It’s the first day of the semester–always a happy time for me–and particularly because this semester I have two small classes to teach (a luxury for me). Because I’m teaching a MWF schedule and our students generally loathe Fridays, my usually bursting East European survey course (52 students last fall) has only 18 students. I really enjoy this course and so am looking forward to teaching it more as a seminar and less as a lecture/discussion course.
But what really has me charged up this semester is that I’m teaching a new course, “Lying About the Past” that is an investigation of historical hoaxes, plagiarism, and fakery. The first half of the semester my students will be examining the history of historical hoaxes. The second half of the course is a practicum, by which I mean we will work together as a group to create an online historical hoax that we will then turn loose on the Internet to see if we can actually fool anyone.
They have already been warned that several topics are off limits. Given the incredibly detailed knowledge of the American Civil War out there in the community of Civil War buffs, we’d never fool anyone if we tried to pull of a historical hoax on that topic. Similarly, anything to do with national security or terrorism is off limits, largely because I don’t think a vacation in Cuba would be any fun. And they have to scratch anything to do with medicine from their plans, because it would not be funny at all if we hoaxed someone seeking information about medical treatments. With those minimal guidelines, they will have to decide what their hoax will be and I’m sure we’ll spend some quality time discussing the ethical and legal landscape before settling on a final project.
As you might imagine, not every historian I tell about this class thinks it’s a great idea. I’ve already been told that I’m violating some sort of historian’s Hyppocratic oath by encouraging my students to wilfully mislead a possibly credulous public. Aside from the fact that I don’t remember taking such an oath, my own view is that we need to be playful sometimes in the study of history and that this course is a good way to do just that, even as we do some serious learning along the way.
If you’ve ever studied historical hoaxes at all, you’ll know that a good hoax is very difficult to pull off. I’m hoping that this will mean that my students dig in and do some excellent historical research. I’m also hoping that they’ll learn a number of technical skills, will learn to work in a group, and will develop greater “information literacy” as we like to call it here. And, of course, I’m hoping they’ll have fun.
Our plan is to launch the hoax, whatever it might be, before the end of the semester. So remember. You have been warned.