Wikipedia as Primary Source Pedagogy


I want to talk about teaching history using Wikipedia, but not in the way I believe the average person would expect (and worry about). First I should explain the context in which I developed this new project, this new pedagogical exercise.

My professional career teaching outside of my graduate institution only began in the spring of 2016. Since then I have taught a handful of courses (at Albion College and Roanoke College) while finishing my dissertation.

I do not yet have a permanent position. There are many names for this kind of position and its problems have been more closely discussed in other places, but I should recognize upfront that these are the musings of an adjunct professor, a member of the so-called contingent faculty. This group of people represent a large and growing percentage of educators at institutions of higher learning in the United States. One of the strengths of the contingent faculty is the focus on novel and energy-saving teaching techniques, particularly in those situations where one professor is lecturing at multiple institutions (as I will be, starting this autumn).

With that disclaimer in mind, I would like to share a teaching exercise that I have found great success with in several courses so far in my early career. In a nutshell, I introduce students to the nuts-and-bolts of history research, particularly in using terms like “primary” versus “secondary” source. In my course, I try to explain to them how the same source can be considered primary, secondary, or even tertiary — all depending on the kind of work we expect that source to do for us. By work, I mean, what kinds of questions are we hoping this source will answer for us.

Past Experiences

I have been able to use this Wikipedia class project in several different settings, including its maiden voyage in a “standard” undergraduate Russian History course (Peter I to Putin), its second turnout in a Freshman-oriented History of Travel (Marco Polo’s Description of the World and Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley), its third run in a Freshman-oriental History of Pirates and Bandits, and most recently in an intensive eight-week History of Kazakhstan at Nazarbayev University in Astana. The focal point of this project seems as fungible as one needs it to be, considering that the medium of instruction boasts so many millions of articles in so many of the world’s written languages.

In its first case, I divided my students into groups, having each of them read a section from the Wikipedia article on the Crimean War. The twist here was that each group read the article as written in a different language, though each was provided in English translation. Perhaps the benefit of a graduate career in graduate studies, I am not afraid to make use of the 1-year courses I took in “Reading German,” for example, knowing that with a dictionary, good-will, and a dose of machine translation (always from multiple sources), I produce adequately accurate renditions of the article from German, French, Russian, Turkish, Spanish, Serbian, etc. These articles discuss roughly the same terms in relatively dry, scientific language. I would not do this same assignment to have students compare different translations of a work of prose, each somehow rendered into English by me.

In their groups, I have the students individually boil down their selection into a single sentence, ideally fewer than seventy words. This sentence should include the definite ‘facts’ most relevant to the article, the where, when, how, who, and why of the topic. In their groups they hammer these out together, comparing their individual sentences to determine the meat of the reading.

The fun begins when I then have each group pronounce the facts of the matter to the class, writing each for everyone to see. “Huh, why don’t they agree on when the war started? Or what it should be called? Or what caused it? Or where the most important battles were fought?”

When possible, we dive deeper into the works of Wikipedia, discussing how much of the content is actually not anonymous and how many of the “Wikipedians” maintain and update author “about” pages. We consider edit histories, the longevity of different controversial sections of the page, and the heated discussions on certain contentious “talk” pages.

In the history of travel, we compared articles about Marco Polo in English, Spanish, German, and Russian. In the history of piracy, we considered the intimate connections and interesting discrepancies among the articles (particularly across English, Spanish, German, and French) on “piracy,” “buccaneers,” and “filibusters.”

What I Want To Do

I seem to harbor limitless curiosity in the study of nationalism, national identity, and the myths surrounding imagined communities. For me, Wikipedia offers an immense corpus of material written “internationally,” at least at first blush. The articles are linked together, suggesting parity and perfect agreement. Many students (and I assume most people) do not give a second glance to the list of languages that appears in the left sidebar. Surely they are simple translations of this same material?

Then I ask them the question: if you wanted to write a Wikipedia article on the French Revolution, would you think it sufficient to read the French language article and simply translate it, word-for-word? There are thousands of books available in English on this topic — can we not make use of some of them? Can this explain why we tend to see completely different sources listed at the bottoms of different language renditions of the (nearly) same content?

The specter of nationalism is difficult to pin down, no doubt. Is nationalism always a bad word? Should we prefer to same something more vague, like patriotism? In the case of the English language, one struggles to pin down which articles are ‘owned’ by which language, though there seem to be some clear winners. Articles on the American Civil War, for example, are unlikely to draw spirited editors from New Zealand. Similarly, I doubt to find many Wikipedians from Virginia actively involved in the discussion of Maori political units. The Crimean War article I assigned to my students, for example, maintained the occasional British turn-of-phrase. How could it not, sitting so closely to the Charge of the Light Brigade?

Importance for the field?

I am not certain that this is an assignment that any teacher should attempt without first doing it themselves. In all seriousness, knowing the ins-and-outs of Wikipedia, the coding, the esprit de corps of Wikipedians — these might very well be prerequisites to attempting this in class. However, I do think that a solid weekend or week of preparation would be enough time to ready a trial run.

Each time this assignment has come around in the semester, I have been even more excited than the previous time. Each time it has been “my own” class, doing something new and unique — it is a thrilling feeling to realize that your students are completely out of their element, being asked to do something they have never been asked to do before. It feels so wrong to many of them — the most common comment went something like, “but we’re told to never use Wikipedia!?”

And that was the best moment for me.

Wikipedia is a tertiary source for the study of history — but it is a primary source for the study of identity, nationalism, historiography, and many other topics. I can only articulate my excitement here in terms of my own discipline, my own field, but I wonder aloud just how far this might stretch.

I will continue to articulate this idea into teaching practice. I think this coming semester I will present at my college’s “faculty development” conferences — and I do believe that there is something here to meaningfully share with the American Historical Association. I am writing on this blog to gather these thoughts — but also to date for myself that I began this practice in the spring of 2016. Already I have learned so much from these assignments. Could I design an entire course around using Wikipedia to study identity and historiography? I think so.

Why are you studying the Kazakhs?

“Why are you studying the history of the Kazakhs?”

I have heard this question many times and it deserves a better answer than I have given in the past. First, I would indicate that the question generally is no more specific than the above. In other words, there is no interest in why I’m studying the 18th century over the 20th century, for example. “Why are you studying the Jüün Ghar wars instead of wars with Russia or Kokand,” no one asks me. “Why all this focus on southern instead of northern Kazakhstan?” Continue reading Why are you studying the Kazakhs?

After the fact

First, a digression: several centuries ago, the English language was quite a different beast. I love to look through the entries at the online etymological dictionary for insights into the changing vocabulary of English as a means to getting at the change in thinking patterns over time. Many times it is the most mundane or boring words that have the most interesting entries. A good example is the entry for “the.” Continue reading After the fact

Histories and Stories

I’m hoping to share more translations, but in the meantime I wanted to put together some words to articulate an idea. It’s an idea I’ve had as long as I’ve studied the history of Kazakhstan. I haven’t questioned or reconsidered this idea critically, though. Continue reading Histories and Stories

Retreats, Losses, and Failed Resistances

The history of the Republic of Kazakhstan is one born of the history of the Soviet Union, itself one steeped in a military tradition of frontier adventurism and homeland defense. The military might of the Russian state, whether centered in Moscow or St. Petersburg, has failed on some occasions to protect property from invasion. Rather, strategic retreats and outmaneuvered sieges dot the landscape of military history. However, the stalwart defenders also receive their due, from the times of the so-called Golden Horde through the Napoleonic Wars of the Tsars and through the cataclysmic loss of life during WWII, or as Russian speakers continue to label it, the Great Patriotic War, or Великая Отечественная Война, the memory of which claims to be eternal.

Here in the former capital of Kazakhstan, in downtown Almaty, stands an enormous monument to the defenders of Moscow, the 28 Guardsmen, also known as Panfilov’s Men. According to officially rendered history, these 28 men accepted martyrdom on November 16th, in the process destroying eighteen German tanks. This episode of the war took place during the German army’s advance on Moscow. The citizens of the USSR memorialized the 28 Guardsmen, part of a battalion made up of recruits from the Kazakh and Kyrygz Soviet Socialist Republics. One particular phrase entered textbooks and monuments, “There is nowhere to retreat, for Moscow is behind!” 

The truth of the matter was known narrowly for many decades, but has since become more common knowledge [a summary is available on Wikipedia, even in English]. I do not think today’s population is more cynical than in the past, but it certainly does not surprise a person to learn that a particular story preserved and presented by a government has been lovingly presented, embellished, and improved.

This is the context in which I would bring up several similar situations in the history of Central Asia. That the defense of property and the ability to withstand an enemy siege are popularly conceived as the crucible of heroism perhaps is not surprising. However, the history of nomadism offers many examples to the contrary. I suppose it seems odd to bring in examples from the ancients, but Herodotus and other observers of the Scythians (a general term for nomadic populations living in the pastures of Asia and Europe) remarked that one of their greatest strengths was the freedom to retreat at will. Indeed, there is an air of a “clash of civilizations” in Herodotus’ tale of the Persian military wandering out into the steppe in fruitless search of nomads refusing to stand still. As if to remind us that Scythians, too, must eventually stop running, the reader is told that the only way to force them into a siege is to find the site where their fathers’ bones lie buried.

Herodotus and others writing about the Scythians admitted the limits of their knowledge and even suggested, at times, that the Scythians were in some ways more advanced than their sedentary enemies. Some anthropologists and archaeologists, though I don’t know if they are yet in the mainstream, have suggested and argued that pastoral nomadism is actually an economy learned by farmers and agriculturalists to take advantage of marginal land. This idea supplants the traditional notion of the Biblical patriarch nomad-model, a vestige of hunter-gatherers that lacks the civilization and sophistication of sedentary agriculturalists. Unfortunately, one of the greatest weaknesses of these models is its inability to represent the complexity of economy in either sedentary or nomadic lifestyles. The acquisition of food by farming or herding is only one small piece of a puzzle that also includes clothing production, the building of housing (fixed or moveable), production of tools, etc. The fact of the matter is that a nomad and a farmer both convince someone else to make their chain armor, to sharpen their axe, and to dress their children.

And yet, perhaps in the field of war we might see a more convincing difference between nomadic and sedentary ways-of-life. Whereas one assumes the Scythians did not judge themselves by Persian standards of war, it would seem that as nomadic lifestyles disappear, so, too, do nomadic conceptions of warfare, particularly regarding the defense of fixed structures. In a nomadic culture, mobility is not only a luxury but a necessity, as the herds consume grass much faster than it can grow. Movement is life and standing temporary.

The Republic of Kazakhstan’s government has made sure that its citizens see a clear connection between the Scythians (or Saka, if one prefers) and the modern inhabitants of Central Asia. Regal and sophisticated, the ancient Scythians provide many illustrative models of the grace and resourcefulness of nomadic lifestyles. However, the thousands of years of history between the Scythians and the current year also could provide an explanation of how the Scythians morphed into the Kazakhs.1

The Kazakhs of the so-called Kazakh Khanate of the 15th-19th centuries were nomads, if that general term is to have any meaning across disciplines. Mobile pastoralists moving camps with the seasons, the Kazakhs also engaged in ritualized raids on each others’ herds, a practice known as barïmta, or by a variant spelling. A word of Mongolian origin, barïmta referred to a custom governed by society and its rules. For example, if an adult man of one Kazakh nomadic grouping feels that he has been cheated in a previous trade of tools and food with a Kazakh of another nomadic grouping, the recourse most likely would have been barïmta, wherein this man and some companions would attempt to steal the amount of animals necessary to make up the difference.2 This would initiate a discussion involving both of the offended parties and a third-party officiator, who would then stand in judgment. Barïmta was a skill, of course, not practiced equally well by all. One may assume that for every average barïmtachi (barïmta doer), there were others inept and unable to make redress against their predators. Indeed, there were also heroes of barïmta, whose skill won them the title batïr (батыр), a title that many scholars continue to assume referred only to valor in battle. However, it seems that for the Kazakhs and other practitioners of barïmta (most of the inhabitants of nomadic Central Asia, including the frontier-dwelling Cossacks), there was no better training for military action than barïmta.

Barïmta seems to simulate very much what scholars can understand of Scythian military raids: incredibly quick attacks against lightly defended targets. The timing of these attacks was likely their single most important aspect.

One of the recurring topics of the Russian Conquest of the steppe is the idea that Kazakhs put up almost no fight, that no site was well-defended. This includes the “capital of the Khans,” the holy city of Turkestan. Knowledge of the Scythians would have informed the Russians to caution, since here was a place hallowed by the bones of the forefathers of the Kazakh Khans. Instead, after a short siege, Turkestan, like Aulie-Ata, Chimkent, Tashkent, Samarkand, Jizzakh, and so many others, fell to the Russians. However, overpowering military might was not the reason. The adobe walls of these cities absorbed Russian cannonballs. When a siege ended, it was often the result of negotiation, subterfuge, or military genius, as in the cases of the falls of Aulie,Ata, Chimkent and Tashkent. In fact, it seems to me that the nomads themselves saw little danger in the changing of leadership over cities they had already lost to the Khanate of Kokand. Retreat in these cases makes the most sense for the Kazakhs – and despite Russian conceptions of cowardice, the continued resistance of Kazakhs to direct rule throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries illustrates something other than cowardice.

Another famous retreat, one very close to my heart, is the famed Bare Footed Flight of the Kazakhs in the early 1720s. Students in the Republic of Kazakhstan now learn of this event as one par with the German invasion of the Soviet Union, with much of the same terminology. Indeed, referring to the Great Patriotic War of the eighteenth century is increasingly common in monographs and textbooks about the subject. However, in this case one nomadic force overran the territory of another nomadic force. Why stand and defend grass that will be eaten and grow back on its own? Instead, however, the students of Kazakhstan learn of the myriad reasons for the failure to stand up to their enemies, of the cost of disunity and cowardice in the face of aggression. There is relatively little direct evidence for the course of events portrayed in official and unofficial renderings of the Bare Footed Flight, so that these narratives generally explain much more about the public imagination as informed by Soviet collectivization and the Great Patriotic War against the fascists than it does about Kazakh migrations and losses in the early eighteenth century.

1This is not to say that I subscribe to some theory of genetic connection between the citizens of Kazakhstan and the Scythians, though I certainly allow that the genes of some Scythians may be represented in a Kazakh today. Similarly, I suspect that anyone that lived 2200 years ago and also has living descendants will likely be related to people across a vast territory. Moreover, if that long-dead ancestor lived in the circle of area connecting Africa and Eurasia, I imagine their descendants may include a large majority of the current population of Afrasia.
2My assumption is that this is an animal easy to move at great speeds, so most likely horses. I haven’t looked at evidence of specifc barïmta, though it seems possible sheep or goats could also be taken.

Teaching History With Our Own Past

Here’s a thought – let’s use the family as a model for teaching history. I’m speaking as a citizen of the United States, though I believe this model could be useful elsewhere as well.

Let’s take for our example the hypothetically average student. He or she belongs to an “average” family of mom, dad, 2.5 kids, and a dog/cat. It’s probable they may have a step-parent, perhaps some half- or step-siblings. Let’s then assume the biological and non-biological mom and dad have 3.5 siblings each. Though marriage isn’t for everyone, perhaps more than half of those people themselves have a spouse or more with 2.5 kids of their own. Though your student probably doesn’t know them so well, their grandparents likely also had siblings, probably at least 4.5 each.

Let’s step back and visualize this in another way.

Our student has his brother and a dog or cat. This student also has a bunch of cousins, aunts, uncles, and at least four grandparents. Some amount of these people have sadly already passed away. Perhaps some are long dead, even some of them may be in prison. Once you add in the extended family of the grandparents, your student has some unknown mass of second cousins.

More likely, your average student is aware mostly of their aunts, uncles, and first cousins. Well, some of their first cousins, though not necessarily of all their first-cousins once-removed. It is unlikely that your student is on a first name basis with all of the cousins of their parents. Any, most, or all of this vast array of people could be living in one town, fifty towns; one country or five countries; one language/culture or two or even three different languages/cultures. This country is supposedly a melting pot, after all.

Perhaps this is the typical American family – though of course, there are those who are not only only-children, but the single child of only-children, having no aunts, uncles, or cousins. However, that is pretty unlikely, and eventually everyone has cousins, be they second, third, or fourth cousins.

Quick Note on Cousins: In English we have a limited vocabulary compared to other languages for distinguishing relatives. Even the vocabulary we do have is under-used and often misunderstood. A “first cousin once removed” to you would be how you refer to the children of your first cousins and also how you would refer to first cousins of your parents. An easy example is to imagine that your favorite cousin Jim has a child. That child, let’s call him Teddy, is Jim’s son. Jim is your first cousin, but little Teddy is your first cousin once removed. Similarly, if your dad is really close with his cousin Jill, she is also your first cousin, once removed. If you want to be more specific, you would describe her as your first cousin, once removed, on your father’s side. This still doesn’t explain to your listener which type she is (child of cousin or cousin of parent), but the context usually makes this clear. Again, there are other languages that handle this situation with fewer words and less confusion.

In short, family relations are just about the most confusing thing to talk about and explain, yet the vast majority of humanity has them in abundance.

My thought is to use this to our advantage in teaching history.

Your student with their typical family — they are sitting in your history class in High School or at college. Ask this student to imagine the people in their family – even better, have them draw a “family tree” as best they can, including as many relations as they can handle, including first cousins, even once or twice removed cousins where they are known. Get aunts and uncles in there, step-parents and half-siblings, Uncle Thomas who was really a foundling, plus grandparents, great-grandparents, whatever they can handle. Some students will have tiny family trees and others might have gigantic ones. For a learning experience, perhaps have them make one family tree in class and then have them turn in a “complete” or “official” family tree at the end of the semester with birth and death dates for as many people as they can manage. Ask them to be as clinical as possible in both cases, understanding that death, sickness, and time are working on all of our family trees.

Now that your student has this gigantic cast of characters, have him or her attempt to create some general narrative of their family history, focusing on their own “pedigree.” This is the super simple family tree, from parent to child. Build from that story using stories they have heard about their parents’ childhood. Perhaps they can write some notes about how mom and dad met, their courtship and marriage(s), various children, occupations, economic-social class, religious affiliations and hobbies, focuses and personal beliefs. This should be fairly easy and also allow the student to explain some of their own feelings and personal beliefs, positive and negative, allowing that everyone’s family has the capacity to cripple and amaze, to disgust and inspire.

At this point, have them pick a cousin of the same generation they know pretty well and explain how their view of the family is probably different. Then put themselves in an uncle’s shoes, or that of their cousin, once removed on their father’s side. It becomes more difficult as they have to rely more and more on hearsay and publicly available documents. Even more so, they will notice that as they consider their relatives with their varying military, occupational, and religious backgrounds, their own likely values and beliefs may change in both expected and unexpected ways.

In a large family, one member may best explain their relatives according to their duties and a sense of honor lived in service to one’s country or community. For another member, the socioeconomic status and ability to rise past or maintain the station of the parent is more important. For another, the trials and tribulations of health and family trouble are best explained through devotion to certain values, beliefs, and religious affiliations.

History is much the same way – some historians are most interested in Military History, others in Economic History, still others in Anthropological or Sociological discussions of rituals and practices and their explicit and implicit meanings. Not only that, but these categories are leaky and fungible, so that Uncle Frank sees the world both through military service and devotion to various organizations, though he may not articulate such so clearly. In fact, when he was younger, he focused more on technology and a sense of progress, while those considerations are not as meaningful to him now.

Family relations are a rich source of didactic models and history as the story we tell ourselves about the world around us can learn much. It also allows the student-historian to practice self-reflection and to see the difficulty of “walking in another’s shoes.” If you can attempt to see where and how you fail to visualize the inside of your mother’s head, you will be all the better prepared to imagine historical figures of another gender, time, or culture than your own.

Rhetoric and National History

National history stumbles when it perceives its subject as a population defined by membership in a specific group to the exclusion of other connective tissue. The classic example of a nation with a territory, language, identity, and national history is the “Jewish” nation, which is also possibly the most problematic example, sharing no common language, territory, or identity among all those who self-identify as Jews. Much the same can be found in any of what Anderson has named the “imagined communities” of our current world. In short, instead of studying only nations and national identity, perhaps the interplay of certain other groupings might produce more interesting analysis. For example, “Jewish” painters and their interactions with both non-Jewish painters and those “Jewish” painters who do not actively self-identity or agitate as Jewish.

Unfortunately, while Jewish nationality is the classic example, it is also one of the least useful, almost guaranteeing that the initial argument will be lost in a sea of hazy discourse. Kazakhs, then, might be a better example, and certainly one closer to my area of expertise.

The current “nation state” of Kazakhstan, bearing a name which translates conveniently as “Land of the Kazakhs,” borders the Russian Federation (not the Russian-speaking Federation), the “Land of the Uzbeks,” the “Land of the Turkmen,” the “Land of the Kyrgyz,” and the “People’s Republic of China.” One might suspect nationality and identity are sticky subjects in a neighborhood where China comes across, at least superficially, as the least focused on nationalism. The borders of Kazakhstan have been relatively clear for the past eighty years, but shifted several times during the breakup of the Russian Empire and the re-categorization of the lands of the Soviet Union.

These lands and borders were, in theory, supposed to reflect the national make-up of the Soviet Union, with the odd caveat that the appearance of Russian populations would not be counted equally, leaving the colonization of the Russian Empire to become solidified in a supposedly non-Russian nationality. Additionally, some territory inhabited by some nations remained outside the Soviet Union; in the case of the Kazakhs, many had moved willingly or fled persecution and famine to settle in China and Mongolia, on lands that were often specifically set aside for their use following the depopulation of the region in the 18th and 19th centuries. These Kazakhs ended up maintaining a nomadic way of life into the twenty-first century; however, Kazakhs of Kazakhstan