You Were Warned

Back at the beginning of the semester I warned readers of this blog that I was teaching a course called Lying About the Past in which the students would — after studying historical hoaxes for half a semester — create a historical hoax and turn it loose on the Internet.

They did just that and the results of their work can be found at the website they created.

The hoax launched during the first week of December and between then and now more than 1,200 unique visitors came to the hoax website. Almost 200 visited Jane Browning’s YouTube channel. A few bloggers — most notably one at USAToday — picked up the story. The Wikipedia entry on our pirate was edited by several people not in the class — mostly to fix issues with the Wikipedia syntax.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a story on the class in its Friday, December 19, 2008 edition [premium access only, alas].

I know the creating and launching of an online historical hoax by my students will offend some people and I understand all of the possible objections that might be raised. Before you start flaming me in the comments field, however, I’d ask that you download and read a copy of the class syllabus and read Jennifer Howard’s piece in the Chronicle. Then you can decide if you are still mad.

When I designed the course, my hope was that my students would learn that something fun and funny — hoaxes and hoaxing — have a real history that can be researched and written about in the same ways that historians write about the First World War or the Scientific Revolution. I also hoped that they would become much more skeptical consumers of online information and that they would learn both some additional research skills and some digital skills along the way. Finally, I hoped that they would have some fun in a history class (what a concept).

I will admit to being very gratified at how well the class went. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never had a group of history students who worked so hard and so long on a group project. Once we decided on “the last American pirate” as our hoax, they dove into the work with a zest and level of commitment I’ve not seen before at any of the four colleges or universities where I’ve taught.

The challenge for me coming out of this course is how to capture that same level of enthusiasm in the other courses I teach. I think I’m going to have a difficult time doing it, but the trying will certainly be fun.

If you are one of the victims of our hoax, I apologize in advance if you are offended. We spent a lot of time in class discussing the ethical issues surrounding our project, which is why we created a hoax on something so innocuous as a small time pirate who never amounted to much. I hope you’ll be able to see the humor in what we did.

30 thoughts on “You Were Warned

  1. Jim

    I had such high hopes for Jane too, she was gonna do so well in grad school. As Jon made clear to me, I’ve been had! And you were too kind for not calling me out here, but I was one of those bloggers, I freely admit it.

    I have to say I wish your hoax student was real, because then UMW would have a really compelling case for the digital identity/research blog space. Although, maybe it was good for that purpose regardless. Nonetheless, you and your meddling students haven’t heard the last of the bava! I’ll get you!!! 😉

  2. Patrick Murray-John

    I wouldn’t say I was I’m quite mad or offended, but certainly I felt a bit unsettled at being taken in. With a day of reflection, though, I think that that is the healthy kind of unsettled, the kind where you confront deep, significant issues. I think that your course and project have done that, so I’ll count it as a good thing and encourage you to do it again.

    There are two angles I have on this. One, regarding the issue of being too credulous about the hoax, is that Jim and I, I think, didn’t do as much critical examination of the information because we read it within a different context than historical research. If we were researching pirates or VA history, we would likely have done some more fact-checking. As it is, I know little about VA history, and all I know about pirates is Johnny Depp and saying “ARRGH!!” here and there. If we were doing historical research, we would likely have checked out info about the author first (more on that below).

    Instead, as Jim touches on, we read it from the perspective of online education, and using blogging as a medium of student development and research. In that context, the relevant facts weren’t the historical details. The relevant facts were the use of the blog itself, YouTube, Wikipedia, and the other online tools. Those are true facts — great examples of the things we encourage, but in a hoax context. I think we can still present it as a useful, though fictional, example of education uses of online tools.

    The REALLY crucial twist, though, comes from the issue of authority tied to course blogging. If we were doing historical research, the first fact to check is info about the author. Of course, “she” concealed her identity because of online privacy/identity concerns. Both Jim and I actually commended her on that. So on one hand, fact-checking entails getting info about the author. On the other, we can’t deny the importance of managing online identity. And this hoax threw those issues into direct conflict. That will hit on the need to think much harder about ‘authority’ in the digital age, which, for me, is the take-away message of this project.


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  4. Martha

    As another person who was “taken in” by this “hoax” I feel compelled to weigh in.

    Like Patrick and Jim, I didn’t read the site as a historian — my interest was also focused on the tremendous promise of seeing a student take ownership for a research project through her own domain. Even as the research has been revealed as untrue, I think that appreciation for the student(s)’ initiative and imagination still stands.

    My disappointment in this entire episode, lies somewhere else entirely. I gather from the Chronicle article that one of the issues that the class grappled with was that of the ethics of this project. The article references a few ethical concerns that were discussed:

    * No money would change hands.
    * No medical information would be put forth.
    * No national-security issues would be involved.
    * No violations of the university’s responsible-computing policy would be made.

    Frankly, while these are all certainly legitimate ethical pitfalls of living and producing information online, I think the one that’s not mentioned and the one that I feel this class DID stumble on was the issue of trust networks.

    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. Online information increasingly exists in a context that provides us with a wealth of information about how that informaiton is positioned within a larger conversation. 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 wish I could say that I’m simply charmed by the ingenuity and creativity of the students involved in this project. I DO think they did an admirable job faking this historical research, but I also think their use of trust networks to disseminate the information was unfortunate.

  5. Luke

    I’d like to second what Martha wrote.

    And, while I haven’t yet read the Chronicle piece, I’d like to add that it might have gone a long way towards softening any unease produced by this experiment had Prof Kelly’s course blogged about what they were doing separately, and then shared that thinking and learning with the audience that was duped.

    Did the activeness with which the site was disseminated– an act, from individuals who weren’t actually in the class (as far as I know), which led directly to it being blogged and discussed– change it from a “hoax” to a “prank”? Prof Kelly notes in his syllabus that the goal of the hoax was to create “buzz,” and it succeeded… but would that buzz have been created if the blog hasn’t been pushed through the trust networks that Martha eloquently describes? What happens now to the trust enjoyed by those who blogged this?

    It would have been interesting to peek into the class’s deliberations on these questions. I was aware of this project, and I was impressed and excited by the use of a blog as an adjunct to a thesis, not necessarily by the quality of the research (because there’s so little on the site to asses). I’m no expert in trickery, but I’m not sure that really qualifies as a “hoax.”

    I don’t ascribe bad intentions here at all, and admire the creative pedagogy, but there is a bit of a thumb of the nose at a distributed knowledge network that might have been avoided had it happened differently. I know, first time being taught and all that– but I think it’s worth getting on the table.

    Also, I wonder if Prof Kelly might expand a bit on this point:

    The challenge for me coming out of this course is how to capture that same level of enthusiasm in the other courses I teach. I think I’m going to have a difficult time doing it, but the trying will certainly be fun.

    This is a bit concerning… what does it say about our culture, and our students, if the act of creatively deceiving others generates more enthusiasm for a major group research project than can be generated by projects that actually deal with the past?

  6. Jeremy Young

    You know, it’s worth noting that I had the opposite problem from some of the other folks on this thread. I wasn’t taken in by the hoax — in fact, I never even ran across it — but I did read your original post on the class, and I was very much out on the lookout for fake stories being picked up by my “credulous” colleagues in the blogosphere. In particular, I thought this story — about an aged George Bernard Shaw conducting an interview with a young Saudi mystic — was almost certainly the hoax. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I respect Rachel greatly and didn’t want to imply she’d been taken in until it was absolutely proven — but I really did believe she’d been “hoaxed” by your students.

    So in a related development to what the commenter above says about trust networks, the very existence of your class made me highly skeptical of my own online trust networks in the blogosphere. If not for your class, I would have believed Rachel even if she’d said that Shaw’s ashes had been exhumed and deposited on the Moon. So your course made me more skeptical, but in a strange sort of way. I had my own assumptions about the channels through which you would funnel the hoax, and as a result I became skeptical of only those channels, even though they turned out to be trustworthy.

  7. Patrick Murray-John

    Trust networks?

    I’m fascinated by the idea of trust networks coming up. There was a time that “in-print” == “trust network”. And then there was a time that “in Latin” == “trust network”. That trajectory follows the ease of distribution and (re)publication. The upshot is that Martha’s and Jeremy’s responses convince me further that this was a worthwhile and needed project, and I hope to get fooled by its next incarnation!

  8. Mills

    Thanks to everyone for their responses to this post. I’m sorry I haven’t responded sooner, but imposed a “laptop free” period on my holiday break.

    I too appreciate the discussion of “trust networks” that Martha initiated. This was actually a topic we discussed a good bit in the course, i.e., the ways that data and information circulate and how the forms of that circulation have changed over time. So, for instance, the students were much taken with P.T. Barnum’s “Feejee Mermaid” hoax which relied on the skillful use of both the media (newspapers) and public speeches by an “expert” (a purported scholar and leader of the purported expedition to Fiji). The “mermaid” itself — a monkey torso sewed to a fish’s tail — was so obviously a fake that when people saw it many (if not most) knew they’d been had. But Barnum and his collaborators spent weeks/months seeding the hoax into the public’s awareness and imagination as his “scholar” traveled from the South all the way to New York, giving public lectures and writing for local newspapers. By the time he had arrived in New York, the public was panting to see that mermaid.

    The Internet is the new public commons and, it seemed to me when I was creating the course, our students need to know how to navigate that commons with skill and skepticism. What they found, in the construction and dissemination of the story of Edward Owens is that it is all too easy to seed Martha’s “trust networks” with information that has the patina of credibility — enough anyway that a small audience accepted it as credible. Certainly none of the students in my class this past semester will ever look at information they find online without narrowing their eyes a bit and wondering whether or not they ought to accept it without first verifying.

    For a long time now I’ve argued that something essential that is missing from our pedagogy in the history classroom is tangible exercises that teach our students how to be as skeptical of what they find online as we are of what we find in the archives. This course satisfied that need.

    I’m now going to follow this comment by posting a couple of additional comments I received via email. It’s also worth noting that the Wikipedia entry is currently under discussion for deletion or retention. I’m going to save a copy of that discussion in case it is deleted.

  9. Mills

    [NB: This is a comment I received via email about the story in the Chronicle and posted with permission.]

    I imagine you are getting many emails on the subject after being featured in the Chronicle, but I just wanted to drop you a line to share that I think that what you are doing with students is fantastic. Critical thinking that also engages creativity is one of the best ways to get students interested in history and to learn the details of the craft. I’m an academic librarian with an MA in history, so it excites me to see students excited!

    More importantly, I wanted to thank you for leaving the site up – I now teach a class that focuses on research skills, and learning to identify legitimate online sources is one of the things I try to teach my students. I plan to use your sites as a teaching tool for my students, in a lead-up to see if they can identify other ‘hoax sites’. The thoroughness of the project, from the blog to the wikipedia articles to the videos, makes it just awesome – as does the fact that some who ought to know better didn’t catch it! It should be a great tool for teaching students how important it is to check the references given rather than taking them for granted.

    Good luck on any projects you and your students may do in the future!

    Nicole Robinson

  10. Mills

    [NB: A second comment received via email and posted with permission.]

    I just read the article about your “hoax” in the Chronicle of Higher Education and just HAD to send you a comment and tell you how much I support your work.

    Not long ago my son, who is now a junior in high school, was given a project to write a report on a state county, only he was not allowed to use the internet whatsoever. While I support the concept of using “traditional” research methods, my son (completely of the technology generation) was appalled by the notion and I have to admit I had to agree with his contention.

    My son made the point that the internet is here to stay and that rather than teaching how to NOT use the internet, his teacher should show them how to use it wisely…meaning what sources are reliable sources of information and what are not. Ultimately he felt no relevance in the project.

    This scared me.

    A recent study of our high school dropouts in New Mexico showed that an overwhelming majority of those who dropped out felt there was no relevancy in school.

    I think this class you have developed is so important, not only for teaching what reliable sources are, but that history can be manipulated by the masses and if you are not capable of deciphering what is genuine you become one of the masses. Youth today are very savvy and know they are bombarded with marketing at every turn. I believe they do want to know what’s relevant…what’s real. I would love to see a similar concept adapted at the high school level.

    I wish you the best in your endeavors and I hope you are able to continue with your important work.


    Theresa L. Acker, MPA
    Financial Aid Program Coordinator
    New Mexico Higher Education Department

  11. Kristin M

    As a student in Mills’ Lying About the Past class, I wanted to comment on one aspect of another comment. Luke said:

    “This is a bit concerning… what does it say about our culture, and our students, if the act of creatively deceiving others generates more enthusiasm for a major group research project than can be generated by projects that actually deal with the past?”

    We concluded this hoax and all of the research for it before two of my other history classes were finished. I had two papers left to write. I carried the enthusiasm for this class over to my final two papers and was able to produce well-written papers, and my level of enthusiasm was like never before (I’ve always been enthusiastic about history, but at the end of the semester, my enthusiasm doesn’t get as high as it could.). I’m anticipating my Spring ’09 semester on a level I never thought possible. I want to get into my history classes, do research and really, truly check my sources. Thanks to Mills, I now know how to recognize some of the tiniest details that could make something that seems credible to be completely false.

    As one of the students that worked on the historical background of Edward (making sure there weren’t any anachronisms), it was a lot of genuine research- going through census records, looking up specifics in the regions we were placing Edward, and the like. I feel very knowledgeable in the ways of Coastal Virginia after the Civil War now. It’s not like we were filling our minds with information that was completely bogus. We were studying real time periods, real situations and real conditions in order to make this work. This was probably the most exciting part for me.

    I hope this helps explain the level of enthusiasm that was seen towards the project. I was more excited about the research we did (and to the extent and level we carried it out… what was seen on Wikipedia and other sites is minimal compared to the pages upon pages of notes we have) than about getting it out as a hoax. Of course, it was extremely fun to do and I thank Mills profusely for the opportunity.

    -Kristin M.

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  26. pablogrossi

    Not only did I find the Idea to motivate students interesting, I would like to suggest our professors utilize similar artifices to create the interest and bring more students to the forefront of digital history, and prepare us to analyze information and think critically about the information that is passed on to us by our trusted networks, as well as by the agents (namely authors, bloggers, journalists, etc) that have the ability to gain the trust of the people when they publish their articles…

    Great job – Keep it up!

    To second Luke – I believe a mix of white lies and true, documented, verifiable history could be used to make the exercise motivating, yet, ethical in its entirety.

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