Regular readers of this blog know that in 2008 I created a course called “Lying About the Past” in which my students studied how, over the past several centuries, a variety of people have created false versions of the past, for fun or profit. The goal of the course was to teach my students much greater skepticism about historical sources, especially online historical sources, and I feel very confident in saying that the course, which I taught a second time in 2012, achieved that goal with flying colors.
What made this course controversial, to a small degree in 2008 and to a much wider degree in 2012, was that in each iteration of the course the students created a historical hoax and turned it loose online for ten days to see if they could fool anyone. Because we were not in the business of creating what a colleague calls “zombie facts,” the students exposed their hoaxes after the allotted ten days and then assessed what had and hadn’t worked in their project and why.
Those who disagreed with the notion that my students should turn their (very innocuous) hoaxes loose for a few days felt that I was teaching my students to behave in very unethical ways, that we were somehow polluting the web, or that we had violated something one critic called the implied “academic trust network” that exists online. Of course, my students and I completely understood these criticisms–they were all issues we discussed in great detail in the course. You had to be there each semester to see the care my students took thinking through these and other ethical issues to understand just how central ethical discussions were to the entire course. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that my students spent more time discussing the ethics of the historical profession in this course than in any other history course they have taken or will take.
In 2012 I proposed to my department that Lying About the Past be made a part of the regular curriculum of the department, by which I mean the course would receive its own number and be added to the university catalog as one optional course among dozens that we offer. The undergraduate committee in my department decided that the proposal could go forward only if I agreed to change the central component of the course–make the hoaxes purely classroom presentations rather than turning them loose online. Because the fact that the hoaxes would be placed in front of an unknown audience is the thing that gave the course its energy, its excitement, and made it fun, changing the format in this way would have turned the class project into yet another abstract classroom only exercise and would have sucked the life out of the course. I therefore declined to make the change and the undergraduate committee subsequently rejected my proposal.
What this means is that I won’t be teaching Lying About the Past any longer at George Mason, which I’m sure will make my critics happy, especially Jimmy Wales, who pronounced himself “annoyed” about the whole thing.
But I also think it’s worth considering what the decision of the undergraduate committee means in terms of how we regulate teaching as opposed to research. In essence, my colleagues (who, by the way, I respect very much) decided that it was acceptable to tell a faculty member that he could not teach a course because they disagreed with the teaching methodology. Can you imagine the furor that would ensue if the word “research” were substituted for “teaching” in the previous sentence?
I asked several of my colleagues who had been at Mason for more than 20 years if they could remember a time when a professor had been denied the right to teach a course as he/she saw fit and none could. It’s an interesting and potentially disturbing precedent my colleagues have set, because it says that teaching methods can be regulated in ways we would never allow when it comes to our research.
I have another course up my sleeve that will be almost, but not quite as disruptive to our notions of how history can be taught as Lying About the Past was, and my department chair has signed off on it. As soon as it is in the schedule of classes, I’ll be sure to post an advance notice here.
[NB: I'm posting this on March 31, not April 1 so that it's clear the entire above message is not a hoax. Trust me, it's not.]
[NB #2:For a recent interview with me about the course, see Aleks Krotoski's piece on DML Central. For how the work of this class fits into a wider framework of mischief making, listen to Aleks's "Digital Human" show on BBC 4 radio from April 1, 2013.]
[NB #3: The Chronicle of Higher Education did a follow story on this post. Read it here if you can get past their paywall.]
[NB#4: This post was republished by the London School of Economics' "Impact of Social Sciences" blog on April 10, 2013.]