In my career teaching writing to incoming college students, I am lucky to have spent three years at Georgia Tech, where innovation in the classroom is valued. But even in this environment, I’m still a bit of an evil imp. When one professor had students reconstruct the Thoreau's cabin from Walden, I tried to think of a way that students could recreate a historical event for a final project in a rock n’ roll class I was considering. When I took the project to my boss, recreating the Beatles’ final concert on the roof of Apple Records, substituting “Apple Records” with “Humanities Building,” she balked. (Don’t mock the idea...too much. Hardcore research skills, which are taught in the writing classroom, go into good historical recreations. I think the fact that there is not enough insurance in the world to convince the Dean that it should ever be done killed the project.)
I’ve been teaching conspiracy theories for several years, and my final project usually has students create a new conspiracy theory that somehow draws on existing ones. By the time my students have finished the class, they have encountered a conspiracy theory, broken it down into its component parts, researched/fact-checked each element, analyzed the conspiracy, and written an argumentative paper about the rhetorical and narrative elements of the conspiracy theory that make it memorable and “culturally transmissible,” as it were. They then create their own conspiracy theory and write a paper illustrating how what they have learned in the class has influenced their own conspiracy theory.
And there it ends. We do not release our conspiracy theories onto the public because they are likely to be believed by someone. An important theme of the course is that conspiracy theories are not good things, that they are time sinks for people who would otherwise want to participate in American political life in a meaningful way, and that they perpetuate ignorance, misinformation, and hate (often targeting scapegoats). They are, to use Chip Berlet’s phrase, toxic to democracy.
Professor T. Mills Kelly at George Mason University, however, came to another conclusion when a history class he taught this semester culminated in students crafting two historical hoaxes and then propagating them on the Internet. The article about the hoax that has received the most attention is Yoni Appelbaum’s “How the Professor Who Fooled Wikipedia Got Caught by Reddit,” which appeared in The Atlantic this week. This is the second time that Kelly has taught the class. The first time, in 2008, his students fabricated the story of “the last American pirate,” the imaginary Edward Owens, and put it up on Wikipedia. This year, two hoaxes were released: one about a fictitious beer and one that centered around a redditor who thought that an ancestor might have been a serial killer. The first hoax didn’t really gain much traction, but the second one lit up the boards at reddit for just under half an hour before it was found out.
A course on historical hoaxes, or even just “hoaxes in history” sounds like a lot of fun, and I’d love to teach one some day. However, the subject matter, heck, the assigned reading, should raise a red flag to those considering releasing a hoax on the public. One of the books on the course list, Michael Farquhar’s A Treasury of Deception, for instance, opens with a discussion of Piltdown Man, a hoax that not only muddied human evolutionary history for 40 years but also still provides fodder for those who would discredit science. Hoaxes, it seems, when they become embedded in a culture, actually make history harder to do.
I looked at Kelly’s syllabus for the rationale behind the production of the hoaxes, and he provides two reasons:
“The first answer is that by learning about historical fakery, lying, and hoaxes, we all become much better consumers of historical information. In short, we are much less likely to be tricked by what we find in our own personal research about the past. That alone ought to be enough of a reason to teach this course.”This is a good reason to teach about extraordinary claims in general, especially when the alternative is that students are going to encounter them out in the real world without the benefit of a teacher, but it does not follow that students will learn this lesson more thoroughly by perpetrating a hoax on the public. Kelly’s second reason I find far less compelling:
“I believe that the study of history ought to be fun and that too often historians (I include myself in this category) take an overly stuffy approach to the past. Maybe it’s our conditioning in graduate school, or maybe we’re afraid that if we get too playful with our field we won’t be taken seriously as scholars. Whatever the reason, I think history has just gotten a bit too boring for its own good. This course is my attempt to lighten up a little and see where it gets us.”Kelly picked an awesome topic for getting students fired up about doing history, and that should be enough. Kenneth Feder’s fascinating Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology covers the cultural preconditions that set the stage for an archaeological hoax, and why hoaxes that now seem hopelessly implausible ever had credibility is a question that is entirely suited to a history class. At the same time, I sympathize with the notion that you have to have fun with your topic in class--I bank on my enthusiasm for whatever topic I am teaching to carry the course along. But neither “lightening up” history nor becoming savvy about the pitfalls that lead to accepting hoaxes necessitates imposing a falsehood on the public. Indeed, it seems to be a distraction from doing historical research, ostensibly the purpose of a history class.
Educators at the college level are usually called upon to do more than just teach or do research; we are also called on to serve as ambassadors for higher education, our university, and our disciplines both in public life and to our students. I would argue that fundamental to that public role is to not deliberately confuse people. I would take this tenet to be implied in the mission statement of George Mason, which enjoins instructors to “Provide innovative and interdisciplinary undergraduate, graduate, and professional courses of study that enable students to exercise analytical and imaginative thinking and make well-founded ethical decisions.” Kelly has certainly covered innovative, interdisciplinary, analytical, and imaginative aspects of a GMU course; I’m not sure the class satisfies the ethical component.
I think this is why so many academics and members of the public are kicking back so hard against the hoax class. Kelly anticipated this resistance in the syllabus:
In the interest of full disclosure, I have only taught this class once before and to my knowledge, no other history professor in the world is willing to teach something similar (or works in a department where they could get away with it). [...] The last time around, the final class project generated a great deal of discussion (much, but not all of it negative) in the academic blogosphere. As you’ll see when we discuss the previous iteration of this course, I’m not particularly sympathetic to those who took a dim view of what my students did.
I’m aware that I may appear to be flirting with the appeal to popularity, but I’m trying to respect the collective judgment of experts in a profession when I say that if “nobody else in the world is willing to teach in this way,” it should be taken a warning sign. A hoax may be worth trying, but one must wonder whether it is worth repeating, especially when more people are misinformed at the end of the semester than at the beginning.
Bob Blaskiewicz is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where he teaches writing and research courses that take extraordinary claims as their topic. He is co-editor of the site SkepticalHumanities.com.b>The JREF is proud to announce a new series on randi.org featuring