Lessons from the Classroom

Last winter and spring I had my students write Wikipedia articles and then monitor those articles to see what edits other people made. The point was to give them a firmer appreciation of how this online resource works, so that they would understand its strengths and limitations. The Wikipedia projects were of varying quality, but I wasn’t unhappy with them. The student feedback at the end of the semester also showed that most of them learned the lesson, though a few were excited to be exposed to this resource for the first time. To be sure, the latter kind of comment made me feel dirty, though I’m sure the students would have found Wikipedia sometime, at the very latest through Google searches, which is how I discovered it some years ago.

As much as I liked the Wikipedia experiment, I have decided not to repeat it this semester. For one thing, the process of helping 100 or more students find a suitable topic that has not already been done in Wikipedia is enormously time-consuming. So is teaching students how to use Wikipedia’s relatively uncomplicated markup. Contrary to the stereotype about the youngest generation of university students being internet savvy, many of them only know how to use the internet in highly specific ways. (If you can read German, see Jan Hodel’s comments on this issue here and here.) I did not have much time for technical details in class, so I had a lot of one-on-one student meetings in the computer lab. This circumstance does not mean that Wikipedia projects are not worth doing, but it is a significant factor to consider for the kind of large survey course that I have been teaching.

More to the point, however, the Wikipedia project and especially the group electronic scrapbook project I had students do revealed a more traditional weakness: too many students did not know how to do basic research using the library’s catalog, reference desk, and databases. Indeed, they did not know how to use Google very well either. Furthermore, most students did not know how to evaluate the potential usefulness of books they found. They seem to have just assumed that a book was a book. The idea of examining the bibliography, for example, never occurred to many of them, even though I discussed the issue in the directions as well as in class. I thought that this kind of need was supposed to be filled in required English classes, but if that is happening, it is inadequate, because most of my students last semester were not freshman.

Hence, this semester I have decided to incorporate research skills into my course. A research paper is out of the question with so many students involved. Moreover, a research paper can become a distraction, since students are often most concerned simply with producing enough text. At the same time, I want to do something that gives students some choice, as most students really appreciated that aspect of the course last semester. Hence, I have decided to have students choose a research topic, develop a bibliography and write a short bibliographical essay to go with it. If you are interested in learning more, see the current version of my directions for the bibliography project on one of my course websites.

I plan to devote some time to research issues in class and on a forum on Blackboard, to which George Mason recently switched from WebCT. Finally, I expect to talk to some students during office hours. Instead of giving technical lessons for Wikipedia markup, however, we will be able to talk research methods and history. Students also need to improve their electronic literacy, but I have to pick my battles.

Finally, some notes about plagiarism: An unusually high number of students thought they could get away with copying and pasting text for their online scrapbook projects. I instructed them about the university’s honor system, but it seems much additional work is necessary in this area, should I ever do electronic assignments again. Interestingly, though, I did not find such copying in the Wikipedia projects. Perhaps students understood that others would be reading that work? Some students actually commented to me on how good it felt to do a homework assignment that they knew others would be reading. Be that as it may, it is possible that this semester’s bibliography project will reduce plagiarism opportunities and temptations, since it will not be as readily available on the open market.

This blog post originally appeared on Clio and Me on this date.

I have removed dead links to teaching materials no longer accessible online, and I crossed out text in the post that explicitly referred to one of these resources. —November 24, 2014.

When Google Gets it Wrong

My wife is reading a crime story I got for Christmas and read over the holidays, Christian von Ditfurth, Mann ohne Makel. It’s sleuth, Josef Maria Stachelmann, is a historian of the Third Reich. Wonderful read, if you know German. Anyway, my wife asked me about the Hossbach Protocol that Stachelmann is supposed to give a talk about. My memory failed me, so I took the easy way out with Google. Bad idea.


The first two hits on Google led to web sites that seek to appear legitimate, but which are in fact sites that deny the Holocaust and consider the Nuremberg Trial a travesty of justice. How did Google mess this up? Have some Nazi would-be academics learned search engine optimization (SEO)? Or was this blind luck? I’m not sure how Google’s search engine works, but the results here certainly point to the limitations of algorithms that rely on the syntactic relevance of a site. Also, while no one is linking to the articles about the Hossbach Protocol directly, there are many links to the main sites on which the articles appear. (You can determine who is linking to a site by typing link:www.name-of-site.com into the Google search box, unless the site is using the nofollow attribute in its links.) In other words, the sites appear to be popular and therefore relevant in Google’s eyes. In fact, Google has blessed both sites with respectable, if not overwhelming page ranks (PR). The first one Historical Revisionism, comes in at a PR 4, and the second one, Institute for Historical Review, at PR 5 on a scale of 0 to 10.

Now I could stop with this warning about the limitations of Google search results, but perhaps there is more to be learned here. Perhaps I should also issue a plea to historians to both learn SEO and write for general audiences on the web. Like it or not, Google is the first place many people turn for answers, and anyone seeking one on the Hossbach Protocol can be easily led astray. Actually, historians might not even need to learn SEO. Wikipedia already has a high page rank and its pages turn up regularly at or near the top of Google search results. Perhaps all that is needed is more and better Wikipedia articles. The Hossbach Protocol doesn’t show up in Wikipedia. If it had, the search results would have been different.

Wikipedia brings up another twist. Typically, when one uses one term in Wikipedia that is more commonly known by another, Wikipedia will at least offer alternative results. (It’s better than Google that way. Google can only offer spelling alternatives.) In this case, though, the more typical American name for this document did not show up in the search results. Only after I typed Hossbach Memorandum did I find what I was looking for. I then typed this term into Google and came up with much more satisfactory results. Only one of the right-wing links came up on the first page, and this time near the bottom.


This final result brings me back to Wikipedia and SEO. We need to enter all possible variations of terms in Wikipedia articles so that they show up in search results. (Sure, I should have entered “Hossbach Memorandum” right from the start, but I translated directly and that was that. As the first set of search results shows, others have done so too.) We also need to do the same thing with web articles and blog posts. It won’t do to leave the field open to the bad guys, simply because the world of SEO isn’t part of our training and does not make or break historical careers. I don’t know if Deborah Lipstadt does any SEO, but her three-year-old blog combats holocaust denial and has a PR 6. More established historians need to follow her example in their respective fields.