Was the Last American Pirate ‘Authentic’?

Readers of this blog know the story of Edward Owens–the “Last American Pirate“–fairly well by now. Owens, a creation of my students in the course Lying About the Past, lives on, but in the way of all things in the academic world, I have managed to morph him from a fun classroom project into a metaphor for something bigger. In much the same way that historians love to take a seemingly trivial moment, person, or artifact, and turn it into a key to understanding something much bigger in the past, I’ve been trying to use Owens to think about something much bigger in the present and future of our discipline.

Later this month I’ll be attending what bodes well to be a fascinating conference called Playing With Technology and History. If you take a look at the papers being presented, you’ll see that what we’re going to try to do in this conference is really push the limits of playfulness in our discipline. The draft of my paper, “True Facts or False Facts — Which Are More Authentic?” is available on the conference site as a .pdf and I invite you to read it and offer feedback here in the comment field. I would love to hear from readers before I go to Canada for the meeting.

And while you are thinking about playfulness and history–they really aren’t antithetical concepts–I want to commend to your attention a TED talk by Jane McGonigal, “Gaming can make a better world.” It is a fascinating meditation on how gaming has the potential to make the world a better place. As the father of two boys who are deeply infatuated with WoW and Mabinogi, I’m glad to know they are doing something constructive after all!

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9 Responses to Was the Last American Pirate ‘Authentic’?

  1. Unfortunately I do not seem to be able to open the link to your draft, although I’d really like to read it, is there any other way to get a look at it?

    So long,

  2. Oh actually. My daughter (6th grade) loves her history classes. Their teacher started them out with writing about their family history, and it’s really quite fascinating to see, how “history” changes dependent on who tells the story, or what actually is remembered… and altered while passing it down from generation to generation… The story I passed along to my daughter are probably not anywhere close to what _really_ happened, *ggg*.

    So long,

  3. Lynn Price says:

    A quick graduate student perspective: I haven’t heard many of my fellow students raving about their experiences in historical methods class either. I took this class in my first semester of the MA program before I had really gotten into any of my own historical research (I didn’t even know what “historiography” meant – I do not have a history BA). Part of the problem for me was that the class felt disjointed; it was about the study of history without the history. It wasn’t grounded anywhere. I felt like I was floating from topic to topic, learning useful methods without knowing how to apply them. And in my opinion, I had a wonderful professor who enjoyed teaching the topic and tried to make it interesting.
    Perhaps if more people had acted on what they know about historical methods and researched the pirate story thoroughly, they would not have been fooled? Or, if they had still been fooled, shouldn’t the reaction have been to question how we evaluate the “authenticity” of history in the first place and to determine possible inadequacies? The accusation of violating “academic trust networks” is interesting; are all academics trustworthy to the same degree? Why?
    In sum, your paper is very interesting and I can see both sides of the argument. As a student, however, I think that anything that truly engages the students in practicality rather than just theory is better for the learning process.

  4. Wow. That was an extremely interesting project, which taught many more in depth lessons than I remember having learned in College or grad school methods or historiography classes. Yet…

    I think, I would have had a problem with creating a wikipedia entry. I mean, I deeply distrust the internet for getting information or doing more than quick research, and I’m certainly distrustful of having it shape my opinions or my view on what’s “real”. After all, it is just a small view we get, and bloggers create their own (virtual) reality just by the choices they make of what they write and how they write it. Wikipedia, however, was not created for that purpose, and I’d like to rely on it for quick information. The trust network _is_ an issue, I think.

    I also read with great interest the long blog entry from the link you provided in your draft. I think the person made a few interesting points, but after all, you can’t cover _every_ aspect.

    I do remember Historiography and methods classes as dull and boring requirements, the fun was elsewhere. So I would have enjoyed your class, although I see a few ethical problems (such as misleading people outside of the project on purpose)… So to answer your question at the end: yes, it would be interesting, if you examined that more closely in your draft.

    Sorry, I can’t express myself better — it’s been a while and my English is kind of rusty.

    Thanks for sharing!

    So long,

  5. Kelly says:

    I honestly don’t know that anyone could adaquetly describe what we learned from your class last fall, I know that I can’t. It is one of the few history classes that I still talk about taking, and it was the one I learned the most from. When it comes to your paper, I really do believe that you need to add on about the trust networks, and those we might have violated by launching this hoax to the world, even if it didn’t get very far. I not for one moment, not even when I read the blogs that were angry with us for our hoax, regretted what we did in that class. I don’t regret the trust networks we violated only because those that we violated didn’t do their jobs as historians, they didn’t do their research, they didn’t check their facts, they took what we presented them at face value because they wanted to believe in the project that we had created. (Which in my opinion is why so many hoaxes work, just look at the Hitler diaries, reputations and careers were ruined because people wanted to believe.) Some of them claimed that they did not look at our hoax closely because they were looking at it not for its value as a history project, but instead because it was a techonology based history project. But no matter what the reason, those that believed it should have done their fact checking because in the end Jane Browning’s project was a history project, no more, no less. I was struck by the fact that so many people were angry, and expressed such feelings in your blog, that they or others had been duped by social networking sites such twitter.

    “Some of the folks who were duped by this project were led to it by messages distributed in social networking channels by people whom they new and trusted. I think this kind of trust is a critical component of the social contract that we all tacitly agree to by participating in these networks.
    In fact, when talking to people at my University about evaluating online sources (and their fears that students too readily accept anything they find online), I often emphasize the *power* that the social network affords us in this evaluation…When I find something of interest online, I do not only evaluate it’s face-value worth; I evaluate it in terms of who else I know is linking to it, talking about it, critiquing it. The work of these students relied upon circumventing and, I daresay, abusing the trust that is required for that kind of network to function properly and benefit us all.”

    I remember being in class when we considered such a possibilty, and I personally came to the conclusion that no matter where you find a source or where you read something, you are personally responsible for checking your facts. If you didn’t do that, then you have no one to blame but yourself. I agree that there are some trust networks that should not be violated and we stayed far away from such topics. Had anyone really done their research on Mr. Owens or even Jane, I daresay that our story would have fallen apart after some research. Yes our facts about the time period were true, and there was someone with the name Edward Owens alive during the time, and we even has some books writen down as sources, but beyond that the only things really linking to our story were a wikipedia page, three youtube videos, and a students blog.

    I guess what I am trying to say in a very long winded and wordy sort of way is that we as historians,in this day and age of technology, should know better than to take anything anyone sends us at face value, I don’t care if someone tweeted about it, or if they updated their status on facebook. Not because everyone is out there to decieve us, but because in a day and age of technology it is so easy to create a story or an idea and cover your tracks. You taught us this in a way that no historical methods class could, by making us once again question how much we should trust the history that we are presented with and how much of it we should draw our on conclusions from after doing our own research.

  6. @kelly: I’m really intrigued by your project, and unfortunately I just found out about it last week — so I cannot say, if I would have fallen for the hoax or not, but probably would have. I totally agree with personally being responsible for double checking your facts even if they are brought to you via your social networks that you trust. However, in the case of this hoax I would not have been able to check the facts, since I would not have had access to the articles in the local papers (Landmark and Portsmouth Star), nor would I have been able to get a hold of a faksimele of the last will.

    So, had I decided to follow up on the Owens story and do my own research, I, of course, would have needed to double check and try to get a hold of the documents.

    But as a random reader with no special interest in pirates, and just following the project merely because I happened to come across it, I just do not have the ressources or the time to double check.

    On the other hand: you probably would have fooled me — when reading the blog entries, some things struck me as weird or not all that credible, but once “Jane” talked to the grad student who suggested to check out the sheriffs, I most likely would have been convinced. That struck me as a good way to go about her research and got me intrigued in what she would find out. So, by the time “Jane” presented the documents I have to admit, that I probably would not have doubted her.

    That, off course, is seen from my perspective as a random reader with no special academic interest.

    (By the way: I hope you understand my rambling and what I am trying to say, ;-

    So long,

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