You Have Been Warned

It’s the first day of the semester–always a happy time for me–and particularly because this semester I have two small classes to teach (a luxury for me). Because I’m teaching a MWF schedule and our students generally loathe Fridays, my usually bursting East European survey course (52 students last fall) has only 18 students. I really enjoy this course and so am looking forward to teaching it more as a seminar and less as a lecture/discussion course.

But what really has me charged up this semester is that I’m teaching a new course, “Lying About the Past” that is an investigation of historical hoaxes, plagiarism, and fakery. The first half of the semester my students will be examining the history of historical hoaxes. The second half of the course is a practicum, by which I mean we will work together as a group to create an online historical hoax that we will then turn loose on the Internet to see if we can actually fool anyone.

They have already been warned that several topics are off limits. Given the incredibly detailed knowledge of the American Civil War out there in the community of Civil War buffs, we’d never fool anyone if we tried to pull of a historical hoax on that topic. Similarly, anything to do with national security or terrorism is off limits, largely because I don’t think a vacation in Cuba would be any fun. And they have to scratch anything to do with medicine from their plans, because it would not be funny at all if we hoaxed someone seeking information about medical treatments. With those minimal guidelines, they will have to decide what their hoax will be and I’m sure we’ll spend some quality time discussing the ethical and legal landscape before settling on a final project.

As you might imagine, not every historian I tell about this class thinks it’s a great idea. I’ve already been told that I’m violating some sort of historian’s Hyppocratic oath by encouraging my students to wilfully mislead a possibly credulous public. Aside from the fact that I don’t remember taking such an oath, my own view is that we need to be playful sometimes in the study of history and that this course is a good way to do just that, even as we do some serious learning along the way.

If you’ve ever studied historical hoaxes at all, you’ll know that a good hoax is very difficult to pull off. I’m hoping that this will mean that my students dig in and do some excellent historical research. I’m also hoping that they’ll learn a number of technical skills, will learn to work in a group, and will develop greater “information literacy” as we like to call it here. And, of course, I’m hoping they’ll have fun.

Our plan is to launch the hoax, whatever it might be, before the end of the semester. So remember. You have been warned.

12 replies on “You Have Been Warned”

  1. Interesting assignment!
    I like the plan and agree that it might actually teach them more about good history by creating bad. I’m interested to see not only what your hoax is, but how you intend to “roll it out”. Not that I’ll be able to know, but I sincerely hope you don’t try to seed it into Wikipedia. I imagine that this will be one of the first ideas your students have for propagating their myth. If you were successful (and I also presume that you’ll be coming clean at the end of the project) then it will not gain you any respect from wikipedians who are trying to make genuine engagement with academia. This would lose much goodwill if wikipedians found that they had been institutionally vandalised.

    As you say, “so remember. You have been warned.” 🙂

  2. this is enviably delightful. I cannot wait to see what you come up with. Do keep us informed about how the class progresses along. I’m very intrigued.

  3. Great idea! When are you offering it as a graduate course? Thomas Edison, when asked how he kept going after so many failures, replied “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.” Learning how hoaxes are made will teach the students what makes real history. I think it’s an awesome idea. Edison also said “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” If it aint fun, it aint worth doin’!

    [Edison sources:

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