Tag Archives: hoax

Improving the Past

This semester I’m offering a new course, Improving the Past [syllabus], that is another attempt on my part to capitalize on what we’ve learned from recent research about how young people use digital media. Last year I wrote a series of posts I called The History Curriculum in 2023 in which I argued that within a decade we should be focusing our teaching around four key areas of skill: making, mining, marking, and mashing. Improving the Past takes on the first and last of these criteria.

Last year my department decided that I couldn’t teach my admittedly controversial course, Lying About the Past, in its full form and I chose not to teach it in the version our undergraduate committee proposed, one that would limit my students’ creative endeavor to the confines of our classroom. Because that course had generated so much student enthusiasm, I started thinking about ways to capture that enthusiasm that would also be acceptable to my colleagues. A close friend and former George Mason colleague helped me clarify my thinking on this and had several fantastic suggestions, one of which morphed into the current course.

The basic premise underlying the course is that there is a long history of attempts to “improve” the past, whether it was the sudden disappearance of Trotsky from the history of the Soviet Union, or a more recent claim by a Virginia textbook writer that thousands of slaves took up arms in the Civil War to defend the institution that held them in bondage. And then there are those faked Civil War photographs like the one provided here. Of course, this history of improvement extends all the way to the origins of our profession cw00172when, for instance, Thucydides put words into the mouths of his subjects in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars. At least Thucydides was up front about his improving of the past.

Given this long history of improvement of the past — whether with good intent or bad — it seemed to me important that students, whether history majors or not, need to learn to think critically not only about why the past is being improved, by how. How is information altered and woven into compelling new narratives? What role does technology play in both the alteration and the dissemination of such knowledge? How can technological tools help us ferret out distortions of the historical record?

One of the most important takeaways for me as an educator from my experiences with Lying About the Past is that my students learned best when they were making a hoax out of the available (mostly true) historical facts. As a result, Improving the Past is built around making and mashing. In addition to studying the many ways the past has been improved, my students will do some of their own improving. They will select historical texts, images, and maps that they will then alter, preferably subtly, to create a new and improved narrative about the past. Then they will write about why they made the choices they made, how the new narrative might change our understanding of the past, how an improved past might be easier to teach, and what they learned from their experiences.

A glance at the syllabus will show that I’m placing a big premium on collaborative work in the course. There are two reasons for that emphasis. The first is that the work I’m asking them to do is difficult and each student will come to class with a different level of experience with history and with technology. The more they can pool their intellectual resources, the more they’ll get out of the class. The second is that I’m emphasizing the lesson that historical work is heavily collaborative, especially in these days of digital scholarship, and so I want to drive home the idea that by working together they are mirroring what, increasingly, we do in our own work. And lest anyone be concerned, my students’ “improvements” of the past will not be released to the Internet.

I am fortunate that the university has just opened two new active learning classrooms and I was able to grab one for this course (see below). I have not had the good fortune to teach in such a space before and so I’m looking forward to monitoring the ways the classroom design does (or doesn’t) facilitate the kind of work I’m expecting from my students. Given what I’ve written recently about spaces for history teaching and learning, I’m excited to be in such a new and different room. Notice, for instance, the wrap around white boards and the lack of an obvious “front” to the room.


Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the class. I’ll report in later in the semester on whether it’s working or not.

Lying About the Past on the CBC

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation radio show Spark has included an interview with me about Lying About the Past. The podcast of the show is here and the full interview is here. It was a lot of fun speaking with host Nora Young and I like the lead in to the segment…using an urban legend story was a nice touch. Give it a listen when you have a chance.

Lying About the Past — The Syllabus

As promised earlier, here is the syllabus for my course Lying About the Past, the second iteration of the course. This year, of course, there will be no historical hoaxes having anything to do with pirates, that one having already been done. The prior version of the course continues to generate comment, a fact (not a hoax) that indicates to me that the course continues to be worth teaching. As of this writing, the class is fully enrolled and larger than it was in 2008, so it’s likely that the students will produce two hoaxes instead of one. So, consider yourself warned–twice.

Consider Yourself Warned

On August 25, 2008, I wrote a post here warning readers that students in my new class, Lying About the Past, would be creating a historical hoax and turning it loose online. Little did I know then that the hoax they would create — Edward Owens, the Last American Pirate — would turn into a phenomenon in the blogosphere, attracting notice around the world (and even from Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder). Who knew, for instance, that Edward Owens would end up being one of the Top 10 Wikipedia hoaxes?

When the class was over and the hoax brought to an end, the post I wrote here generated one of the most active debates I’ve had with readers. [Post 1, Post 2]

Well, consider yourself warned again.

In the spring 2012 semester a group of history students here at George Mason University will once again be creating a historical hoax and turning it loose to see what happens. Because the last cohort did a pirate hoax, you can count on the fact that this time around pirates are on the list of things they cannot use as the subject of their hoax.  Others include anything to do with medicine or health, anything that might cause someone to send us money (wire fraud), anything that violates any other criminal codes or the university’s responsible use of computing policy (no gambling, no porn, no copyright violations), and nothing to do with the American Civil War. This last exclusion is because too many people know too much about the Civil War and so fooling them would be almost impossible.

What will the students choose? At this point it’s impossible to know, but whatever they select, let’s hope it’s fun.