Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age

October 8, 2014 History, non-fiction, Psychology, Review 17 ★★

Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital AgeTitle: Wikipedia U
Author: Thomas Leitch
Source: Edelweiss
Links: Bookshop (affiliate link) |Goodreads

Summary: This book wasn’t a success as either an entertaining read or as a well thought out scholarly work.

Despite discouragement from many teachers, I feel like student use of Wikipedia is on the rise, so I was excited to read about the phenomenon from an educator’s perspective. However, as I perhaps should have gathered from the description and subtitle, the main focus of this book is on the nature of authority. Wikipedia is primarily used as an example of a situation where authorities are in conflict and the source of authority is up for debate.

Given that the focus of this book was the nature of authority, I think that organizing it as though the main focus was Wikipedia did the book a disservice. For example, one of the first topics of the book is on the origins of Wikipedia. This is a topic I’m very curious about, but the discussion here was so theoretical, I didn’t feel I learned much. There were a lot of digressions into the history of computers, the history of dictionaries, etc, which were only necessary so the author could make some abstract points about the nature of authority. These points weren’t very clear or well organized because the whole chapter was divided based on different aspects of Wikipedia, instead of based on different points the author was trying to make about authority.

Like Generic, this is a John Hopkins University Press book, so I did expect it to be academic and wouldn’t knock it too much for simply being dry. Unfortunately, the whole book was a poorly organized mishmash of entertaining stories and abstract discussion of authority. There were also some academic errors, including conclusions I found illogical and injections of the author’s political views without supporting citations. As a result, I don’t think this book was a success as either an entertaining read or as a well thought out scholarly work.

17 Responses to “Wikipedia U: Knowledge, Authority, and Liberal Education in the Digital Age”

    • DoingDewey

      Yeah, I hated to complain about it being academic when I did expect that going in, but I did feel like this was sold as something focused on Wikipedia and that’s not really what it was. It had some interesting information on Wikipedia and some interesting questions about the nature of authority, but together they made for a very disjointed read.

  1. Lindsey

    That sounds very frustrating. The idea that anyone can decide on definitions, regardless of knowledge, is disconcerting and it would have been an interesting thing to read about!

    • DoingDewey

      Although I was a little disappointed the book turned out to be more about authority than about Wikipedia, I definitely could have warmed up to the topic if I felt like it was done well. As is, some interesting ideas were presented, but the whole thing was just too disjointed.

  2. Trisha

    This is a fascinating topic for me as I’m an English professor, but this book doesn’t sound like a really useful read.

    • DoingDewey

      I wish there had been more about how students actually use Wikipedia and the sort of information that might be helpful to a professor, but that definitely wasn’t the focus.

  3. Jennine G.

    Very insightful review! And a good warning for those of us who would’ve picked this up as a supportive read to our professions.

  4. Leila @ LeilaReads

    Well that’s a shame. Wikipedia is an interesting topic and it’s always annoying when a book isn’t about what it purports to be. I ran into that recently. The whole Wikipedia in school issue is a problem the way kids use it. They copy from it and don’t cite. And while it’ a good starting point they don’t understand that they need to go beyond it. I think it’s also increased plagiarism in schools (at least from my experience with the kids I mentor).

    • DoingDewey

      I would have loved to read a book focused more on how students use Wikipedia! I’m currently TAing a class and I’m sometimes surprised at the questions students have, because they’re often asking about things I’d just Google and probably end up reading about on Wikipedia. However, this class is discussion based and students aren’t responsible for writing too much, so I suspect the use and potential plagiarism of wikipedia probably differs depending on the class structure. This is so interesting to think about, I’ll definitely be looking for a better book on the subject!

    • DoingDewey

      I think that’s a great reason to pick it up! The biggest problem I had with it was the academic tone and I think that’s something that would bother me less in a book that was more related to my field of study. I think this could end up being a much more enjoyable read for you than it was for me 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      I definitely think so! And even though the description does clearly focus on authority, I still think the title is a bit misleading.

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