No More Lying About the Past

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.]

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16 Responses to No More Lying About the Past

  1. Matt_Lungerhausen says:

    Well that is appalling news.

    I’ve read about your Lying About the Past class with great interest here and in Perspectives. I cannot say that I would ever want to teach the same kind of class. I personally don’t like hoaxes, even for a good cause. But it seems to me that you are teaching some very valuable lessons about what it means to do history. You have also taken some genuine intellectual risks in designing and teaching the class. Your colleagues have lost sight of those key aspects of the class.

    You might respect your colleagues, but I think that they have made a grievous mistake in judgement. They may not agree with all your methods for teaching the class, but academic freedom means they ought to defend to the death your right to teach it the way you see fit.

  2. Interesting account. As the Undergrad Director in another program at GMU, I’m wondering if your UC forbid you from teaching the course as a topics course from now on or if that was your decision? Or were they simply denying a distinct course number and a permanent place in the curriculum without the specified changes?

    The distinction may seem irrelevant, but in one scenario you’re forbidden from teaching the course (which is implied above) and in another you’re free to teach it, but it isn’t a permanent part of the curriculum.

  3. My experience is that most historians get very nervous around anything that threatens to suggest that our idea of the past is in part a product of historians’ imaginations, in the same way that they hate anything that looks too literary or experimental. If students actually explore the possibility that even deliberate fakes can be accepted as real, let alone misconceived ideas that the author genuinely believes in, then what happens to the belief in the authority of historians to pronounce on the Real Past? Vaguely related situation: I once wrote a counterfactual study, where the whole point was that the reader should not realise until halfway through that I was not completely signed up to the case being put forward, and the journal editors refused to print it until I put a statement in the introduction to explain that the whole thing was an imaginative experiment – if I gave them a while to work it out for themselves, this would be unacceptable deceit.

  4. Charles says:

    Why did the department say they required the change? I don’t know, but I can imagine that some considered releasing the hoax as unethical (or perhaps setting the university up for a lawsuit). In that case, research could be censored, too, if it were considered unethical.

  5. Mills says:

    Hi Deb: The issue here was whether the course would be included in the catalog or not. But the practical result was that I also cannot teach it as a special topics course. And to be clear, the UC didn’t “forbid” me from teaching the course. Their ruling was that the course proposed for the catalog couldn’t include the students setting their hoaxes loose online. I chose to not teach the course under those circumstances for the reasons I’ve detailed above. Also, I could have taken the whole thing to the full department, but chose not to. I think it’s important to recognize that this course was really difficult for everyone to come to grips with. It skates way out on thin ice and, as I’ve acknowledged many times, made me probably just as queasy as anyone else. That was part of the point–to make the students queasy about what they were doing, to challenge their notions of right and wrong in our discipline. So, I’m not surprised that anyone found it difficult terrain. I did, and I created the course. My colleagues acted according to their sense of what was right and proper. I disagree with their decision, but don’t fault them for making it. My larger concern is about the precedent it sets about the approval of ways of teaching.

  6. Mills says:

    Matt: I respect my colleagues for a variety of reasons (and see my reply to Deb Shutika above for more on that). As I wrote above, this course was VERY difficult to deal with for a whole variety of reasons, so it was a challenging decision, I’m sure. Nothing about this course was easy to deal with. And that was part of the point.

  7. Mills says:

    Charles: There was no mention of possible lawsuits. The hoaxes the students created were far too innocuous for that to be the issue. I think the issue really was a concern over whether what my students and I were doing was ethical or not. And, for what it’s worth, it’s a reasonable concern, because it’s an issue we discussed and debated all semester long in the course.

  8. Total says:

    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 assume that George Mason has an IRB board (with faculty on it) that does exactly that.

  9. Well, Mills, this is terribly disappointing. I, for one, have thoroughly enjoyed the hoaxes, but Neville makes some excellent points about our profession’s anxieties about its own authority. I’m particularly troubled that your colleagues thought that confining the hoax to the classroom might be a reasonable compromise. Definitely looking forward to the new course.

  10. vladimir says:

    I think it sucks that you can’t teach that course. History is written by the victors and often those manipulate the truth. Our civil war wasn’t about Slavery, it was in deed about economics, geography and politics; but every child growing up, has been taught that Slavery was the cause of the civil war, this is a lie.

  11. Luke says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Mills. I’m still a little cloudy on why you’ve chosen not to continue teaching this course as a special topics one. Maybe I’m missing something, and I know little about how these things work at GMU, but what you detail doesn’t seem to rise to the level of your being “denied the right to teach a course as [you] saw fit.” Does it need to be in the catalog to insure enrollment?

    I think this all is important to flesh out because much of the discussion I’ve seen on Twitter frames this as an academic freedom issue, but it seems to me to be at least as much a story about academic governance and the hurdles to curricular innovation. Of course those are related ideas. As much as I’d like to see courses that elevate the process of making and risk taking like this one on the books at a range of institutions and in a range of disciplines, I have a tough time seeing how your freedoms have been impinged here.

    Mostly, however, I just want this course to continue to run…

  12. Mills says:

    Luke: Thanks for the comment. There is a good reason why I am not continuing to teach the course under a special topics number. Once the UG committee rendered its decision, I asked my chair if it would be ok to keep teaching it under the special topics number and he said no. Having run an academic program, I understand his reasoning — if he said, “sure, go ahead,” that would render the decisions of the committee moot and could lead to a parade of faculty to his office wanting to find work arounds from the committee’s decision.

    As to why I wanted the course in the catalog, that is something that arises from my own view of curriculum development. I think the special topics numbers we use are fine for trying out a course, but once that course has been taught a time or two, if the faculty member intends to keep teaching it, that course ought to have its own number and be in the catalog as part of the department’s curriculum. This is especially important for our students so that when they graduate their transcript has an actual course name on it, rather than “Topics in XX History”.

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  15. Laszlo says:

    It’s a shame you’re not going to teach that class again. I was looking forward to what the next hoax was going to be. More than that, your class is the only history course I’m aware of that had an influence in the general public outside of academia.

    I hope your next course will accomplish more and open more eyes, given the academic context in which you have to work. Good luck.

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