In class, students often ask if it’s OK to use Wikipedia. As a main source — maybe, as it depends on how well-referenced the entry is and how credibile those references are. But most importantly, it’s a great place to start. Don’t know anything about a topic? Not sure what people talk or argue about re: your topic? Not sure what is being referenced in a text used in class? Use Wikipedia as your secondary source for background information.
For example, in class this term, we read a speech by President Obama re: immigration reform. It was delivered in El Paso at the Chamizal National Memorial. This choice of location was strategic, but none of the students knew what this memorial was commemorating. And, Obama referenced the DREAM Act, Isaac Asimov, I. M. Pei, and Andrew Carnegie. Few of the international students (well, or those raised in the U.S.) knew who/what these were and thus could not see the persuasive power behind what Obama was doing. Wikipedia to the rescue.
Our next essay will examine DACA (Obama’s Executive Order — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Not much on Wikipedia yet, but the ‘stub’ entry does link to two good sources for background.
There are, however, many more interesting ways to use Wikipedia. I attended a workshop by Christine Tardy at the Symposium on Second Language Writing at Arizona State a few years ago. She talked about an assignment she uses in her writing classes that capitalizes on this forum.
For a description of the assignment, see Writing for the World: Wikipedia as an Introduction to Academic Writing.
For an interesting set of blog posts in response, see Changed my prejudice against Wikipedia .