.  I came back with a list of 42 instructors potentially interested in working with the ambassador program and doing Wikipedia assignments.  That, of course, has been my focus for the last year… until now, limited mainly to supporting classes on public policy. Our Education Portal is active now, with a broad range of support materials and advice for anyone assigning Wikipedia to their students.  (The sample syllabus, in particular, is something the psychology professors responded very positively to.)

It seems that Wikipedia in the classroom is where APS is converging now, too. The Wikipedia Initiative team will soon be working with an intern assigned to develop tools to help instructors evaluate their students’ contributions, which will hopefully produce something broadly useful for anyone running Wikipedia assignments.

I’m optimistic that we’ll see a wave of additional professional societies getting behind Wikipedia, especially if as many psychologists set their students on Wikipedia as I now expect. You can’t buy the kind of improvement in public representations of psychology that 50 classes of students editing Wikipedia would bring.

Metaphors of education

A semi-recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Just Scoring Points“, explores the dominant metaphors that students and teachers bring to the education process. All parties reject the “empty vessel” metaphor, where teachers pour knowledge into the passive students. Students may nominally accept the “constructing a building” metaphor, but as the author, entomologist Walter Tschinkel, challenged his students:

“You do understand that to build an edifice, every brick you add must remain in place? That is, in your education, you have to remember what you learned before, so that you can build on it in the next phase of education. But we have repeatedly experienced here that you remember little from your previous courses — or, for that matter, from the previous test, or even from last week. Your behavior violates the basic requirement of this metaphor.”

Tschinkel finds that students operate, at least implicitly, under a “sports” metaphor: it’s all about the points, and once each game is over, it’s best forgotten. He does his best to require more synthetic and progressive intellectual work in the “constructing a building” mode from his students. He avoids multiple choice, testing instead through writing, he singles students out to explain things to the class, and he gives quizzes early and often (sometimes over the same core material repeatedly, until the students learn it).

I grant Tschinkel’s point about the importance of a participatory learning process; this is where so much university education goes wrong. But reading this article got me thinking about whether “constructing a building” is even a metaphor educators should be aiming for. Constructing a building, after all, follows a set plan from the outset, with a well-defined foundation and a well-defined pinnacle.

What are other educational metaphors we can consider?

A “dining” metaphor is something close to how I’ve approached my own education (at least as an undergraduate). College is a sort of buffet, with far too many intellectual dishes for you to try everything in one sitting. So you go along, taking whatever looks good; if you decide you don’t like something, you just stop eating it (or maybe push it around the plate so it looks like you made a good attempt). If you’re a conscientious eater, maybe you are going for a nutritionally balanced meal, but more often than not you just grab whatever is most appetizing at the moment. The buffet is the liberal education approach, but other meal genres fit other educational programs: one-size-fits-all, compartmentalized school lunches for one-size-fits-all, compartmentalized primary and secondary public education; a fixed set of meal choices from a restaurant menu for the fixed professional degree programs; snacking for informal learning.

“Games”, as opposed to “sports”, may be another worthwhile metaphor. We play athletic games because they are fun. We may try to score points, but the real goals of play (as opposed to competition) are more intangible: connecting with other people, and developing general skills and abilities that are not particularly tied to the game at hand.

What other metaphors are out there in other societies? If sports is a particularly American education metaphor as Tschinkel implies, is there hope for fixing education without radical changes in American culture?

Superb Wikipedia podcast; Ideas for Wikipedia to steal

There’s an extremely, superbly, awesomely good Wikipedia debate podcast at Language Lab Unleashed! It’s not good because it’s so correct (there are a number of misunderstandings, clichés, and analog wine in digital bottles) or insightful (Wikipedians have hashed out most of discussion many times over), but it gives a great cross-section of the ways academic humanists view Wikipedia.

The star of the show is Don Wyatt, chair of History at Middlebury College. He’s a classic curmudgeon, and gives voice to much of what I despise about the culture of the modern academy (a regular topic of my polemics), though he seems like a nice enough guy and it’s a rich and eloquent voice he gives it. Most of the comments coming out of Middlebury have been notably consonant with the wiki way (hence Jimbo’s endorsement of their official policy). But the policy was obviously a compromise, with Wyatt at the far end, viewing Wikipedia as a fundamental flawed endeavor and an unequivocal waste of time for any real scholar.

On the other end, Bryan Alexander and Robert Berkman (you know a geek when you hear one) have a good grasp of Wikipedia’s virtues, real and potential. In the middle is Elizabeth Colantoni, who is running a Wikipedia assignment at Oberlin (shoutout to User:WAvegetarian, apparently the student who inspired the assignment).

One of the best parts starts at around 55:15 (spun off from issues first posed beginning at 46:18), exploring the confluence of philosophy, epistemology, and copyright, with attitudes of today’s academics contrasted with the kids these days (and projecting into the future of the academy, when us kids will be in charge).

In other news, I found a major Wikipedia assignment I hadn’t noticed before: Marx Blog, the class blog of Derek Stanovsky at Appalachian State University, which is being used to write a monumental article/outline on Capital, Volume I.

Via Mills Kelly, I found a very cool site whose concept Wikipedia should steal: Users upload data sets (in spreadsheets), and the site creates a huge and flexible array of graphs. Multiple data sets can be used to make a single graph, so that it would be easy to create custom graphs for specific articles, with baselines of some sort of general data graphed together with more specific data (e.g., and non-sequiter mash-up of Wikipedia stats with the temperature in Fresno). Kelly describes it as a Flickr for data (in another excellent Digital Campus podcast, though with no mention of Wikipedia this time, except for a plug of Joseph Reagle’s recent plagiarism post). There is a lot of room for improvements in Swivel’s functionality, but the bigger reason Wikipedia needs to steal the concept is that (in my humble opinion) the potential reach of “a Flickr for data” is rather limited unless it’s part of a larger project.

Digital Campus podcast: “Wikipedia: Friend or Foe”

GMU’s Center for History and New Media has a new podcast that launched a week and a half ago: Digital Campus.

It’s “A biweekly discussion of how digital media and technology are affecting learning, teaching, and scholarship at colleges, universities, libraries, and museums”, and the first episode is on Wikipedia.

The intro music is worth listening to. After that, I recommend skipping to 17:33, when the Wikipedia discussion begins.

What you would be skipping includes:

  • Vague speculation about Windows Vista
  • Banter about the value and limitations of Google Docs
  • Hand-wringing about a recently granted overly broad patent for Blackboard Inc.

Wikipedia topics include:

  • Mills Kelly explaining why he is using Wikipedia as the “textbook” for his Western Civ course this semester
  • The similarity between constructing knowledge on Wikipedia an in scholarly venues, as revealed by those pages “hidden” behind the articles
  • How Citizendium’s name is crappy, and how in the end scholars are going to have to “roll up their sleeves and just get involved with the main Wikipedia” to set things straight
  • How scholars write for themselves and their peers too often, when they should be engaged with and teaching their students about the “enthusiast communities” like Wikipedia
  • What Wikipedia could do better to work with the professional community
  • “Specialized wikis for specialized topics in specialized communities” and the ways Wikipedia (and it’s pitfalls) may overshadow the wiki technologies
  • Friend-or-foe conclusion: “sometimes unreliable, sometimes stands you up, but good friend”

Overall, it’s pretty good.

(via T. Mills Kelly at edwired)

Closing in on qualifiers

My first semester as a teaching assistant is done, and in about two months I’ll be taking qualifiers. I was pretty pleased with the way the course (Ole Molvig’s “History of Modern Science in Society”) went. I was disappointed with the amount of low amount of reading the class was willing to do; discussions were perpetually hamstrung because a large portion of the class didn’t do the reading in any given week. However, leading discussions was fun and I think I got a lot better at it as the semester went by. We used the Wikipedia assignment that I designed, which took a lot more work (on my part and the students’) than the original assignment. You can see the results here:

(On a related noted, I wrote an article for the Wikipedia Signpost on Wikipedia assignments.)

As it turns out, I’m a hard-ass grader. (Technically, grades were Ole’s responsibility while grading was mine, but still.) History of Science, History of Medicine has the unfortunate reputation of being an easy major at Yale. So, especially considering the amount of work I required of them, many students were frustrated with the low grades (a B+ average, which is considered a bad grade these days). Now I have the reputation of a TA to avoid. But it’s hard to feel bad about it; grade inflation doesn’t do anyone any favors.

This semester will probably be different. I’m TAing for Susan Lederer’s “A History of American Bodies”, which has 7 TAs and possibly up to 300 students. That means the grading will be fairly uniform across sections and the overall distribution will probably be higher.

Matt Gunterman is back at Yale, and he’s the head TA, which means he has to run point for all the class logistics. Ha ha. Sucks to be him. He has a blog post about the first lecture. I’m glad he’s back, and I’m also TAing with my fellow 3rd year Brendan; it looks like we’ll do our orals on the same day, and we have two fields more-or-less in common, so I’m looking forward to having some orals prep discussions with him. It’s nice to have someone to bitch about orals with.

For the first time in my graduate career, I’m not going to audit or sit in on any extra classes this semester. In theory, that means I have more time for orals reading. But in practice, I can’t read for more than about four hours a day; after that, nothing sinks in and I lose all will to keep at it. Some people are capable of more sustained reading, but I think most graduate students are not (unless they’re popping Ritalin); qualifier preparation is like a hazing ritual. (At Yale, qualifiers are actually not so harrowing an experience, but they still have enough of the traditional elements to cause plenty of stress and induce plenty of depression.)

Speaking of Ritalin, I’ve been trying to convince Faith to score me some free samples from the pharma reps, but she won’t. (They give out whatever prescriptions medical students are on that are still under patent protection; unforunately, Faith’s meds just went generic but aren’t yet being produced by very many sources, so they’re hardly any cheaper but no longer free.) Since becoming a coffee and tea drinker, I’ve become much more attuned to the effects things like carbohydrates, salt, and caffeine. I want to branch out to self-testing of more psychoactive substances, but I haven’t gotten around to it. Oh well.

Anthony Grafton’s humanities pitch

Anthony Grafton, a some-time historian of science whom I idolize after hearing (and seeing) him speak but once, has a brief article on Slate about how great a certain class he co-teaches is. It’s almost inspiring enough to make me think that the humanities matter even when they don’t have much to do with the history of science. But what I really like about it is the reading selection philosophy Grafton describes: the most interesting and provocative books possible, period.

I’m as big a fan of the Enlightenment as anyone, in theory. Unity of truth, and all that. But it actually kinda sucks as an educational philosophy. Enlightenment ideology is no match for the utter disunity of knowledge in vivo (be it scientific, historical, philosophical, or what have you). Much more effective, I think, is a cherry-picking approach that aims at sparking the interest of students. You don’t learn enough in a classroom to really put knowledge to use, anyway. But if you find something worth learning more about, maybe one book or one idea is all it takes to push you in the right direction. Life is too short to read boring books (and grad school doubly so).

Fortunately, I’m in the most interesting of all possible fields, where even the lesser work is worth reading. But it always baffles me how so many others in other humanities find their esoterica worth pursuing.

Incidently, when I Googled to make sure “esoterica” was a word, I found a scholarly journal by that name, which seems to be about what JQSMP would be if the humor were removed.

Against Method

I started reading Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method recently, and I’m appalled that I haven’t read it before. I find myself agreeing with almost everything Feyerabend says, and even better, I feel like he shares my view of what’s important about the history and philosophy of science (and by implication of what he leaves out, what isn’t).

One beautiful quote:
“…the increasing separation of the history, the philosophy of science, and science itself is a disadvantage and should be terminated in the interest of all these three disciplines [and I would add, the interest of scientific laypersons and society in general]. Otherwise we shall get tons of minute, precise, but utterly barren results.”

When I’m teaching introductory history of science classes, this will be the second book on the syllabus, right after Structure.